Students of both football and physics will agree that the smartest move made Sunday by Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills was to seek out defensive teammate Fletcher Cox during the third quarter and apologize for shoving the 310-pound tackle in anger. In man-to-man coverage, if Cox were bent on retribution, he could cover the 191-pound Mills pretty well. Maybe there would be a foot sticking out or something, but not much.
Cox was not entirely amused when Mills celebrated breaking up a third-down pass intended for Adam Thielen by getting into Thielen's face and telling him about it. The play forced Minnesota to settle for a field goal and a 20-3 lead midway through the period, but it also gave Thielen the opportunity, if so inclined, to remind Mills of a pass four plays earlier that went for 68 yards. Cox apparently felt Mills shouldn't be so proud of fending off a touchdown opportunity that he himself had made possible.
In any case, Cox shoved Mills toward the sideline and Mills – who, in his defense, had to be on the field for the field-goal attempt – shoved back. Not only wasn't that a very good idea, it was indicative of a team that is starting to let its frustrations show. When a solid, placid guy like Cox and a mercurial hothead like Mills are getting into it, that just about covers the spectrum of emotional personalities on the defense.
If things keep going the way they are for the Eagles, however, that little exchange will end up looking like a good night kiss. It's been a quick ride from the Super Bowl to 2-3 for the Eagles, but they still have the time and the talent (not to mention playing in the right division) to straighten out the season. Soon would be recommended, though.
As they head into a short-week game on Thursday against the snake-bitten Giants, the Eagles defense will be on the spot to finally show up on the road. They have held opponents to an average of just 14.6 points in the three home games – not responsible Sunday for the fumble return touchdown by the Vikings – and have given up an average of 26.5 points in road losses at Tampa Bay and Tennessee.
This is in keeping with their three-season history under coordinator Jim Schwartz, during which they have routinely given up 10 more points per game on the road than at home. Schwartz, aside from citing the obvious crowd difference, isn't sure why that has been the case.
Thursday would be an excellent time to buck the trend. If the Eagles can rebound to even their record against the 1-4 Giants and then enjoy 10 days to prepare for a home game against Carolina, the world will seem like a brighter place. The team can get healthier, the blips in the schemes can be flattened, the confidence can be rebuilt. But a loss to the Giants, heading into a schedule stretch of Carolina, Jacksonville, Dallas and New Orleans, well, that would dim the lights just a little bit.
Despite popular opinion, Jalen Mills is the least of the defense's problems. In fact, he's fine. Cornerbacks get beaten all the time. It happens, but it only happened once to Mills on Sunday. Kirk Cousins completed seven passes in the game that went for 10 yards or more. Five of those went to the left side, where the Vikings were working on cornerback Ronald Darby. Of the two on the right, one was an inside route defended by Avonte Maddox and the other was the stop-and-go that burned Mills. Cousins mostly stayed away from him.
The real problem on the defense right now is that it doesn't have enough players. Subtract tackle Tim Jernigan, safety Rodney McLeod and, on Sunday, defensive end Derek Barnett and tackle Haloti Ngata, and there is trouble.
On the line, the Eagles promoted tackle Treyvon Hester from the practice squad and put him right in there for some snaps. He apparently did so well that the team used its open roster spot Monday to claim T.Y. McGill, who is now with his sixth NFL team in four seasons and has never started a game.
With Barnett injured, they couldn't flop an end into the tackle position as often (seven times in 62 snaps versus the Vikings) and the end rotation still looked gassed near the finish. Following a one-week experiment with Corey Graham starting as the fill-in for McLeod, he was replaced by Maddox, and the rookie played every snap. None of that moving around is good for consistency.
A troubling trait being displayed by the defense is the inability to build on any of the occasional momentum generated by the offense. There have been 16 times this season in which the defense took the field immediately after a score by the offense. On eleven of those ensuing drives, the opponent got at least one first down, usually got out of a field position hole, and, on four of those drives, came right back with a score of its own. That leaves only five drives that ended in three-and-outs, and gave the ball back to the offense to keep things rolling. Not nearly enough, and not the way the defense played a year ago.
But, as you have noticed, this is not a year ago. Back then, there was no shoving of each other on the field, no hard feelings, and only very rarely any need to apologize for anything.