Eagles survive a scare

Trent Cole hits Texans quarterback Matt Schaub after he makes a pass in the third quarter. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)

We knew this in August and we know it now. That is, that the Eagles’ defense is a week-to-week proposition.

It is a unit that can rise to the occasion, but only on occasion. It is a group that can confound a quarterback as great as Peyton Manning one week and allow a hot-and-cold quarterback like Jay Cutler to get hot and stay hot another week.

The four-man pass rush can be a rampage or it can be a rumor. The secondary can be secure or it can be a sieve. Some of the problem is injuries, but only some. The issues are deeper that that.

That the defense survived in last night’s 34-24 win over the Houston Texans is plain enough. The Eagles won the game, after all. But after folding up the week before against the Chicago Bears, the defense did everything within its power to keep things insanely interesting in the third quarter against the Texans.

There is an old football saying, that you want to have some things “that you can hang your hat on.” For an offense, they are the plays that always seem to work, the plays in which the players have the greatest confidence. For a defense, it is more about the elemets of the game that they are predictably good at: stop the run, rush the passer, punish people physically, whatever.

It is about identity more than anything. And it is getting harder and harder to figure out the identity of this Eagles defense.

Leading by 20-10 at the half, and having banged up Houston quarterback Matt Schaub on the second to last play of the half, it seemed as if the Eagles were in decent shape. But then the Texans put together two dominating, varied touchdown drives to open the third quarter and the Eagles were suddenly losing, 24-20. The turnaround was sudden and stunning.

The drives featured an alarming lack of a four-man pass rush, and an inability really to get anybody covered for very long downfield. Oh, and because they couldn’t really load up the box with an extra safety to stop the run -- such were the coverage issues -- the Eagles weren’t very good at that, either.

The first drive went 79 yards in 11 plays, and ate up 6 minutes, 11 seconds. The touchdown came on a 13-yard pass to running back Arian Foster, who ran over rookie safety Nate Allen on the way into the end zone.

The second drive went 86 yards on 13 plays and took 6 minutes, 23 seconds. Foster carried six times on the drive for 25 yards, including the final 3 yards up the middle and into the end zone. Along the way, the Texans converted a third-and-17 with a 31-yard pass to wide receiver Andre Johnson, the NFL’s new heavyweight champion.

From there, the Eagles’ offense took over against a godawful Houston secondary and Michael Vick and Shady McCoy restored order. But it should not have been as hard as it was.

It is fair to say that the defense misses cornerback Asante Samuel, a lot. If you want to make the argument that the identity of the defense is the turnovers that Samuel plays such a large role in creating, that’s fair enough. But it is hard to rely so much on these game-swinging plays. It also is hard to rely so much on one player.

Samuel has missed two games now and nothing has looked right in his absence. Quarterbacks who had been so reluctant to throw the ball to Samuel’s side, left with 50 percent of the field with which to work, have had sideline-to-sideline possibilities with Samuel injured. People who have been slow to recognize Samuel’s effect on games would be blind not to see it now.

In the end, the defense did get three stops in the fourth quarter -- one of them, inside 4 minutes, thanks largely to a generous official who did not call pass interference on Eagles cornerback Trevard Lindley on a fourth-down play. The last stop came with 2:25 left when Allen sacked Schaub and forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive end Darryl Tapp.

They did pull themselves together against a Houston offense that has excelled in the second half all season. The Eagles’ defense deserves that credit, and it does have 10 days now to get Samuel healthy.

But this group still lacks an identity. It is what has eluded them all along.