Like any good organized gang in time of distress, the Eagles went to the mattresses last week.

Somewhere between Pop Warner and the National Football League, a few members of the Eagles' defense either forgot how to tackle or tired of the energy and pain required by the process. That became evident in last Sunday's 45-38 win over the New York Giants, when quite a few of the 512 yards gained by New York were the result of a secondary that contained more swinging doors than a frontier saloon.

"We work on it, [but] sometimes you have games when it happens," safety Quintin Mikell said. "It won't happen again."

To help ensure that, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, with the approval and perhaps prodding of coach Andy Reid, dragged out the thick mats on which NFL teams occasionally practice the fine art of bringing opponents to the ground.

"If you have to break out the mats, then you break out the mats and you work on it," Reid said.

Players do not regard these exercises as a reward, which is part of the reason coaches employ them. You don't want to tackle in the games? Fine, you'll be tackling during the week.

Most teams never practice tackling to the ground after training camp, and many don't do it very much even then. Reid and the Eagles are an exception. The tackling is live and lively at Lehigh. Once the season starts, however, the real contact is usually reserved for game days.

Last week, following the egregiously bad tackling against New York, McDermott made an exception. Starting Wednesday, the mats came out of the storage room, and there was some real hitting. If the tackling doesn't improve today against San Francisco, the mats will return.

Reid spoke of the problem as if it were a geometry test. He talked about taking the right angles and using the right techniques, leaving aside the question of whether some of his defenders just don't like to tackle all that much.

"What you do is go back to fundamentals. As you teach, you have to be very specific with that player," Reid said. 'Were your eyes down?' Whatever the coaching point is - eyes down, wrapping up, running through the tackle - whatever the weakness is, identify it and move on. Maybe it's leverage. Maybe with a corner, that you're driving the inside shoulder instead of the outside shoulder. All of those little fundamental things need to take place."

Possibly that's the case, but it doesn't look as if the problem with cornerback Asante Samuel is which shoulder he chooses to lead with when he whiffs on another opponent.

It might be wrong to single out Samuel - tackles have been missed by nearly every member of the secondary and linebacker units - but he has been a consistent offender. Fortunately for Samuel, this doesn't seem to bother him even a little. When asked about his tackling, Samuel says his career's work was documented on film before the Eagles gave him a $60 million contract.

"Asante knows that tackling is not what brought him here," McDermott said. "Making plays on the football is what brought him here. He's a very intelligent guy to understand that, number one."

Which, obviously, is part of the issue. Samuel is motivated by interceptions (he is fourth in the league with seven) and not by tackles (entering this week's games, he was tied for 337th in the league with 31 combined tackles, and was tied for 71st just among cornerbacks). In some ways, his focus is understandable and laudable. You don't expect a thoroughbred to pull a plow. But, still.

As true, and as frustrating, as that might be, the Eagles aren't merely tackling poorly. It takes a village to give up 512 yards in a game, and teams that win Super Bowls aren't usually that generous.

As they cruise toward the playoffs with an incredibly explosive offense and a spotty defense, the Eagles are about to test the theory that offenses win rating points and defenses win championships.

They are ranked 10th in the league for yards allowed this season. Only two teams that won the Super Bowl in the last 10 seasons - comprising the Andy Reid era as a head coach - have been ranked worse in that category, and seven of the other eight were ranked among the top four in the league.

That might mean only that the Eagles have searched all season for a replacement for middle linebacker Stewart Bradley and have struggled to find the right combinations to overcome that loss. They have wavered between Macho Harris and Sean Jones at free safety and been fully satisfied with neither. Like most teams, they have used the regular season to figure out a few things, and perhaps the payoff will be in the postseason.

There are the complicated matters of defensive schemes, of balancing the need to apply pressure on the quarterback with the need to cover the receivers. There is the delicate business of constructing a lineup rotation with the proper blend of chemistry and talent.

And then there is tackling the guy with the ball.

That should be the easy part, shouldn't it?

Contact columnist Bob Ford
at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com.