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'X plays' burned Eagles all season

PHILADELPHIA -- Eagles owner Jeff Lurie identified three major problems that kept his team out of the playoffs this season.

We’ve looked at turnovers and red zone offense. That leaves, as Lurie put it, “giving up the big play on defense.” Especially late in the season, long pass plays proved to be the Eagles’ undoing.

When asked to name the main reason the Eagles weren’t preparing for a playoff game this week, head coach Chip Kelly did not hesitate.

“I think X plays defensively have a big factor in that,” Kelly said. “If you look at two things, it’s turnovers on offense and X plays on defense.”

“X plays” are plays over 20 yards. The Eagles gave up an astounding 72 pass plays of 20 yards or more. Of those, 18 went 40 yards or more. By comparison, 16 of 32 NFL teams gave up fewer than 50 X plays all season. The Eagles gave up seven more than the Chicago Bears, the next most vulnerable team to the big play.

That is why the first question of Kelly’s season-ending news conference Monday was whether defensive coordinator Bill Davis would be back for a third year. Kelly said Davis would be back, suggesting the problems have more to do with personnel than with scheme or coaching.

“You have to look at the individual thing,” Kelly said. “Did the quarterback have too much time, on that individual one, to throw? Was it a blown coverage? Were we close in coverage, but didn't make the play? There is a lot involved in it. So to just say there is one thing, until you go through the whole thing, there isn't. But X plays are a big deal.”

Safety Malcolm Jenkins signed with the Eagles as a free agent after spending five seasons with the New Orleans Saints. His signing was part of Kelly’s strategy to improve what was the NFL’s worst pass defense in 2013.

“You see teams with all the talent in the world that always seem to beat themselves,” Jenkins said. “That’s one thing that we’ve got to stop this offseason. If we can keep the ball in front of us on defense, and not turn the ball over that much on offense, I think we go from a 10-win team to an elite team.”

There is an opening for the Eagles to make a lot of changes in the secondary in the offseason. Cornerback Bradley Fletcher and safety Nate Allen are due to become free agents. Simply letting them walk would mean two new starters in the secondary.

Cary Williams, the other starting corner, has one season left on his contract at $6.5 million. The Eagles could choose to bring him back, giving them at least one outside cornerback with experience in Davis’ system. Or they could choose to release him and apply his cap money toward one of the free agents available this offseason.

That crop includes (pending contract extensions with current teams) Seattle’s Byron Maxwell, San Francisco’s Perrish Cox and Chris Butler, Arizona’s Antonio Cromartie, Houston’s Kareem Jackson and San Diego’s Brandon Flowers.

The Eagles could also let Brandon Boykin, Jaylen Watkins and Nolan Carroll compete for starting jobs with anyone they bring in.

Signing an elite cornerback would also allow Davis to assign that player to top receivers such as Dez Bryant and Jordy Nelson, who burned the Eagles badly this season. Davis had Fletcher playing on the defensive left and Williams on the right side, regardless of where the opposing receivers lined up.

In Sunday’s season finale against the Giants, Davis changed that. He had Williams follow rookie Odell Beckham Jr. most of the time. Beckham caught 12 passes for 185 yards. So maybe personnel is the problem more than scheme.

Otherwise, the Eagles defense really did improve in other areas. It was solid against the run all season and finished 15th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed. The pass rush was much better. The Eagles sacked opposing quarterbacks 49 times, tied with Baltimore for second in the NFL. Only Buffalo, with 54, had more quarterback sacks.

The pass rush waned late in the season. In the Eagles’ last four games, which included the season-souring three-game losing streak against Seattle, Dallas and Washington, they sacked opposing quarterbacks just seven times. By contrast, the Eagles had eight sacks in their first meeting with the Giants and nine sacks in their win over Carolina this season.

As Kelly said, all parts of the defense are responsible for stopping the pass -- pressure, coverage, tackling. The Eagles were often good in two of those three aspects. It is an area they need to fix.