SHROUDED BY THE angst over Andy Reid's playcalling and Donovan McNabb's grasp of the rules, the Eagles' defense went back to work this week, seeking to unlock what may be the greatest mystery of all surrounding this season.

Namely, why don't they have more interceptions?

The Eagles' secondary, which includes three players who have played in at least one Pro Bowl and one (Sheldon Brown) who should have by now, has nine interceptions this season. The Giants have 14, the Titans have 15, the Packers have 16. None of these teams went out and signed themselves a free-agent cornerback in the offseason, a player known for big interceptions and big plays and one humongous drop in last year's Super Bowl, which would have assured his New England Patriots team of a fourth world championship.

Asante Samuel has three interceptions this season. He has dropped or just missed at least twice as many, including a couple in Sunday's 13-13 tie with the Bengals. Balls wobbled in the air, Cincinnati quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick gave away targets with his eyes all game long, but not one of his 44 passing attempts was picked by an Eagles' defensive backfield that was supposed to be the envy of the land this season.

"It's amazing," defensive coordinator Jim Johnson was saying yesterday. "We drill turnovers . . . "

Yes they do. More and more each week, it would seem. The Jugs machine fires balls at them as they run to, from and laterally. This week, they have added large pads to simulate a receiver, forcing the defensive back to position in front of the pad in time to pick the ball off.

So, far, the results have been negligible. And Samuel, who had 16 interceptions in his final two seasons with New England, is the poster child. Of his interceptions this season, none has come in the last 2 weeks.

"Here's a guy who has great hands," said Johnson. "He's got great break on the ball. And he had two chances, or maybe almost three, for interceptions."

Samuel's struggles are not isolated. He is not the only Eagles defensive back with a bad case of the yips this season. He's barely even - pardon the expression - a carrier. Quintin Mikell has two. Lito Sheppard, whose opportunity has diminished with Samuel's arrival, has one.

Sheldon Brown and Brian Dawkins do not have one.

But Samuel, because of the risk-taking nature of how he plays, has stood out in his drops so far. He may be trying too hard to prove he was worth the 6-year, $57 million free-agent contract he signed last March. Or maybe he's not quite as fast as he once was. "Guys are breaking on the ball, knocking balls down," said Johnson. "We're just not quite getting interceptions. I wish I had the answer for that, but I don't."

Here's a partial theory: The Eagles have been in too many close games this season for the defensive backs to play their aggressive best. Since their opening-game, 38-3 romp over the St. Louis Rams, they have played in six games where the margin between them and their opponents was under 10.

Five of those were decided by less than a touchdown.

"You feel like you can't really anticipate and take a chance," said Brown. "Because you feel like you can't give up a play. You have to play it honest. A lot of it is anticipating and jumping routes.

"When you get a lead, you can anticipate some things and force teams to have to throw the ball more. When you can't force some of those issues, it gets a little harder to get them."

Said Johnson: "The thing I'm disappointed in a little bit, is we don't have many linebacker interceptions or tipped balls, or stuff like that."

That's not likely to change this Sunday, either, with 6-6 rookie quarterback Joe Flacco directing Baltimore's offense. "I'm not sure our hands are long enough," Johnson said with a wry smile. "Or our arms. He hasn't had many batted balls."

That means the focus will once again be on the other end of the pass, on what those defensive backs can do once the ball clears the line of scrimmage. A few more picks this season, and maybe some of those close losses end up as wins.

A few more picks, and this past week might have gone a lot smoother for the coach and his quarterback.

"All we can do is emphasize it," Johnson said. "We work on a lot of drills, we talk about it in practice and we practice it in practice with our team getting hands on the balls. That's all you can do."

Well, until the ball is thrown near you.

Then you can catch it. *

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