EARL WOLFF is probably in. Brandon Boykin might be out, as the Eagles' secondary undertakes some major regrouping before it faces Jay Cutler and the Chicago Bears' offense Sunday night.
"It's definitely humbling," corner Bradley Fletcher said yesterday after the Birds' first practice in the wake of Sunday's 48-30 loss at Minnesota. "Guys were just not making the plays, myself included."
The other starting corner, Cary Williams, opined that the crushing loss was a good thing, in the long run.
"It knocked us off our high horse," Williams said. "It's something that was bittersweet. It was sad that we lost, the bitter part, but it was sweet that we lost at the end of the day because it helped humble us. We didn't want to go into this week thinking that we were invincible. It's great that they were able to knock us off. We learned from the experience. We're going to get better."
The question for defensive coordinator Bill Davis was, how much of this is fixable? Particularly if the Eagles are missing Boykin, the nickel corner, concussed on a kickoff return Sunday?
Davis pieced together a narrative of learning and improvement over nine successive weeks of opponents scoring 21 or fewer points, following the 52-20 loss in Denver Sept. 29. The Vikings blew that narrative to smithereens. So, what in there was real? Was it just snow and bad opposing quarterbacking and dropped passes and good officiating fortune that made this defense look capable of sustaining a playoff run? Or was Sunday an anomaly?
"I think it was a bad day. But I think you always have your strengths and your weaknesses. We've said all along, we've got so much more to do," Davis said. "This is Year 1. We've had a lot of success that probably was unexpected. But the weaknesses, nothing has really changed. We just continue to try to get better and better as we go. We did walk into a bad game, a good Minnesota team. We have to learn from it and respond to it. I believe they will respond in the right way."
That was an interesting answer - along the lines of "we can play better, but in some respects, we are what we are." You don't get that kind of honesty a lot in the NFL.
Davis said facing the Bears this week is "probably the biggest challenge of the season, obviously because it's this [week's] challenge, but it is a well-rounded, talented offense that's coming at you."
The Bears have a healthy Cutler at quarterback, a premier running back in Matt Forte (1,200 yards on 258 carries), and perhaps most critically, a trio of top receivers. Brandon Marshall has 90 catches for 1,185 yards, Alshon Jeffery 80 for 1,265, Martellus Bennett 59 for 659. They have caught 22 touchdown passes among them.
Wolff, the rookie safety who showed promise before suffering a knee hyperextension Nov. 10 at Green Bay, might be able to bring some stability to the back end. Davis said he'd planned to alternate Patrick Chung and Kurt Coleman in Minnesota, before Coleman injured a hamstring. Wolff said yesterday he expects to be able to play against the Bears.
"I felt better this Tuesday than last Tuesday," Wolff said. "I got to learn how to push it [never having experienced a knee injury like this one.] They told me to push it, but to try not to push it 'over.' "
Davis said when he went down, Wolff was "starting to really show some playmaking ability, getting some of those rookie mistakes out."
Gaining Wolff might be counterbalanced by losing Boykin, who watched practice and spent the day at NovaCare, navigating the NFL's concussion protocol before being cleared to return. Davis mentioned Chung and Roc Carmichael as slot replacements. Chung did not speak with reporters, but Carmichael said he'd been told the plan was for him to play the slot if Boykin can't go.
"I came in late," said Carmichael, who was signed off the Texans' practice squad Sept. 18. "It's definitely a learning process for me. I never really got too many reps inside my whole career, so it'll be fun . . . It's just an opportunity, man . . . I'm not sure what 'Boyk' is gonna do, but I'll be ready on Sunday."
The Eagles' defense has given up yards lately, but not the points and certainly not the big, over-the-top plays it allowed against the Vikings, who used formations that made it hard to play tight press coverage, Davis said. The Eagles went to more man and less zone at halftime, he said, "trying to get a bit closer in our coverage."
"We gave up too many big plays . . . I believe there were six 'X' plays, of over 20 [yards]," Davis said. "We did not take care of keeping the big pass off of us like we had been. We only [generated] one turnover, where in the past, we had a couple more."
The Vikings' big plays might have been the biggest surprise Sunday. You could always work the Eagles underneath, if the pass rush wasn't getting there and your QB was accurate, but you couldn't throw over them with impunity, until Matt Cassel did that, again and again.
"We don't give up deep balls. We don't give up plays like that, but that week, we did," Williams said. "I can't explain why . . . there really is no explanation. We went out and we prepared as well as we did all year. We just lost, man."
Davis was particularly unhappy with the way the Eagles' defenders couldn't pick up the pieces and reset, after the offense got the Birds back in the game late.
"We still had an opportunity to make plays and turn that game where we could win it, even though we weren't playing at our best," Davis said. "We kinda had a couple things go wrong, and multiple people lost their composure. I wasn't the most composed up in the [coaches'] box either, as it was starting to unravel.
"All of us had a lesson to learn there, that the game is tight in the NFL, adversity hits, you have to overcome adversity and handle it, and I think collectively, we all learned that we can do better and have to do better, or bad things happen to us. We gave up 21 points in the fourth quarter, and we shouldn't have."