Bob Ford: For Eagles' defense, one number looms

Sean McDermott circles the same number that Jim Johnson preached to his defense: 17. (Elizabeth Robertson/Staff Photographer )

The number on the board at the meetings for the Eagles' defense is always the same. It is the number Jim Johnson put up there, and it is the number Sean McDermott still circles for his players to consider.

The number is 17, and it has been an elusive one for the Eagles' defense to master this season. Hold the opposition to 17 or fewer points and you've done the job. Give up more than that and, regardless of what the Eagles' offense is doing that day, the team has been put in jeopardy of losing.

On Sunday, when the defense dragged itself into the Soldier Field locker room at halftime, having just allowed an emotion-sapping touchdown to give Chicago a 21-13 lead, the number was still on the greaseboard, and it sneered at them.

"We knew we'd failed already, and that's not a good reflection on what we're trying to build as a defense," defensive end Brandon Graham said. "That was a setback, but now we're going to rebuild for this week."

The rebuilding was done by a construction crew working overtime to prepare for Thursday night's NFL Network special against the Houston Texans. It was done with only minimal help from cornerback Asante Samuel, whose injured knee makes him questionable for service against Houston.

If the Eagles are without Samuel, the defensive job gets a lot tougher, but there have been issues all season regardless of who is on the field and regardless of the opponent. The three times the Eagles have allowed 30 or more points, the opposition quarterbacks were Shaun Hill, Kerry Collins, and Jay Cutler. Two of their more successful efforts came against Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning. So, for this season, it isn't whom they play, but how they play.

"We didn't play well [against Chicago]. It was disappointing and it was a reality check for us," McDermott said. "We've got to get back to playing an aggressive style of defense . . . attack the quarterback, stay in our run lanes, and play solid defense."

So far, the Eagles have allowed an average of 23 points per game, and if you remove the 28-3 walkover against an unprepared Jacksonville team, the damage is more than 25 points per game. Far too many, even on a team with as explosive an offense as the Eagles'. At some point, that offense will slow down, and that is when the defense will have to win some games.

"We can't win games if we go out and miss tackles, blow assignments, and let guys score right before the half. We've got to put this [stuff] together," safety Quintin Mikell said. "After a game like last week, everything that we swept under the rug is coming out, and it's time to fix it."

The presence of Samuel keeps a lot of dirt under that rug. It's easy to chide him for being a poor tackler or for caring only about interceptions, but his true value is that opposing offensive coordinators don't throw the ball his way very often. Because of that, the Eagles' defensive schemes are able to cheat away from his side of the field, mustering added coverage elsewhere. When he is out, the field is 160 feet wide again, instead of three-quarters of that.

"Certainly, they haven't thrown at Asante most of the time, or they've paid for it when they do," McDermott said. "It helps when he's on the field, locking down that one side. But the other guys have got to fill in, and they're expected to do a good job."

With starting corners Samuel and Ellis Hobbs out against Chicago, the secondary's depth was exposed and there was at least one miscommunication that led to a blown assignment and a big play for the Bears. It wasn't the best day for rookie cornerback Trevard Lindley in the nickel-coverage schemes, but there was plenty of blame to go around.

"Missed tackles. That's the thing that stands out most," cornerback Dimitri Patterson said. "You get hands on a guy and don't come up with a tackle? That's something we can control. We're going to address that on Thursday."

The words are right, but getting those right is the easy part. The proof will lie in the Eagles' ability to harass quarterback Matt Schaub and limit the damage done by NFL leading rusher Arian Foster and the lanky - and apparently combative - receiver Andre Johnson.

Houston started the season a promising 4-2 but has lost four of its last five games, and, frankly, the Texans' defense is awful, particularly their pass defense. It looks like a game in which Michael Vick and the Eagles' offense can regain their stride, but that's only one side of the ball.

On the other, the number still will be on the board, a number the Eagles' defense has managed to accomplish only four times in 11 games. If the Eagles are going to play well enough to make the postseason and then keep going, they have to start hitting the number with more regularity.

"I think you'll see a defense that's motivated and concentrated," defensive end Trent Cole predicted. "And a little bit mad."

OK, let's see it. Any time would be fine.


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