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Staying with Fletcher comes back to bite Bill Davis

When you've been given a starting secondary with below-average talent, when the last two drafts have produced only one regular out of nine selections, when the offense forces you to be on the field longer than any other defense in the NFL, you should be graded on a curve.

Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more(David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)

When you've been given a starting secondary with below-average talent, when the last two drafts have produced only one regular out of nine selections, when the offense forces you to be on the field longer than any other defense in the NFL, you should be graded on a curve.

But Bill Davis should not get a pass for the Eagles' December meltdown, particularly over the last two games when Bradley Fletcher was torched and it seemed the defensive coordinator was the only one to not realize that a change needed to be made.

Davis finally benched Fletcher Saturday in the fourth quarter against the Redskins, but the damage had been done. He said the cornerback had lost his confidence. If Davis was able to see it then, why didn't he foresee it after the Cowboys game when it was clear that Dez Bryant's bludgeoning of Fletcher would carry over against DeSean Jackson?

He would have needed to be clairvoyant to know for certain, but that is what good coaches do. Chip Kelly, who confirmed that he has final say over defensive personnel, should have been able to project Fletcher's regression as well, especially when the Eagles' scheme has given the athletically limited corner little help.

"You can't just bail on a guy right away," Davis said Tuesday. "Sometimes maybe you wait too long, maybe you don't do it quick enough, maybe you do it too quick, and it's a fine line, and you've got to make that call."

Fletcher has rebounded from more than a handful of subpar games over the last two years. In the first nine games of this season, he struggled against the Redskins, Rams, and Packers. Davis said he thought about making a move in the Packers game, but Fletcher bounced back in the second half and carried it over into the next three games.

But it was only a matter of time before he slipped back. Fletcher was targeted five times by the Cowboys and allowed five catches for 88 yards and three scores. The Redskins went at him 10 times the next week and completed eight passes for 164 yards.

Fletcher specializes at playing press-man defense, the Eagles' preferred coverage for their cornerbacks. But he hasn't effectively used his hands at the line to knock receivers off their routes, and Jackson had a clear path when he caught a 51-yard pass in the first quarter Saturday.

Davis matched the Redskins' "11" personnel (three receivers) with his nickel package (five defensive backs). He rushed five players and outside linebacker Connor Barwin was responsible for covering tight end Niles Paul. Malcolm Jenkins was the single high safety and jumped to help Barwin.

That left Fletcher alone on Jackson, and Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III tossed a perfect pass.

"The whole game plan was either to pressure and have the post safety stay over the top of DeSean, unless somebody else was in a more stressful situation, or split the safeties and double," Davis said. "So we moved in and out of that the whole game."

But on Jackson's second deep catch, Davis' decision to have his base defense matched up against "11" personnel on second and 14 proved costly. Barwin was responsible for covering receiver Santana Moss and understandably had no chance.

"That's not a matchup that we like," Barwin said.

Nate Allen was the single high safety and had to pinch toward Moss to help Barwin. But that left Fletcher once again singled up against Jackson. He played 8 yards off this time - obviously lacking the confidence to press - and still stood no chance against Jackson's speed.

If Davis had used his nickel defense instead, he likely would have had slot corner Brandon Boykin on Moss and maybe Allen would not have needed to cheat away from Fletcher.

"I guess they feel it's better for stopping the run," Boykin said of the Eagles' increased used of the base vs. "11" personnel this season. "Maybe when they put nickel out there, they'll try to run the ball and it wouldn't be a good matchup with me. . . . There's some truth to that."

The Eagles have been effective in stopping the run. They're sixth in the NFL in yards per carry allowed. But in a passing league with a suspect secondary it has left the defense susceptible to big plays through the air. The Eagles are last in passes of 20-plus yards (66) and 40-plus yards (16).

The Eagles are second in the league in sacks per pass play, tied for fifth in turnovers, and fourth in completion percentage, but they are 23d in points allowed (24.9) a year after they finished 17th (23.9).

"The one that matters most is points, and that's the one we've got to get down, and right now we're not doing that," Davis said. "That's a product of the deep passing game and the penalties."

In his previous stint as a coordinator with the Cardinals, Davis went from tied for 14th in points (20.3) in 2009 to 30th (27.1) in 2010. Then he was fired. He coached linebackers in Cleveland for two seasons before he was again out of a job after a coaching change.

The Eagles were the only team to interview him for a coordinator opening. There was obvious skepticism after he was hired, but Davis appeared to be making the best of a scheme change in Year 1 and had the defense performing better initially in Year 2.

He has had talent up front, but Fletcher and Allen probably wouldn't start for many teams. Nose tackle Bennie Logan has been the only defensive player from the last two drafts to play significant snaps. And Kelly brought the two-gap 3-4 base scheme, which Davis had learned at other stops, with him from Oregon.

Considering all that, has Davis done a good job?

"I thought he did pretty awesome," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "I've been [with] a lot worse."