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Eagles' special teams coverage units struggling without Chris Maragos

Without their leader, the Eagles' coverage units have given up point-producing returns in each of the last three games. They'll face a tough challenge Sunday in Seattle.

Philadelphia Eagles special teams captain Chris Maragos tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the Eagles’ Week 6 win over Carolina and is out for the season.
Philadelphia Eagles special teams captain Chris Maragos tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the Eagles’ Week 6 win over Carolina and is out for the season.Read moreDavid Maialetti/Staff Photographer

One of the outcomes of success is that the bar is set a little higher for you going forward than other people.

DeShone Kizer throws a couple of interceptions and it's just another day at the office in Cleveland. Tom Brady throws a couple of interceptions and everyone in New England starts wondering whether the end is near for the 40-year-old quarterback.

Which brings us to the Eagles' coverage units.

As you probably are aware, Dave Fipp's special teams have been really, really good. They've been ranked No. 1 in the league two of the last three years. Finished fifth the other year, which isn't bad, either.

Despite a pair of significant early injuries — kicker Caleb Sturgis injured his hip in Week1 and Pro Bowl punt returner Darren Sproles suffered season-ending knee and arm injuries in Week 3 — things were going pretty well this season.

Rookie Jake Elliott, who was signed off of the Cincinnati Bengals' practice squad to replace Sturgis, has been terrific, converting 18 of 22 field goals, including 11 of 13 from 45-plus yards.

And Sproles' replacement, Kenjon Barner, also is doing a bang-up job. He's fourth in the league in punt returns, averaging 11.8 yards per attempt.

The loss that the Eagles are having a little more difficulty overcoming, though, is special teams captain Chris Maragos. Maragos tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the Eagles' Week 6 win over Carolina and is out for the season.

It's not an understatement to say that Maragos is to the Eagles' special teams what Carson Wentz is to the offense. OK, maybe a little, but not much.

"Chris is extremely valuable,'' said tight end Trey Burton, another key special teams member.

"It was huge losing him,'' linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, who leads the Eagles in special teams tackles, said. "It's how the business goes.

"But having him there was big. Not just his leadership role, but that specific spot [he played]. Finding a player like him that can handle that spot is hard.''

Without Maragos, the Eagles have had three uncharacteristic coverage breakdowns in their last three games.

They gave up a 46-yard punt return to the Broncos' Isaiah McKenzie in Week 9 right before the bye, then gave up a 61-yard kickoff return to the Cowboys' Ryan Switzer in Week 11, and lastly, a 39-yard kickoff return to the Bears' Tarik Cohen last week.

The good news is none of those breakdowns were costly, unless you count the concussion Elliott suffered trying to tackle Switzer, which he most certainly does.

The defense held all three teams to field goals after those returns and the Eagles lived happily ever after, beating all three teams by an identical 28 points.

But the Eagles aren't going to beat every team they play this season by 28 points. There are going to be some close games, some games where giving up a long return could be fatal. Maybe in the playoffs.

"We're definitely not happy with how we're playing on some of our coverage units,'' Grugier-Hill said. "We've given up some things. We pick up some things, but then, while we're picking up one coverage unit, another is falling off.''

"It's something we've got to continue to work on,'' Burton said. "We don't have our leader out there. So a lot of [other] guys are having to play and step up and play bigger roles.

"And we have a bunch of young guys. I don't think we have more than two guys who have played a lot of special teams for us. So those [young] guys have to continue to grow and continue to become the best players they can be.''

The Eagles have a 54.3 touchback percentage on kickoffs this season. That's the eighth lowest mark in the league.

That's not so much because Elliott doesn't have the leg to kick it out of the end zone, as it is a preference by Fipp to go with shorter kicks with more hang time and pin teams down in their own end of the field.

"If you have a group of guys who want to go down there and cover it, I'd much rather have them go down and cover it,'' Fipp said recently.

"They definitely expressed their desire to want to cover the kicks. At the end of day, my job is to make sure I put our football team in the best situation to win a game.

"If I think it makes sense to do it [have the kicker kick a returnable ball], and they want to do it, all the better. If I don't think it makes sense, then I won't.''

Last year, Sturgis' touchback percentage on kickoffs (55.4) wasn't much higher than Elliott's this year. Yet, the Eagles finished first in the league in opponent average drive start on kickoffs (22.7 yard line). This year, they're 24th (25.3).

"A lot of guys who haven't covered that many kicks are having to play a lot,'' Burton said. "Everybody has to continue to study film and learn from their mistakes. Fortunately, we have a great defense that has been able to get us out of those tough situations.''

The Eagles' coverage units will face another tough challenge this week from the Seahawks' Tyler Lockett. Lockett is fifth in the league in kickoff return average (25.9). He also returns punts for them.

"Anytime you have a really good kick returner, it has to do with the whole unit,'' Burton said. "Not just one guy is going to beat you in anything. He's good. I'm not trying to take anything away from him.

"But they do a good job. They play hard. They play through the whistle [where] a lot of teams kind of give up if it doesn't look good.

"And they're aggressive. They're in attack mode a lot. He's in attack mode. He'll take the ball out from deep [in the end zone] on kickoffs. He'll return every punt. He's not going to fair-catch a lot of them. They play with a lot of swagger. We have to be ready.''

Because this won't be a 28-point game.