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Bob Ford: Defense is worst when it counts

Andy Reid said Wednesday that his coaching staff has identified the issues troubling the Eagles this season, and the message to the players about those problems is pretty straightforward.

Andy Reid and the Eagles are 21st in the NFL in red-zone touchdown offense. (Jessica Kourkounis/AP)
Andy Reid and the Eagles are 21st in the NFL in red-zone touchdown offense. (Jessica Kourkounis/AP)Read more

Andy Reid said Wednesday that his coaching staff has identified the issues troubling the Eagles this season, and the message to the players about those problems is pretty straightforward.

"Let's get better at those things," Reid said.

Well, there's an idea, and they've tried everything else.

Reid said that turnovers and penalties have been the major issues for the offense, particularly turnovers in the red zone, and he added that NFL defenses have uniformly improved during the season.

"I think, around the league, you're seeing defenses that have started off slow and as the season goes on, they're gaining experience and getting better," Reid said. "That's throughout the league. [So] the offenses that are limiting turnovers, and the teams with explosive offenses, have been the ones winning games right now."

That leaguewide defensive improvement hasn't seemed to extend to his own team, of course, but Reid has identified those issues, too.

"There are several reasons, but I won't go into those," Reid said. "I think we're working to get better with those."

That's comforting, even if some of the defensive problems appear systemic and will require more than four weeks to address.

What becomes clear when you study the season is that the Eagles can play, they just can't play when it matters. They are 21st in the league in red-zone touchdown offense, scoring 24 touchdowns in 51 red-zone opportunities. They are 32d, dead last, in red-zone defense, allowing 24 touchdowns in just 34 opportunities.

Their 29 turnovers are the most in the league, and eight of the turnovers have ended red-zone drives. (Because this is a bizarre team having a bizarre season, it is only fitting that the Eagles have a better record [3-5] in games in which they suffer a red-zone turnover than in games in which they do not [1-3]. Go ahead. You explain that.)

As for penalties, the Eagles are just about at the league average for total number of penalties, and they are 55 yards under the league average for yards penalized. As with their red-zone follies, however, they do manage to commit the penalties at the worst of times, specializing in jumping offside on defense when the opponent needs three yards for a first down and illegal motion on offense when the situation is reversed.

The offense hasn't been the biggest problem this season, although a few weeks without Michael Vick leads to a noticeable dropoff. Any team that loses its starting quarterback will suffer, and that was the case here, even if Vick's overall performance hasn't been that great.

The greatest problems remain on defense, and Reid's continuing tenure with the Eagles may hinge on his willingness to cut loose Juan Castillo and start over. Reid insisted Wednesday that no one from the organization has yet come to him with that ultimatum.

"Listen, nobody's approached me on it," Reid said. "My mind is to continue to get better as coaches and players. My mind goes no further than that. That's where I'm at."

Where the defense is at, however, is middle-of-the-pack in overall yardage allowed, but the absolute worst when the field gets short and the matter is often decided by size and toughness. They really haven't displayed much of either.

"It's been a crazy year. A lot of things have happened," defensive end Trent Cole said. "You got lockouts and stuff, you know, everything has an effect."

Reid's point was that most defenses have shaken that off by now. In contrast, the Eagles defense is making the same mistakes and showing up just as bad in crucial situations as it did at the beginning of the season.

"We don't have any excuses for anything," safety Nate Allen said. "We are improving a little bit every week. The average person is not going to know what we've improved on because they don't know our scheme and don't know the football terminology and the stuff that we do. But if we see the improvement, that's the most important thing."

The improvement - whatever that might be - has not included an increase in takeaways. The Eagles haven't forced a turnover in the last two losses and, speaking of timeliness, have gotten only one of their 16 takeaways in the red zone this season. That's got nothing to do with the lockout or even with Castillo, or even with the capricious bounce of the football.

"I'm not the kind of person that believes in luck. Good teams get in position to make those plays. If a guy chases the ball and knocks it out of the runner's hand and one of his defensive linemen picks up the fumble, that ain't luck. He got it because he was hustling," linebacker Jamar Chaney said. "You've got to believe you're going to get turnovers. You have got to have confidence and the swagger to say, 'All right, we're going to get some turnovers.' "

Thus far, not only has the defense played without confidence and swagger, it has played without creating those turnovers as well. As much as anything else, the disparity of being minus-13 in giveaway/takeaway has defined a season in which the Eagles have absorbed punishment but not handed out very much.

The good news, though, is that the issues have been identified and the work to fix them is under way. Just in time, too.