The players who know Juan Castillo best, the offensive linemen he coached before being hired as the Eagles' defensive coordinator last February, hate to see Castillo becoming the symbol of this failed season.

"I know Juan. He's a fighter. He's going to keep going to the end," offensive tackle Winston Justice said yesterday, as the Birds prepared for this weekend's visit to Miami. "In the NFL, you have to have a scapegoat, I guess . . . It's not Juan's fault. Not entirely his fault."

Justice said Castillo was an effective o-line coach because "he knew what it took for the player to achieve his best. That's what he did. He got the best out of his players."

Why hasn't that happened with the Eagles' defense, which ranks last in the NFL in red-zone effectiveness despite an infusion of free-agent talent? How can a defense manage to add a pair of Pro Bowl corners and somehow intercept far fewer passes than the previous season?

Justice said he didn't know the answers there, not being in on the defensive practices or meetings.

Right tackle Todd Herremans said part of what made Castillo effective with the o-line was the family atmosphere, the bond he created. "It's tough to do when you've got so many players," Herremans noted. The Eagles currently carry nine offensive linemen, plus another on the practice squad. They have 30 defensive players, plus two on the practice squad.

Castillo has tried to forge that sort of bond with his defense.

"We've gotten to know each other, as a unit. That's what Juan's done a good job of. He makes each person tell their life story in front of the defense, just so you can get to know 'em better, [so] we should be confident with anyone they put out," linebacker Casey Matthews said yesterday.

But Matthews was at the heart of one of Castillo's most grievous miscalculations, the training-camp notion that because the fourth-round rookie was smart and had good bloodlines - his father, grandfather, uncle, cousin and brother have played in the NFL - he could somehow start from Day 1 as the middle linebacker. Matthews, banished quickly to the weakside, then to special teams after the third game of the season, has reemerged this week as the nickel middle linebacker. He told reporters yesterday that he was able to "sit back and get an actual grasp of the defense" after being benched, which made one wonder how in the world you get named a rookie starter without having that.

"I never really asked [the defensive players] what their feelings were on Juan. I just knew that he was going to make them work," Herremans said. "He was very thorough . . . I just loved how thorough he was. It was very rare for him to give up on a player. He'll never give up on a player unless a player gives up on him. He's just very loyal."

Castillo sat behind the microphone at the NovaCare auditorium podium again yesterday, reading glasses perched on his nose, fielding the usual questions. His defense, after steadily improving against the run for weeks, watched Seattle's Marshawn Lynch run for 148 yards on 22 carries last week, assuring yet another loss in a 4-8 season. Lynch was the Seahawks' only healthy weapon, the focus of the Eagles' preparation. How could that happen?

"They had a couple of good runs that they made. You know what, [Lynch] ran the ball well, and I've got to do a better job of preparing our guys," Castillo said, offering nothing close to insight.

Finally, someone brought up last weekend's report that Eagles coach Andy Reid will be able to remain only if he agrees to fire Castillo at the end of the season. At this point, the possibility that both Reid and Castillo will return next season in their current roles seems extremely remote.

"My job is to prepare for Miami," Castillo said. "I feel like we have a good plan, and that is really the thing that I worry about. Our guys work hard, we want to win the game, we want to beat the Dolphins. We're still in it."

Earlier, Castillo was asked about how difficult this season has been for him.

"You know what, I think we've all experienced this in our lives," Castillo said. "I just look at, all my life, you work hard, you do things the right way, you do it with class, you treat people the right way, you outwork people, and as a coach you get your players to outwork your opponent . . . Work hard, fundamentals, and then good things always happen.

"We're still in this, and I believe that. All my life it's happened that way, so you have to believe that, because we've been here before, in this position. Fundamentally, that's your foundation . . . When things get tough, that's what you go to. Nobody can break you, you know? Because that's what you believe in, that's what's helped you become who you are."

Defensive end Darryl Tapp said yesterday that he feels Castillo "just got caught in a bad situation this year," with key newcomers added, a new system to implement with new assistants, and no time for offseason work because of the lockout.

"It's been the perfect storm of negatives for him," Tapp said. "I feel bad that all the stuff is getting directed at him, because we all have a part and we all understand that right now. But all you can do is just move forward."

Center Jamaal Jackson, like Justice, was a Castillo favorite who has been banished to the bench under new offensive-line coach Howard Mudd. Jackson said yesterday he still talks to Castillo a lot.

"It's definitely been a learning experience [for Castillo], I can tell you that much," Jackson said. "Juan's a hard worker, man, and he'll figure it out, as we've done in the past, offensively."

Will Castillo get a chance to figure it out?

"I sure hope so," said Jackson, who agreed that in terms of the defense coming together, "from the looks of it, it's just not working out."

"I don't know the reason," Jackson said. "At times we have it, at times we don't . . . He's dealt with adversity, he's overcome that. This is just another situation, although a bigger platform. I think he'll rise to the occasion and get things fixed."

THE PICK:

Last week, I thought the Eagles might rally around their coach and beat a bad-to-mediocre Seattle team, despite the travel, the short week, and the foibles of Vince Young.

Silly me.

The Dolphins have done an amazing job digging out of that 0-7 hole. You don't have to be able to see a way to the playoffs in order to play hard and do your job, apparently. Perhaps Tony Sparano should be the next Eagles coach.

There was a time when you'd see the Eagles' defense matched against a Tarvaris Jackson or a Matt Moore and almost feel sorry for the opposition. But Jim Johnson has been gone a while now, and so have the players who delighted in turning journeyman QBs into roadkill.

If the Birds weren't getting Michael Vick and Jeremy Maclin back this week, I'd give them no chance against a Miami defense that has been rock-solid lately.

As it is, I expect Vick to be recharged and refocused, but I also expect the Eagles to find a way to lose, because, well, that is what they do.

Prediction

Dolphins 21, Eagles 20