NATE ALLEN had three interceptions.

He had started every game of his rookie season.

He had begun to replace legendary safety Brian Dawkins in the minds of Eagles fans, if not in their hearts. He was the centerpiece of a dynamic rookie class of defenders.

But on the flight home from Nashville, Tenn., where the Eagles collapsed and gave away a win, Allen slunk in his seat and wondered how he'd played so badly.

"I flat-out had a lot of mistakes in that game. Gave up a lot of touchdowns," Allen said.

His boss, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, found himself with a happy problem: an accountable player at risk of burying himself seven games into the season facing a bye week.

"I give Nate credit for taking the blame. He didn't need to do that. But that's the type of guy he is. It wasn't all his responsibility," McDermott said.

That's what he told the team's second-round pick: Don't bear all of the weight. Just take what's yours.

"If you think it's all your responsibility, and you go and try to make a play that isn't your responsibility, you're going to give up a play that is your responsibility," McDermott said. "That's what we talked about on the plane home that night. He wanted to be accountable. Which I appreciated."

Allen took the advice to heart. He went home to Fort Myers, Fla., headed to the nearby pristine Gulf islands and enjoyed himself.

"I got my mind off of it," Allen said. "Went to the beach - Sanibel and Captiva, with friends."

He returned refreshed, again the keystone of the rookies who have made a big difference for an 8-4 Eagles team.

Yes, the young defenders are part of the reason the Eagles have had second-half issues and are below average in scoring defense, but they're also the reason the Eagles have remained among the best in the league in takeaways.

Defensive end Brandon Graham, the first-round pick, has two forced fumbles and three sacks despite fighting through shoulder and ankle injuries. He won the starting job in training camp over Juqua Parker, lost it to Parker after four games but, with Parker hurt, has started the last two games.

Allen and Graham are the first pair of rookies to start for the traditionally outstanding Eagles defense since second-rounders Wes Hopkins and Jody Schulz did it in 1983.

Defensive backs Trevard Lindley and Kurt Coleman, taken in the fourth and seventh rounds, respectively, have been forced into service due to injury, and both acquitted themselves decently. Coleman snared an interception in his only start, against the Redskins on Nov. 15, in place of Allen, who had an injured neck.

Fourth-round linebacker Keenan Clayton's mobility has propelled him from the deactivated list into a valuable weapon in certain schemes, similar to that of third-round end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim. Seventh-round linebacker Jamar Chaney and sixth-round cornerback/returner Jorrick Calvin have become cornerstones on special teams.

By necessity, they have provided answers to questions the Eagles had about a defense that largely has been rebuilt in the past two seasons by McDermott.

"Nate started right away. Brandon has become a more consistent presence on the defense. We've gotten contributions from Kurt. Trevard. Keenan. Which was our goal," McDermott said. "I wanted to be able to come out of this year able to answer, 'What do we have?' We've done it. You take your lumps. There's tremendous value in that experience."

The lumps keep coming.

Allen missed an interception of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler two games ago because he broke late, a missed pick that could have been the difference in the six-point loss. It was one of Cutler's four TD passes.

"I might have kept my eyes on Cutler for a split-second too long before making the break," Allen said.

Lindley was part of the Cutler explosion, too. Allen also largely was absent against Houston, mainly because the Birds, without Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel for the second straight week, feared being burned by giant wideout Andre Johnson. So, Allen acted as Johnson's deep shadow.

The Texans silenced Graham - but frequently needed double teams to do so, a remarkable measure of respect. That meant loss of maximum protection, since the Texans needed to help against Pro Bowl right end Trent Cole. The Bears did the same the game before, and Graham nabbed a sack; Cole got two.

After sputtering early (in part because the Birds believed Graham, at just 268 pounds, could play on the interior in passing situations), Graham, now seasoned and savvy, has them as giddy as the day they drafted him.

"I first noted it against Indianapolis, when he really started to cut loose more," said McDermott.

Graham was part of a 3-week defensive effort that limited Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb and Eli Manning to a combined 63.5 passer rating en route to three Eagles wins.

"He had so much going on in his head: 'Do this. Don't do that. This scheme. That scheme. What do they want to do out of this formation?' " McDermott said. "There's just an evolution. It takes time. I just hope that that continues."

It will, Graham vowed, especially since his shoulder and ankle are sound.

"I know all the plays. I know the expectation level is really rising now because everything is back to normal," Graham said. "I feel like it's high, but I feel like I could do a lot better. Looking at it from the outside in - I might look good on some stuff, and it might look good in the game, but it might not be exactly what the coaches wanted.

"And I always feel like I could give a little bit more effort in the game."

Graham not only wants to play perfectly, he wants to play manically, like Cole.

"Every practice, even, it looks like he's in a game," Graham said. "He's killing everybody."

So, Graham seeks the knowledge.

"Every game, he's one the sideline asking me, 'How'd you set that tackle up for that move,' " Cole said. "He's a learner."

He's also selfless.

Asked about his best moment so far as a pro, Graham pointed at rookie quarterback Mike Kafka, whose 2-minute drill in the Eagles' third preseason game won the exhibition:

"The best is beating the Chiefs in preseason. I like Kafka," Graham said. "I was real hyped that day; for Kafka. He brought us back that game."

Not recording a sack in his hometown of Detroit in Week 2; not forcing a fumble against the Giants that led to a field goal in the teams' big matchup 2 weeks ago.

Nope. For Graham, it's Mike Kafka's TD pass.

"They did a good job of picking the right people. There's a great vibe around here," Coleman said.

The vibe was nurtured early.

The rookies were welcomed with an open-air double-decker bus tour of the city. The rookies got cheesesteaks for lunch, saw the Liberty Bell and walked up the Rocky steps at the Art Museum. Defensive tackle Jeff Owens, on the practice squad, even raised his arms for the group picture.

"At first I didn't want to go. I didn't know what it was. I'm glad I did go," Graham said.

"We've got a pretty tight-knit group," Allen said.

Tight-knit, high-character, miserable on long flights home after bad games.

Allen wasn't thinking about being the first Eagles rookie with three picks since Dawkins did it in 1996.

"To be honest with you, he hasn't had a bad game all year," said veteran safety Quintin Mikell. "Even the Titans game, everybody was pointing at him, but really, he was where he needed to be."

At this point, for the entire class, that's all the Eagles can ask. They've done much more than just that.