Cox and Kendricks lagging in Eagles defense
DENVER - Peyton Manning was changing the play at the line of scrimmage, waving his hands and pointing as he has always done, and Fletcher Cox mimicked the Broncos quarterback with gyrations of his own.
Tip No. 1 to Cox: Don't make fun of legends.
Manning handed off to Knowshon Moreno, and the running back rushed to his right directly at Cox's side of the field and picked up an easy 10 yards.
Tip No. 2 to Cox: Don't mock a legend when his offense is humiliating your defense and you end up recording only a single assisted tackle for the entire game.
Virtually no one expected the Eagles to stop Manning and the Broncos, at least through four quarters. And no one believed that this defense would be the difference in games in Chip Kelly's first season as head coach.
But what has been disconcerting about Bill Davis' defense through four games - and was hammered home to Philadelphia in an embarrassing, 52-20 loss to Denver on Sunday - is the underwhelming performance of two youngsters the Eagles had hinged their future hopes upon.
Cox and linebacker Mychal Kendricks, the first two selections of the 2012 draft, have been disappointing, the latter more so.
Kendricks opened the season with the kind of splash that many expected from the second-year California product. He got into the backfield and hit the Redskins' Robert Griffin III, he made sideline-to-sideline stops against the run, and he read plays and shed blocks like a future Pro Bowler.
But Kendricks' production tailed off in the next three games. He missed a total of eight tackles against the Chargers and Chiefs, and although he didn't miss nearly as many against the Broncos, he was hardly around the ball to whiff on more than he made.
When Kendricks, who finished with four tackles, had the opportunity to sack Manning in the second quarter, he slipped off him, and the quarterback completed a short pass for a first down. Good linebackers, or ones who are supposed to be developing into that category, make those plays.
To assess Cox properly, one must take into account the change of position he has had to endure this year. Last year as a rookie, he showed promise as a 4-3 defensive tackle who was permitted to shoot through single gaps and get after the quarterback.
But with the transition to a 3-4 scheme, Cox moved to two-gap defensive end. He has had his moments in the first three games despite having fewer opportunities to single up against blockers. But Sunday was a setback, and the mocking of Manning was ill-advised and immature.
Cox also took an encroachment penalty when he jumped because of Manning's hard count. It was second and 5 at the 10-yard line, and the Broncos were likely to score a touchdown anyway, but he gave Manning another set of downs, and Denver reached the end zone two plays later.
Neither Cox nor Kendricks was available to interview after the game.
Before the 2012 draft class even took a snap, the Eagles lauded the group as the foundation for the future. It's still too early to suggest the contrary, but if Cox and Kendricks are to be the centerpiece of the defense, then Kelly has a greater challenge in turning this team around.
The rest of the defense is made up of middling talent or filler. Brandon Boykin - chosen two rounds after Kendricks - has upside, but the Eagles have relegated the 5-foot-9 cornerback to the slot.
Linebackers DeMeco Ryans and Connor Barwin are professionals, but they can't be expected to make up for the lack of playmakers. Picking on the secondary would be cruel and inhuman after Manning picked apart cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher and safeties Nate Allen and Earl Wolff.
"We have enough talent," Davis said. "We just have to get better at the scheme that we're playing. And again, we have a lot of football left."
The Eagles have 12 games to play, most of them against quarterbacks of lesser value. But they didn't exactly have much success limiting the effectiveness of San Diego's Phillip Rivers and Kansas City's Alex Smith in Weeks 2 and 3.
Davis is still an unknown commodity. He did some nifty scheming to hide the lack of talent - despite what he said - against the Redskins and Chiefs. But he has yet to put a stamp on his unit.
After the game, Davis was nowhere to be found. The Eagles' crack communications staff tracked him down, though, and he did his interview with reporters crowded around an iPhone on speaker. He sounded as if he was already on the chartered plane home, away from Sunday's disaster.
"We have a long way to go," Davis said. "We have to get better. Everything about the defense must improve."
He got that one right.