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Bob Ford: A Jekyll and Hyde Eagles defense: Which one will show up?

The players on the offensive and defensive units of the Eagles have told consistent and consistently different stories about what has troubled the team during a 6-8 season that now hangs by a tenuous thread.

The players on the offensive and defensive units of the Eagles have told consistent and consistently different stories about what has troubled the team during a 6-8 season that now hangs by a tenuous thread.

The players on offense talk about the baffling number and wide array of turnovers that have plagued them. The players on defense talk about the many changes in personnel and scheme that have hampered their ability to play together.

As is usually the case with professional athletes, the similarity between the excuses is that, from their points of view, these bedevilments aren't anyone's fault, and certainly not theirs.

Turnovers happen, sometimes in bunches, and it is mostly nothing more than bad luck. Oh, well. A new defensive coordinator and a completely new scheme, combined with seven new starters and no offseason isn't going to work out very well - or at least very quickly. Oh, darn.

The players are right, as far as it goes, but that is like attributing a plane crash to a loss in altitude. There are a lot of factors that have caused the obvious failures, and to assume that the last two weeks have solved all the issues is as shortsighted as was wanting to implode the entire organization after the Dec. 1 debacle in Seattle.

In getting wins against Miami and the New York Jets - two teams with lackluster offenses and neither with a "plus" ranking in takeaways - the Eagles have been able to stay alive in the divisional race and tell the tale of their miraculous healing. If the NFC East weren't so comically awful, this charade wouldn't play very well, but the Eagles are living in a neighborhood in which all the yards are untended, so theirs doesn't stick out as embarrassingly as it might.

It was the Giants' turn to be the butt of divisional jokes last weekend, which they accomplished with a 23-10 home loss to the Redskins. With a win, the Giants would have eliminated the Eagles, but they weren't up to the task.

"I expected quality, quality execution and we didn't get much of that," an exasperated coach Tom Coughlin said after the game.

Among the many things that must happen for the Eagles to win the division, they must now hope for the Giants to be very bad one week and then very good the next. The Giants have certainly shown this capability, but to hope for it on cue - and in the proper order! - is asking a lot.

It is almost asking as much for the Eagles to continue their supposed renaissance for two more weeks, even though they were able to beat Dallas and Washington in back-to-back games earlier this season.

If it happens, however, it will happen because the defense really is better now than it was, and certainly more consistent. The by-product of that improvement will probably be the continued employment of Juan Castillo as the defensive coordinator. That will be an interesting call, however, because the coordinator and his players don't agree on the reason things are better.

None of the reasons will matter if the current two-game spell of competence turns out to be nothing more than that, but Castillo indicated he had to dumb down the system, and the players indicated they had to smarten up the coach.

"We talk to him a lot, especially the older players like myself and Asante [Samuel]," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said after the Jets game. "We've been in the league and we know what goes on with defenses and what call is good and not good at any particular time. He's got a better feel of when to call what, but obviously we're going to keep talking to him because this is his first year."

The notion that the veteran cornerbacks regarded Castillo as a somewhat slow study could explain some of the early issues, although it doesn't solve the mystery of why neither Samuel or Asomugha have much enthusiasm for tackling opposing players. Asomugha didn't say which part of the scheme held him back there.

For his part, Castillo said the defense - mostly the defensive backfield - was making very basic goofs and he had to strip all the chrome from the scheme and take it down to bare metal.

"I started too fast and I found I had to go backward with some of those guys because they had missed some of that and we were making mistakes just on fundamental stuff," Castillo said. "Then as we mastered something, we could add something else."

Among other things, he stopped loading zone coverages on the cornerbacks and safeties. They didn't like it and couldn't much handle it, either. He did that and prayed the defensive line would be able to pressure the quarterback into quick throws or sacks. Well, so far, so good, at least against Matt Moore and Mark Sánchez.

Both the coaches and the veterans agree that the young linebackers are also a handy place to hang some excuses, although Castillo believes that weakness has been addressed schematically as well. Sounds fine after a couple of wins, but anyone who wants to think the linebackers are fixed, you go right ahead.

If we have learned nothing else during the season, it is that hope and despair are ever-changing partners in this swirling dance. Each step forward has been quickly followed by a step backward, or two.

No fooling this time, though, according to the Eagles. They've got it all figured out. Forgive us if we withhold the congratulations for just a little while.

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