WELL, NOW the Eagles' defensive coaching staff has pretty much tried everything to improve the linebacking situation, short of bringing in better players, which isn't within the coaches' power.

With the ascension this week of Casey Matthews to nickel middle linebacker, after nine games in exile, every starter is different from the start of the season, as are both nickel guys. Feel free to invoke the obvious reference involving a sinking ocean liner and deck-chair arrangements .

Way back when the season began, Sept. 11 at St. Louis, Matthews was the rookie starting middle linebacker, even though he was a fourth-round pick who lacked game-changer skills, even though he had never lined up in a pro defense until camp began at Lehigh.

It didn't go so well. Matthews got two games in the middle, then one on the weakside, which was a particular disaster. Fans angry after Matthews bit on play-action and gave up a 40-yard touchdown reception to the Giants' Brandon Jacobs harassed his family, Matthews said yesterday.

After talking to reporters about how glad he is to get back on the field - Matthews has played only special teams and short-yardage lately - Matthews was asked about trying to get back in the good graces of fans, who have made him a focal point for their disappointment in the 4-8 Birds.

"I'm trying to," Matthews said. "It's hard. One of the earlier games, they harassed my family and made my fiancee cry. It's tough. It's frustrating. That's just how they are here. If you win, they love you, so I guess we've just got to turn things around and just start winning again."

Matthews said his fiancee was wearing his jersey, making her easily identifiable. He said she was with "my aunt and my little cousin."

Matthews said after Jamar Chaney took his spot in the middle, then Brian Rolle took over the weakside, he could "sit back and get an actual grasp of the defense."

"I feel a lot more prepared," he said. "During camp, when I was first in there, everything was on the run. Just trying to learn on the fly, it was tough . . . It's another opportunity to go out there and show what I can do. I need to take advantage of it this time."

Chaney remains the middle linebacker in the base, flanked by Akeem Jordan and Rolle. Matthews and Keenan Clayton are the nickel 'backers.

Heard that one before

Marty Mornhinweg all but snorted in derision yesterday when a questioner asked the offensive coordinator about Michael Vick's pledge to try to slide, and to be smarter about taking hits in general, as Vick returns from a three-game rib injury absence.

"Well, we've discussed that since Day 1, so we'll see," Mornhinweg said. "I want him to get down underneath hits, I want him to get up and out on the sideline. [Quarterbacks coach] Doug [Pederson] has drilled that with him time and time again. I want to see that."

Mornhinweg said Vick doesn't always take the safe route "when the juices get flowing."

"There's been a couple of times when I'm thinking, 'Get down!' and then he scores," Mornhinweg allowed. "He does need to protect himself, and for the rest of his career he needs to do that."

No DRC returns yet

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie does not anticipate returning kicks upon his return to the lineup, but the nickel cornerback said he believes he will do that again at some point.

"It ain't over," Rodgers-Cromartie said yesterday.

Rodgers-Cromartie, who says he plans to play this week, suffered a high-ankle sprain on a kick return during a Nov. 13 loss to the Cardinals, so there's risk associated with putting him back on special teams. Special-teams coordinator Bobby April praised Rodgers-Cromartie's return ability, although he said Andy Reid decides whether DRC will do that.

"It was unfortunate he got hurt on that play because now it's like he's going to get hurt every time he returns a kick," April said. "If he gets hurt playing corner, you don't think he can't play there anymore . . . It's coach's call, but I like him because he's fast and could be faster than anyone else playing on the field on any Sunday."

Birdseed

Wideout Jeremy Maclin said his hamstring feels good and "it's definitely looking like" he will return against Miami . . . Maclin and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (ankle) were listed as limited practice participants, as were defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins (thumb) and defensive end Trent Cole (hand). Guard Danny Watkins suffered an apparently minor ankle tweak during practice . . . Safety Colt Anderson underwent an ACL repair and linebacker Moise Fokou got a surgical procedure on his sprained ankle yesterday, the Eagles said.

Daily News sports writer Zach Berman contributed to this.