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Spadaro: Defense needs improvements before next game

The Eagles have a problem, and it needs to be fixed immediately. The defense is losing in the passing game.

By Dave Spadaro

When it happened once, as Ryan Fitzpatrick tore apart the Eagles defense for four touchdowns and 402 passing yards in Week 2, it was OK to chalk it up to “one of those days.” But after the Eagles lost on Sunday in Tennessee to an offense ranked near the bottom of every NFL statistical category through three weeks, “one of those days” just wasn’t good enough.

The Eagles have a problem, and it needs to be fixed immediately. The defense is losing in the passing game.

“We aren’t getting off the field when we need to and that’s something that has to improve,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said after a 26–23 overtime loss to the Titans that dropped the Eagles to 2–2 at the quarter pole of the 2018 regular season. “We have some things to fix. We know that. I think every season is a work in progress, and this is no exception.”

The Eagles were dominating in the season-opening win against Atlanta at Lincoln Financial Field, but a closer examination shows that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan passed for 251 yards and guided Atlanta’s offense inside Philadelphia’s red zone five times, scoring just one touchdown. The Falcons had their chances.

In Week 2, Tampa Bay’s Fitzpatrick had his way with the Eagles defense as the Bucs big-played their way to a 27–21 victory. A first-play, 75-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver DeSean Jackson set the tone, and Tampa Bay never looked back. A week later, the Eagles held off Indianapolis with the help of another dominating red-zone performance, but the Colts were right there on the doorstep. They were one score away from pulling off a major upset.

On Sunday in Nashville, the Eagles couldn’t hold a 17–3 lead, and then came back with a last-minute field goal to force overtime and then couldn’t get off the field on three fourth-down plays as the Titans sprung a 26–23 upset. Marcus Mariota, a quarterback who for three weeks couldn’t feel his fingers and rarely threw the ball down the field, torched the Eagles for 344 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including one on a third-and-goal throw in overtime to win it.

So here we are, and the Eagles need answers on defense. Quarterbacks are throwing at cornerback Jalen Mills liberally, taking shots down the middle of the field with safety Rodney McLeod on Injured Reserve and likely lost for the season after knee surgery. Yes, the Eagles are the best in the league against the run, but that carries you only so far when the pass defense is so porous.

“It’s our job to put teams away and we have to get back to doing that,” defensive end Brandon Graham said. “We have to have that killer instinct. We can’t let games slip away.”

What are the options? Mills is in the crosshairs and he’s clearly struggling. The Eagles invested a third-round draft pick last year in Rasul Douglas, who is playing sparingly. Rookie Avante Maddox could take reps as the nickel cornerback inside and coordinator Jim Schwartz could try second-year man Sidney Jones outside, but that would constitute a secondary overhaul that is hard to pull together in the middle of the season.

Sunday’s test is Minnesota and its potent passing game. Quarterback Kirk Cousins is going to get the ball out of his hands to a group of talented receivers.

Is this the make-or-break game for an Eagles secondary that is nearing the tipping point? The Eagles need answers on defense, and they need them soon. No longer is this season in the “early stages.” Answers are needed for a defense that has shown its vulnerability against the pass, and that’s a serious concern. ••

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