NOBODY understands the gap between where the Eagles thought they would be this season and where they are better than Rick Minter.
Minter coaches the Eagles' inside linebackers, and when the season began, he was the envy of all the other position coaches, counting among his charges DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks, Kiko Alonso and the precocious third-round rookie Jordan Hicks. At no other station on the practice field did the Eagles enjoy such star power and depth.
You know how that has gone. Injuries have cost Ryans, 31, playing time and made him a liability in pass coverage. Alonso had to take five weeks off after tweaking his rebuilt left knee and has shown little of the ballhawking talent and instinct that made him 2013 defensive rookie of the year. Kendricks is having the most ineffective of his four Eagles seasons, dogged by hamstring problems and a tendency to try to do too much when things aren't going well. Hicks was the best of the group, a playmaker and the team's top rookie, until he went down to a pectoral tendon tear Nov. 8 at Dallas.
The past few weeks, there have been signs that the ILBs, like the rest of the defense, are regrouping, but they still aren't close to what most observers envisioned.
Sunday night against 11-2 Arizona, the 6-7 Eagles will need what was supposed to be their best group to lead the defense, against the team with the most weapons the Eagles have encountered this season.
"All of them have had their own little issues, about recovery, about coming back from injury, in-season injuries," Minter reflected this week. "We've had our moments as a defense, up and down - we've played really good, we've played not-so-good. Sometimes, it's the linebackers, sometimes it's the other groups. But I really think we're hitting our stride right now. Last week's ballgame, actually the last two ballgames, our group played so much better, more consistently.
"When DeMeco's on the field, there's a very calming force out there. We liked having him out there against Buffalo - a lot of motions and shifts, a bunch of ad-lib runs they did, where they were moving people (including quarterback Tyrod Taylor) all over the place. It was good to have a calming force out there."
But Ryans in pass coverage, Rick . . .
"He does a good, solid job. I'll take the guy that you can trust, (who will) be in the right place at the right time more times than not . . . You can have all the ability in the world, but if you don't have your eyes in the right place, have your discipline, your knowledge - that's what DeMeco brings. A veteran, battle-tested, who knows exactly where to be all the time. Is he the same the guy he was 10 years ago? Perhaps not. But I've been pleased with his development, and more importantly, his leadership."
Alonso, the player the Eagles got from Buffalo in exchange for LeSean McCoy, ranks as one of the biggest disappointments on a team that has more than a few. He seemed to be moving a little better against the Bills, at least until he overshot running back Mike Gillislee on a 19-yard touchdown jaunt.
"Football is a repetition sport. There's no question about that. You don't get good sitting on the sideline, and he's missed a lot of time," Minter said of Alonso, who sat out the 2014 season with the knee injury. "I do see improvements in areas . . . I certainly would have liked to have seen him make a key play last week on a touchdown run, not like him (to miss), but he also, a couple plays before, made one of the very best plays (of the game). He shocked a guard or a fullback in the hole, and made a tackle. That's as physical as I've seen him play since I've been here.
"Like any major injury, it does take probably a whole year's cycle. This is kind of his break-back year, new system . . . Perhaps with a whole offseason, weight training, development, confidence, we'll see that Kiko next spring and next fall."
"I definitely feel the more reps I'm getting, the more comfortable I'm getting," Alonso said. "It's the NFL, man. It's hard."
Alonso said Bill Davis' defense is "all about reading your keys and playing fast." Those would seem to be the main things he has struggled to master.
Minter observed that Kendricks "has so much ability, natural skills and speed. Sometimes that works against him - it's all about being eyes in the right place at the right time. So we have been inconsistent in there. But he had a good game last week, I thought. So I think we're trending the right way, and, as we head down the stretch, this is going to be an important group for us."
Gunning for yardage
Eagles punter Donnie Jones is having one of his finest seasons at age 35. Jones' 47.4-yard gross is fourth-best in the NFL. Jones has dropped 24 punts inside the 20, which ties him for seventh-best in the league.
The inside-the-20 punts always seem to happen when his team most needs them, though Jones said this week he can't take full credit.
"I wish there was a secret (to it)," Jones said. "I do that (directional) Australian-rules punt sometimes. Sometimes you get the bounce, sometimes you don't. You just try to hit a good ball with placement. We try to get it out to our gunner, so he can down it.
"Ideally, though, if you can hit it to (the returner) every time - usually if you hit it to the 10-yard line, he's going to fair-catch it. Our goal is the 12."
The Eagles listed all their various afflicted players as probable for Sunday night . . . Darren Sproles is tied with DeSean Jackson for tops all-time in franchise history with four career punt return touchdowns. Next one sets the record, though this is only Sproles' second season here.
On Twitter: @LesBowen