TWO GAMES into his third season, safety Nate Allen has the look of a second-round pick. Finally.
After rookie and sophomore campaigns that saw his play fluctuate wildly, the South Florida product is healthy and seems to be putting it all together.
Coming off Baltimore's 44-point showing in Week 1, Joe Flacco and his plethora of receiving options were the envy of the NFL. It was no secret that the Ravens would try to utilize Ray Rice and their imposing tight-end tandem in the passing game against the Eagles and they did, to the tune of 29 targets.
Thanks largely to Allen and Mychal Kendricks, the Birds limited that potent trio to 15 catches, 141 yards and most important, no touchdowns. Rice did escape Kendricks once in the fourth quarter, scampering 37 yards on a catch-and-run. But for the most part, someone in green blanketed Flacco's options underneath all day.
"We knew we were going to have to come down and cover man-to-man sometimes on the tight ends and running backs," said Allen, who was on the field for all 70 defensive snaps. "I think we were looking forward to it. We were excited and we were confident in what we were doing."
The Eagles' defense has long struggled against both the screen game and opposing tight ends, largely due to personnel deficiencies at safety and linebacker. What looked like a matchup nightmare on Sunday has turned into a testament to an emerging defensive unit under Juan Castillo. And Allen is a big reason why.
On top of his play in coverage, Allen piled up 10 tackles on Sunday, nine of which were solo. He brought down Rice at or near the line of scrimmage four times, displaying a physicality that Eagles fans haven't seen from him over his career. On Monday, Andy Reid said he has seen a different player in 2012.
"We ask a lot of our safeties now," Reid said. "Playing the wide-nine, you have C-gap responsibility at times and you have to get up there and put a lick on somebody. Both of those guys are willing to do that, but Nate gets called to do that quite often and he is doing it well."
Coming out of college, Allen was supposed to be the type of cover safety who was tailor-made for today's NFL. He struggled over long stretches of last season, not yet recovered from the ruptured patellar tendon that cut short his rookie season. But according to Allen, a full offseason with the Eagles' training staff has made a world of difference.
"Feeling confident in your body, especially your knee, is huge out there," he said. "You don't make excuses, but when it's your first time going through something like that, it is kind of a learning experience. You have to learn to overcome injuries like that and overcome the rehab process and know that you're OK. That is the point I'm at, where I don't even think about the knee anymore."
Allen's injury couldn't have come at a worse time. He was a rookie with the first major injury of his career and, because of the NFL lockout, he was forced to rehab his surgically repaired knee on his own. The consistency of his play suffered accordingly and his confidence seemed to wane. But his coaches' did not.
Castillo insisted last December that Allen, whose play improved down the stretch, would be a Pro Bowl-type player in time. The Eagles have played only eight quarters in 2012, but so far Allen's emergence has made his coordinator look pretty smart. Reid added on Monday that the Eagles have known that they had a good cover safety on their hands since the day they drafted him.
"He has full trust in his legs and he is more familiar with what we're doing," Reid said. "He has a pretty good grasp of what is going on. He had a great offseason conditioningwise, and is playing physical football."
In the locker room, Allen is known for his maturity and headiness. Sometimes it seemed that those qualities, when combined with the lack of faith in his knee, got in the way of his ability to just go out and play. Comforted by a comprehensive grasp of Castillo's defense, Allen has played with a clear mind through two games.
"Being at this level you have to have a certain level of confidence, period," Allen said. "You can't be worrying out there or thinking on your feet. A lot of times you have to just react and play fast - be confident, don't hesitate. If you have a chance to make a play, go make it."
So far this season he has done just that, and the Eagles' defense has been the beneficiary.