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Eagles' Wolff tackling job with confidence

Rookie safety says,'I feel I'm getting better every day.'

Earl Wolff (28) defends Dallas Cowboys Tony Romo during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013, in Philadelphia. (Michael Perez/AP)
Earl Wolff (28) defends Dallas Cowboys Tony Romo during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013, in Philadelphia. (Michael Perez/AP)Read more

EARL WOLFF can't make Eagles fans forget that the franchise passed on All-Pro safety Earl Thomas in the draft 3 years ago. Can't make them forget that it did draft Jaiquawn Jarrett a year later either.

What the rookie safety is doing, though, is helping the Eagles' fast-improving defense keep people out of the end zone.

After a rocky start in which it gave up 126 points and 1,787 yards in their first four games, defensive coordinator Bill Davis' unit has held five straight opponents to 21 points or less.

And Wolff has been an important part of that turnaround.

With Patrick Chung sidelined much of the last 6 weeks with a painful shoulder injury, the fifth-round rookie out of North Carolina State, who figured to earn his NFL keep this season playing on special teams, has started five of the last six games.

He's fourth on the team in tackles, has an interception and is developing into an effective blitzer. In the Eagles' 29-point win over the Raiders last week, he came off the edge unblocked twice, batting down a Terrelle Pryor pass on the first one and drawing an intentional grounding penalty on the second.

"I think the main thing with Earl is the understanding of the defense that he's running, and the NFL offenses that are coming at you," Davis said. "And you do get a very diverse amount of offenses that are coming at you, from what we faced last week with Pryor to the week before with Eli [Manning].

"It really does change each week. And I think he's learning the NFL and the offense, and at the same time, growing in his own job as a safety."

With each game, Wolff's comfort level with Davis' defense and his recognition of what he's seeing on the other side of the ball has improved.

"I feel the coaches have more confidence in me," the rookie said. "As the season has gone along, I feel I'm getting better every day.

"I'm very comfortable within the scheme. Here, we play both free safety and strong safety. I feel I'm pretty versatile. I think they have the confidence in me to make any calls now, whereas before [they might say], 'He's a rookie. I don't know if we want to do this or do that.' "

Wolff already has played 519 snaps. He started last week, even though Chung was activated for just the second time in six games. He is expected to start again Sunday against the Packers.

"He's coming along really nice," said safety Nate Allen. "He had to grow up fast and he's doing a great job."

Wolff's first NFL start in Week 4 against Peyton Manning and the Broncos wasn't pretty. Manning shredded the Eagles, completing 28 of 34 passes for 327 yards and four touchdowns as Denver put up 52 points.

"We played against one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL," Wolff said. "They throw different types of formations at you, different types of things at you. I made a lot of little mistakes in that game.

"From that game to now, everybody has kind of had a different offense and did different things. Just playing against these totally different offenses has given me confidence that I can play whatever in whatever situation.

"When you can have that kind of confidence in this league as a rookie, that's a great thing. When you're confident in yourself and the coaches see it on film, they become more confident in you."

For the last 3 weeks, Wolff has been meeting every day after practice with Davis and/or defensive backs coach John Lovett. He said the sessions have helped tremendously.

"I feel myself just seeing things faster and being able to react a little more quickly," Wolff said.

For a rookie safety, recognition and reaction is what it's all about.

"The pace," Allen said. "Playing fast and being able to think while you're out there too.

"You're being thrown so many different things and you're expected to play it at an even higher level than in college. Bullets flying. You've got vet guys who don't want you slowing them down. You know you can't slow them down. You've got to give them the calls.

"He's communicating like a vet. He's playing good football right now."

Frustrated? Not Shady

LeSean McCoy hasn't rushed for more than 55 yards in a game in nearly a month. But his football team still managed to put up 49 points last week, and finds itself only a game out of first place.

"I mean, I'm not frustrated," said the Eagles running back, who has averaged just 3.4 yards per carry over the last five games after averaging 6.0 in the first four.

"You can't really worry about that type of stuff. The individual yards and stuff will come out at the end. We still have a lot of games left. The biggest thing is winning. I'd rather be winning than have a ton of yards.

"Plus, I'm still leading the NFL in rushing. So I can't be that [hissed]."

With 777 yards in nine games, McCoy has a 51-yard lead over the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch. McCoy currently is on pace to rush for 1,381 yards.

Just one running back has won the rushing title with less than 1,400 yards in the last 40 years. That was the Lions' Barry Sanders back in 1990 (1,304).

Teams basically have been bringing a safety up in the box to help stop the run, playing a single high safety and daring the Eagles to beat them with the pass. McCoy is hopeful that, after Nick Foles' seven-touchdown performance last week, teams will be reluctant to put a safety down low.

"I feel comfortable that this week, we can run the ball a little bit more," said McCoy, who had just 12 carries [for 44 yards] against the Raiders. "We threw the ball so well last week that a team has to play us honest now the way Nick is playing and performing.

"When they try to stop the run and guys are making so many different plays, I think from now on, we'll probably see a more honest defensive look."

Center Jason Kelce agrees.

"When you throw for seven touchdown passes, maybe it'll open some stuff for him," he said.

McCoy has just three rushing touchdowns in 168 attempts this season. Last year, he had just two in 200 attempts. That's just one TD every 73.6 carries over the last 2 years.

In 2011, when he led the league with 17 rushing touchdowns, he averaged one every 16.1 carries. In his first three seasons in the league, he averaged one every 22.7.

McCoy averaged 20.5 rushing attempts per game in the Eagles' first six games, which had him on an exhausting 320-plus carry pace. Running backs coach Duce Staley, who is in charge of playing time for his unit, said a few weeks ago that he would not allow McCoy to go over 300 carries.

In the last three games, McCoy has averaged just 15 carries per game.

McCoy's role in the passing game is increasing, though. He has 22 catches in the last five games and had a 25-yard touchdown catch against the Raiders. He's averaging an impressive 11.0 yards per catch, which is the best in the league among running backs.

"I want to be an all-purpose back," McCoy said. "From catching to running to blocking. [I don't want to] really leave the field. I haven't since I've been here. I've always been one of the main guys percentage-wise that doesn't leave the field."

McCoy has been on the field for 507 snaps so far. The only running back with more is the Chiefs' Jamaal Charles (556). Charles also is the only back with more carries than McCoy (170 to 168).

Foles isn't picky

Nick Foles' seven TD passes last week against the Raiders got his jersey and cleats in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But his knack for not throwing interceptions could end up earning him something more important: the Eagles' starting quarterback job for the rest of the season, and maybe even beyond.

Foles hasn't thrown a pick in 118 attempts this season and hasn't thrown one in his last 155 passes dating back to last season.

"Nick has a great respect for the football," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "He understands how protecting the football is important to winning games.

"There are some guys that are cavalier [about interceptions] and if you put them out there, they're going to throw picks quite a bit. That's not Nick."

Shurmur spent 7 years as the quarterbacks coach on Andy Reid's staff. Worked with Donovan McNabb, who may have had his faults, but throwing interceptions never was one of them. McNabb owns the fourth best interception percentage in history (2.2), behind only Aaron Rodgers (1.7), Tom Brady (2.0) and Neil O'Donnell (2.1).

"There has to be a legitimate respect for the football and not turning it over," Shurmur said. "And the quarterback, when he's throwing the ball, has to be a good decision-maker."

Foles threw just 33 interceptions in 1,395 attempts (2.4 percent) as a 3-year starter at the University of Arizona.

"You've got to be smart with the ball," Foles said. "It's tough sometimes. Sometimes you have to fit it in a tight window. Sometimes the ball is going to pop up or you might not throw a good pass and it's going to get picked off.

"The key to trying to lessen [the chances of an interception] is just being smart and not forcing throws into double coverage. Every quarterback has felt that feeling right when they get ready to release that ball in a tight window, where at the last second, it didn't feel right.

"In that situation, you try to fight it to where, alright, if it doesn't feel right, I can move on in my progression and check it down if it doesn't look great. It's just a matter of fighting that urge [to throw it] in that situation and moving forward."

This and that 

* Sunday's 29-point win over the Raiders has done wonders for the oddsmakers' perception of the Eagles. Bovada, which listed their chances of winning the Super Bowl at 100-1 last week, now has them at 66-1. The Cowboys improved from 28-1 to 25-1 after their narrow win over the Vikings.

* Two words to you people who think the Eagles are going to coast Sunday now that Aaron Rodgers is out: Joe Webb.

2-minute drill

FROM THE LIP

* "How do I deal with knowing the next play might be my last? I realize that I wasn't meant to be here. I was born in North Philly." — Ravens LB and George Washington High product Jameel McClain on coming back from a career-threatening spinal injury

* "What's perceived is that Richie is this psychopath racist, and the reality is Richie was a pretty good teammate. I don't know why [Jonathan Martin] is doing this. And the only person who knows why is Jonathan Martin." — Dolphins offensive lineman Tyson Clabo on teammate Richie Incognito allegedly bullying Martin

"We joke with each other. You can't have thin skin around here. We're trying to clear Richie's name. He's getting a bad rap." - Dolphins DT Randy Starks on Incognito

"This is a profession. I tell our guys all of the time, the NFL to me is like working for General Electric or Goldman Sachs or Dell. You're at the top of the food chain, so to speak, so your actions should reflect that. It's a privilege to be a member of the National Football League, both as a player and a coach. Your actions should fit in accordingly." — Dolphins coach Joe Philbin

BY THE NUMBERS

* In 10,256 games since the NFL-AFL merger, the visiting team has thrown seven touchdown passes in a game just twice. Nick Foles did it against the Raiders and the Chargers did it in 1981 (Dan Fouts threw 6, Chuck Muncie 1), also against the Raiders. Both games were in the same stadium — O.co Coliseum (formerly Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum).

* The 49ers are 26-1-1 under Jim Harbaugh when they have scored at least 20 points.

* Ninety-two of the league's 133 games (69.2 percent) this season have been within seven points in the fourth quarter.

* Peyton Manning has thrown for 2,919 yards. That's the most by a QB in the first eight games in NFL history.

* The Patriots' 55-31 win over the Steelers last week marked the sixth time they've scored 50 or more points with Tom Brady as their starter.

* The Packers' loss to the Bears last week at Lambeau was their first home loss to an NFC North opponent since 2009.

* Of the eight defending division champions, only two currently are in first place: the Patriots (7-2) and the Packers (5-3, tied with Bears, Lions).

Figuring the Eagles

* In 320 plays with Mike Vick at quarterback this season, the Eagles ran the ball 159 times, or 49.7 percent of the time. Even if you take out half of Vick's 34 carries, that's still a run rate of 44.4 percent. In 279 plays with Nick Foles and Matt Barkley at QB, the Eagles have run the ball just 107 times, or 38.3 percent of the time.

* If the Eagles manage to make the playoffs, they will be just the fifth team in the last six seasons do so after starting 3-5. The '08 Chargers (8-8, won division), '11 Broncos (8-8, won division), '12 Bengals (10-6, wild card) and '12 Redskins (10-6, wild card) were the four to do it.

* Wide receiver Riley Cooper has been much more productive when Nick Foles has been at quarterback this season than Michael Vick. A look at Cooper's number by QB:

QB Qtrs. Targ. Rec. Yds. TD

Foles 13 16 12 291 4

Vick 19 19 8 91 1

Barkley 8 8 5 69 0

* Thirteen of the Eagles' 25 touchdown drives have been four plays or less. That's the most in the league. The Broncos are second with 11 and the Packers are third with 10.

* In the first nine games, opponents have run 672 plays against the Eagles. That's an 1,195-play pace, which would be the most plays run against a defense since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.

* Nick Foles has not thrown an interception in 118 attempts this season. In 2010, Vick went 211 attempts before throwing his first interception. Threw just six the entire season. His 1.6 interception percentage that year was the best of his career.

* Wide receiver Riley Cooper has been much more productive when Nick Foles has been at quarterback this season than Michael Vick. A look at Cooper's number by QB:

* The Eagles' third-down pass defense continues to improve. Their third-down opponent passer rating in the last five games is 63.3. It was 107.6 in the first four. The Eagles have not allowed a third-down touchdown pass in the last five games and seven of their eight sacks in those games have come on third down.

* The Eagles have not allowed a touchdown pass in the last two games. The last time they didn't give up a TD pass in back-to-back games was Weeks 16-17 of the 2008 season.

* The Eagles have yet to give up a touchdown pass to a tight end this season.

Domo's rankings (through Monday night)

1 Chiefs 9-0 (1 last week)

2 Broncos 7-1 (2)

3 49ers 6-2 (3)

4 Seahawks 8-1 (4)

5 Colts 6-2 (6)

6 Patriots 7-2 (8)

7 Saints 6-2 (5)

8 Bears 5-3 (11)

9 Packers 5-3 (7)

10 Lions 5-3 (10)

11 Panthers 5-3 (13)

12 Bengals 6-3 (9)

13 Cowboys 5-4 (14)

14 Jets 5-4 (18)

15 Titans 4-4 (15)

16 Chargers 4-4 (12)

17 Cardinals 4-4 (16)

18 Dolphins 4-4 (19)

19 Ravens 3-5 (17)

20 Eagles 4-5 (21)

21 Giants 2-6 (20)

22 Browns 4-5 (25)

23 Raiders 3-5 (22)

24 Rams 3-5 (23)

25 Bills 3-6 (24)

26 Redskins 3-5 (29)

27 Falcons 2-6 (26)

28 Texans 2-6 (27)

29 Steelers 2-6 (28)

30 Vikings 1-8 (30)

31 Bucs 0-8 (31)

32 Jaguars 0-8 (32)

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