For the first time in his extraordinary Eagles career, Brian Dawkins is being called out. Observers are wondering if Dawkins has lost his game. They watched as the Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw strikes to receivers Dawkins was covering on Monday night, and they raised the question of Dawkins and his future and, yes, his present. It isn't fair, really. Dawkins didn't play a great game in Texas Stadium, but neither did anybody else on defense, and that's what has to turn around immediately: The entire defense, not just one or two or three players.
It was a team effort as the defense gave up chunks of yardage against Dallas' high-powered offense. And it was completely unexpected, entirely unacceptable and absolutely fixable.
"It was one of those games you see sometimes," said head coach Andy Reid on Tuesday afternoon. "You have to learn from it and we will. We have a good defense. We have to keep working at it and we're going to be fine there."
Reid is all about coachspeak at times like these, but he is probably right. A defense that played well last year and that then went out and signed a couple of top free agents and used two of its first three draft picks to add some young depth up front isn't suddenly headed south. Certainly, though, the job the Cowboys did ringing up nearly 400 yards of offense, converting six of 10 third downs and scoring on all three trips inside the red zone raises some alarms.
Dawkins was part of a secondary that was gashed by Terrell Owens in the first half and by Jason Witten in the second half. The Cowboys took a vertical approach to punching holes in the coverage and it worked. Why? The reasons were obvious: The Eagles didn't get enough pressure against Romo. Dallas took out end Trent Cole with Flozell Adams and some help, and nobody else stepped up to help.
So what's the remedy? A couple of things have to change right away. I liked the way the defense attacked Marion Barber and the running game. The defense played downhill and limited Dallas to 68 yards on the ground. That is not an easy chore, either. Barber is a beast, and Felix Jones is a fast, shifty, rising star.
It didn't seem, though, that the Eagles took the same approach against the passing game. Where was the aggression? The blitzes came here and there, but not enough to make Romo run for his life. The Eagles gave up too much to Owens early, took him away in the second half and then allowed Witten to catch big pass after big pass in the second two quarters.
Moving forward, a couple of things have to happen. One, the Eagles must generate more of a consistent pass rush from their front four. Cole is being surrounded. Offenses aren't going to let him get anywhere near one-on-one blocking. So players like Juqua Parker, Darren Howard and Chris Clemons have to step up. Parker has been quiet through two games, while Howard was excellent against St. Louis and then not active enough against Dallas.
The tackles, who have been outstanding against the run, have not given the push needed to take away the step-up ability of the quarterback. That's got to change, and there is no personnel magic wand Jim Johnson can wave to change things drastically. It has to come from the players themselves, or from some blitz alterations Johnson makes in the days ahead.
As for the ends, it's time to ask for more from all of them. Why hasn't Clemons been a part of things? Is he healthy? Is he just not picking up the technique? Is he not good enough to get on the field?
The Eagles may also consider Bryan Smith, who ended his preseason in spectacular fashion. He is still raw around the edges, but Smith has the burst to be a pass rusher. The Eagles may want to fast-track Smith in his developmental process.
Another player to keep in mind is Victor Abiamiri, who may not be too far away to return to the playing field. I don't have a timeframe, or a sense of if my theory is even a tiny bit correct, but I just have a feeling Abiamiri isn't far from being healthy enough to play.
In the meantime, the best thing Johnson can do is urge the Eagles to be more aggressive. They don't want to leave their cornerbacks on an island. No way Johnson wants to get into a game of big plays, but his defense can't allow a quarterback to dictate the terms of a game, as Romo did on Monday.
Next up is Pittsburgh and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. All he has been through two games is nearly perfect. He has a passer rating of 136.3, has completed 76 percent of his passes and has three TD passes and zero interceptions. Pittsburgh's offense has been more ball control and smash mouth than high wire, but we have seen how devastating the Steelers can be when they run, run, run and then throw play-action passes and bury a defense into submission.
The call, then, is to call on the dogs to get the confidence back for this defense. The Eagles were outstanding in the preseason and then they were dominating against the Rams before the struggles of Monday night. One game isn't going to erase the promise this defense has, nor is it going to make for legitimate calls for Dawkins' demise. Dawkins may not be the player he was five years ago, but he still makes plays, helps against the run and is an inspirational, heady aid to the defense.
I'm not saying the performance in Pittsburgh was a mere blip on the radar screen. It wasn't good. Johnson needs to address his group, but he does that after every game, anyway. It is going to get better for the defense because there is simply too much good with this group to think otherwise. The Eagles have some work to do, and nobody knows that more than Johnson.
To make it happen, everyone has to help. Everyone has to play a part. The turnaround starts now with a big game and a different kind of challenge waiting on Sunday when Pittsburgh comes to town.