Bill Davis studied defensive statistics to formulate a goal for the Eagles defense before the season. The target became 15 points per game. The defensive coordinator determined that that number would place his unit among the league's top defenses - even with the amount of time it spends on the field.
On Tuesday, Davis stood in front of his defense after the Eagles allowed more than 40 points in consecutive games for the first time in franchise history. Not all the points were the fault of the defense - Tampa Bay returned an interception for a touchdown in Week 11, and Detroit started a drive inside the red zone in Week 12 - but the exceptions offered no consolation.
Davis' unit had been a strength of the team for much of the season. Then came the last two weeks, when the defense - and the season - seemed to unravel. The Eagles allowed 951 combined yards and did not force a turnover. Opposing quarterbacks had career games. And the schedule only gets more difficult, starting Sunday against the New England Patriots.
"We have had long talks about it," Davis said. "When you have two bad games like that, everyone has got to start with themselves. And it starts with me. I've got to make sure that I continue to work on putting these guys in position to make plays, and individually they are working on making those plays. So, you cannot panic, you cannot overreact, and you cannot underreact. That's the fine line I'm walking right now."
The Patriots have the No. 2 offense in the NFL. They're playing at home, where they have lost only six games in six seasons. They're coming off their only loss of the season, and they have not lost back-to-back games since early in the 2012 season.
The most daunting obstacle of all is Tom Brady. He has thrown for more yards and touchdowns than any quarterback in the NFL this season, and he could win the third MVP award of his storied career. Brady will notice that rookie cornerback Eric Rowe is making his first start for the Eagles, too, adding further pressure.
The Patriots are missing key offensive players, including three of their four leading receivers. But when Kelly was asked how the Patriots overcome their absences, he responded with a truthful quip.
"Did they lose Brady?" Kelly said.
Since Jameis Winston and Matthew Stafford each threw for five touchdowns against the Eagles, fantasy football owners will salivate at the possibilities for Brady on Sunday unless the Eagles discover a solution.
"What happened the week before doesn't dictate what's going to happen the next week," linebacker Connor Barwin said. "What happened the weeks before we played Stafford and Winston? How many touchdown passes did we give up to [Dolphins quarterback] Ryan Tannehill? One. And then we gave up 10 the next two weeks. So let's take it back to one. Let's go the other way."
The 15-points-per-game goal might be ambitious, but it's also out of reach. The Eagles have already allowed 274 points for an average of 24.9 per game. Even when taking away points scored by the opposing special teams and defense, the Eagles allow 23.6 points per game. That would put them in the bottom half of the league - a major departure from two weeks ago, when the defense kept opponents to fewer than 20 points per game.
"There's a number of things that happen that kind of snowballed," Barwin said. "The mistakes snowball, and the points snowball, and then you find yourself in a big hole. And it's hard to play defense in a big hole. It gets so bad so quick. It's been two weeks. It takes one week to get back to being really good."
Davis didn't have the answer for what happened. But his solution was the very players who allowed those points. Davis said the performance during the first half of the season is evidence.
"That's why we can get it back to where it was. But right now we've got to overcome and get through a lapse in confidence and get back to playing fast, physical [defense]," Davis said. "We haven't tackled as well the last two weeks and the turnovers are nonexistent. Those are two big pieces of who we are. Our tackling has to get better and so does our turnovers."
The lack of turnovers stand out as a problem. The Eagles want three takeaways per game. It's been an emphasis all season. But they have dropped from 2.3 takeaways per game to 1.9 during the last two weeks.
"Two games ago, I told you we had five turnover opportunities, but in the Detroit game we had none," Davis said. "That's more discouraging. If you have five and don't get five, at least you're in a position to cause and get the turnover. Against Detroit, nothing went well, and we did not have any turnovers or opportunities. They protected the ball well when they ran with it and the quarterback in the pocket protected it well when we were close to him."
Forcing turnovers doesn't become easier in New England. The Patriots have committed nine this season, the second fewest in the league.
But the problems extend beyond turnovers. The inside linebackers are playing below the standard, which has been apparent both on running plays (Tampa Bay rushed for 283 yards against the Eagles) and passing plays, when running backs have become threats out of the backfield.
The pass rush has applied little pressure. The Eagles had just three sacks the last two weeks after averaging 2.6 per game during the previous nine games. This has hurt the coverage, too, which looks worse when the quarterback is unbothered by the blitz.
"We haven't gotten home too much the past couple of weeks and that's a product of not getting in good situations," Barwin said. "You've got to get into third and long, you've got to hold your blitzes, you've got to be sound in your coverage. And you've got to beat people up front. You don't do that, you're not going to hit the quarterback."
So much of defense is about situations - especially third downs and red zone. The Eagles allowed 11 touchdowns on 12 red zone visits during the last two games. They kept opposing offenses out of the end zone nearly 40 percent of the time before the two blowouts.
On third downs, the Eagles allowed 15 of 26 conversions to Tampa Bay and Detroit. That's about a 17 percent better conversion rate than before the two losses. To add more gloom, the Patriots are the sixth best offense in the NFL at third downs and are No. 4 in the red zone.
The solution, from players and coaches, is better technique and better execution. That's all they can say. Rowe joins the lineup and the Eagles have experimented with different personnel groupings, but there are no wholesale modifications.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins suggested the Eagles need more accountability by addressing problems in a teamwide setting, but Kelly does not think that would be efficient.
Kelly is not devoting any more time to the defense, either. He meets with Davis in game-planning meetings, but Davis runs that side of the ball. Kelly even gave Davis a vote of confidence when asked about his job security.
"We're looking at everything and everybody," Davis said. "What moves are available to be made and do they warrant that move? All of us own our own mistakes. I have to do a bit better job of planning and putting these guys in spots and they've got to do a better job of executing."