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December 17, 2017

The defense – and not Nick Foles – is Eagles' biggest concern moving forward

Eagles NFL

The warning signs were there. You could see it in Seattle. And again in Los Angeles.

But when Carson Wentz tore his ACL last week against the Rams, that – and how the team would fare with Nick Foles at quarterback – suddenly became the biggest story heading into the Eagles' Week 15 matchup against the lowly New York Giants. Getting much less attention, but perhaps more worrisome, was a disturbing trend from the defense, one that many hoped would end on Sunday at MetLife Stadium.

However, that's not how it played out. 

Sure, the Eagles, now 12-2 on the season and 5-0 in the NFC East, held on for a 34-29 win, and in doing so, clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs, but the cracks in Jim Schwartz's defense that began to appear over the last few weeks showed no signs of improvement. And, in many cases, they only became more of a cause for concern moving forward.

Foles, on the other hand, proved to be more than capable, throwing four touchdowns (and no interceptions) on the day – even if it came against a Giants team ranked in the bottom five in the league in both scoring and total defense. Furthermore, Foles helped the Birds overcome an early two-touchdown deficit created by the Eagles' struggles on defense. 

And if it wasn't worrisome enough already – after all, the Seahawks have Russell Wilson and the Rams are the only team in the NFL to score more points than the Eagles – their play against the Giants on Sunday, who rank second to last in scoring, should create at least some doubt about how well-equipped this NFC-leading squad is for a deep postseason run. 

Performances like that simply aren't going to be enough to get it done against playoff-quality teams. It certainly wasn't against the Seahawks. And it almost wasn't enough against the Rams, but the margin of error afforded by someone like Wentz is a luxury the Birds no longer have. 

On Sunday, it almost came back to bite them. Almost. 

"Two weeks in a row, for our team to really find a way to – a week ago, play well enough and then come back this week and not really play great, but still find a way to win the game [is nice to see]," head coach Doug Pederson said following the win. "Players made plays all year; they continued to make plays, but [there were] plenty of mistakes to go around that we definitely need to clean up going forward."

While they say a win is a win, if the Eagles play like this in January, they're not going to be winning much of anything. Pederson knows this. And after their win, he made sure his players know it too. 

"I just challenged them," Pederson said of his post-game message to the team. "You can't play like this and win in the postseason, obviously. You can't play like this and win every week. You've got to come prepared you've got to come – when I say prepared, I think from a mental standpoint, that emotion, that sense of urgency, and that dominating swagger that you want to see your team come out with. And that was kind of the message today. I'm happy for the guys; they found a way to win. They hung in there and [we're] 12-2."

Had this been an outlier performance, that would be one thing. But three straight games? That's a trend.

Through their first 11 games, opponents were averaging 17.4 points against the Birds. Over their last three, they've been scoring 29.3 points on average. Yards? After allowing 291.6/game to start the season, they've allowed 373.7 per game in their last three.

And against the Giants, who had been averaging just and 296 yards and 15.3 points per game, the Eagles allowed 504 yards (429 yards* through the air, courtesy of Eli Manning) and 29 points (more had they not blocked a field goal and an extra point).

*That's the second most they've allowed all season behind the 415 yards Manning racked up in Week 3.

They allowed two touchdowns of over 50 yards, including this 67-yard score from Sterling Shepard that featured some truly hideous tackling from the Eagles defense, not all that dissimilar from what we saw against the Rams a week earlier (see: Kupp, Cooper).

More disturbing was their inability to get off the field, as the Giants were 10-for-18 on third down conversions, including 5-for-5 to start the game. After holding opponents to just a 28.6 percent success rate through the first 11 games, they've barely been able to keep that number under 50 percent in their last three. 

Heading into the most important part of the season, the Eagles defense is clearly regressing. Over their last 12 quarters, they allowed nearly as many points (88) as they had in the previous 23 quarters (89).

Still, Pederson isn't worried.

"I'm not concerned," he said. "I mean, these guys understand. They really do. If you're in that dressing room a few minutes ago, the players know. We've got to clean some things up, obviously. We can't have 10 penalties and expect to win too. And then we couldn't get off the field on third down. It's something that we've always been kind of good at on defense. But, no, I'm not concerned."

The question now is two-fold: Why has the defense been struggling, and how do they fix it before the playoffs arrive?

That's only good for partial credit, as it doesn't answer the second, more important part of the question. 

Maybe there's no simple answer. Perhaps the Eagles defense just doesn't match up well against the Giants, although that doesn't explain the penalties and missed tackles. Perhaps the Rams offense is just that good – after all, they put up 42 against the Seahawks on Sunday ... in Seattle.

However the Eagles plan on fixing it, they better do it quickly if they hope to still be playing when the calendar turns to February. Otherwise, they're going to have a tough time winning even one game in January – no matter how well Foles plays.

Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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