Step right up

Opponents have had historic success throwing the football against the Eagles this season. Is Tampa's Josh Freeman next?

Two proven cover cornerbacks. An upgraded defensive front that was the most effective pass-rushing unit in the NFL a season ago. Established (DeMeco Ryans) and promising (Mychal Kendricks) additions at linebacker. A coordinator who appeared to have things figured out entering his second season.

This was supposed to be a breakout year for the Eagles' defense, designed to be especially effective in the aerial universe that the NFL has entered with a series of rules changes designed to give its fans, instead of its players, whiplash.

In this era of unprecedented quarterback efficiency and point production, the Eagles this season were set up perfectly, or so they thought. They had assembled an exciting, young defense that would perfectly match a dangerous, dynamic, vertical version of a West Coast offense capable of striking quickly and often, turning opposing offenses completely one-dimensional by the fourth quarter.

However, a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to Bourbon St., site of Super Bowl XLVII.

Everything fell apart.

The Eagles take the field at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa today (1 p.m., FOX) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a broken, baffled squad that almost certainly will have no answers for rejuvenated Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman, who has thrown nearly three times as many touchdown pases (23) as interceptions (eight).

Built to run out in front like the late, great distance runner Steve Prefontaine, the Eagles have instead gone on to trail in the fourth quarter of all but one game: a 26-23 overtime loss to Detroit on Oct. 14 that resulted in the dismissal of defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.

But while what happened with the offense and, to an extent, special teams, could be explained largely by injuries and a giant mistake in the evaluation of quarterback Michael Vick, what has happened with the Eagles' secondary and historically bad pass coverage remains a mystery that just won't solve.

The players have been healthy throughout, supportive of each other, supposedly attentive to detail and willing workers.

They've been terrible tacklers, but that shortcoming was known coming in. The Eagles could have lived with that had they just received better coverage and not been victimized by extraordinary confusion that increased exponentially following the departure of Castillo after just six games and a 3-3 start.

They haven't won since — again, for a lot of reasons, but especially because of their exquisitely awful ability to pick up receivers down the field despite numbers advantages that continue to leave them with at least two extra defenders (and sometimes as many as four) in coverage on nearly every play.

"I wish I could explain it," said rookie Brandon Boykin, who often joins starting corners Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the team's nickel package. "We play great defense for the most part in every game, but then there's always two or three plays that go bad.

"Nobody ever plays a perfect game, but we have to be able to keep those bad plays from hurting us."

They haven't just hurt this Eagles' defense, they've defined it. No offense to Boykin, but he couldn't have been further off the mark with his analysis.

In the six games since Todd Bowles, the secondary coach and former longtime defensive back, has assumed control of the entire defense, the Eagles' secondary play went from solid at least part of the time to incompetent nearly 100 percent of the time.

Opposing quarterbacks have compiled a passer rating of 142.4 with 16 touchdowns and no interceptions against the Eagles in that span. On third down, the rating rises to 152.4. That's less than six points from the maximum rating of 158.3 that the league deems perfect.

Every time the Eagles have played, blown coverages have ruled the day or evening.

In last Sunday's 38-33 loss at Dallas, they allowed Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to complete all 10 of his second-half pass attempts in bringing his team back from a 17-10 deficit.

Naturally, Eagles coach Andy Reid's latest attempt to fix this resulted in the firing of defensive line coach Jim Washburn within hours after the loss to Dallas.

"We have to do a better job of challenging. We have to get a [pass] rush," Reid said right before jettisoning Washburn. "It starts right there."

Advertisement