SEAN McDERMOTT finally admitted what has become painfully obvious for the second season in a row. Injuries have restructured and restricted what his defense is able to do, limiting its effectiveness.

"I come from Jim Johnson's system," the Eagles' defensive coordinator said yesterday. "With so many new players, you can't just say, 'Hey, we've always run this blitz - run this blitz.' Because those players don't know those blitzes. There's a period of acclimation that comes into play, so you want to get the players as comfortable as possible.

"And the execution. It's great to come up with all of these different schemes and everything, but what can these players execute? A lot of these players are in their first games in the NFL. If you had veteran players, you can bank on them being comfortable in an NFL game and then they can execute whatever you draw up. So, that's part of the overall equation you take into the game plan and say, 'OK, realistically, what can I expect these guys to handle?' "

The embodiment of this can be found in the curious case of Dimitri Patterson. A pleasant surprise in the weeks immediately following his insertion as a starter on Nov. 7, Patterson has been a mistake-prone, high-wire act over the last two games.

He was singed for three touchdown passes by the Giants in the first half of the Eagles' 38-31 victory two Sundays ago. The Vikings targeted him Tuesday night, most prominently during a scoring drive at the start of the second half that included a 46-yard pass-interference call, a 23-yard completion, and finally, an unnecessary-roughness call that sent Patterson to the bench for the rest of the game in favor of Joselio Hanson.

Did Dimitri suddenly become sloppy?

With more film on him, had teams found and exploited his weaknesses?

"Everybody's saying that," Patterson said yesterday. "But the first game that I played, I was targeted 16 times. By the Colts. By a future Hall of Famer. Nothing's changed. How many more?"

Maybe it's not the quantity of plays, I suggested.

Maybe it's the quality that's getting him.

"They're throwing the book at me," he conceded. "That's obvious. But Colts game, the second Giants game, I'm going to get the action whether I say 'Bring it on' or not. That's their job. That's the pattern.

"You have to understand you are on an island under maximum exposure. So when the corner makes a mistake, the whole world sees it. In some other positions, a guy can make a mistake, you don't really see it. But a corner slips and falls, it's a Top 10 play. You're talking about game-changing plays when you make a mistake out there."

Patterson has admitted his aggressive nature makes him vulnerable to double moves, but that's the case with most cornerbacks in the league. Truth is, those double moves mean nothing when your quarterback is under a pile of defenders or being flushed from the pocket, and the simple truth is the Eagles have not been doing much of that since injuries sidelined Brandon Graham, Stewart Bradley, Ellis Hobbs and Nate Allen for the season, and put others like Juqua Parker and Asante Samuel on the sideline for stretches.

"You try to stay aggressive no matter who's out there," McDermott said. "And whenever the situation calls for it, you try to dial it up, whether it's pressure or straight coverage. But you've got to keep in mind what you have out there."

And what you don't. Patterson has four interceptions, second on the team to Samuel, and for most of his time as Hobbs' replacement he has earned praise and admiration from the coach who benched him Tuesday.

"The thing about Dimitri is, he is a tremendously mentally tough individual," McDermott said. "And I know he'll get right back on it."

The coach said he spoke to Patterson when both arrived at the NovaCare Complex yesterday morning. Both described it as positive, and McDermott even said, "He's ready to go."

So does he get another start? Or does Hanson, who himself has been yo-yoed in the past, get that chance? McDermott passed on that, saying the topic is still under discussion.

"That's really been my career, never really knowing," Patterson said. "But I'll be ready when I'm called upon. Life is imperfect. It's not always going to be smooth. That's just how it is. But confidence is not something somebody can give to you. In the NFL, if you're hoping someone is going to give you confidence you're not going to last very long in this league. And I plan on being around for a while." *

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