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Eagles' backups want more time on the field

geoff mosher csnphilly

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Posted 29 November 2012 - 03:42 PM


Eagles' backups want more time on the field

November 29, 2012, 7:00 am

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David Sims observes from up close what the diehard Eagles fan sees every game. From the sideline Sims sees repeatedly blown assignments in the secondary, bad tackle angles and the rising number of big strikes downfield made against his teammates.

He also sees head coach Andy Reid trot out the same 11 guys each week responsible for the team’s 24th-ranked scoring defense, and he wonders why he and some other young backups have to keep watching from the sideline.

“I feel like I could bring a playmaking ability when I get a chance,” he said. “I had a pass breakup in the Saints game, a tackle for a loss in the backfield when I blitzed. I’ve always been known as a playmaker, an explosive playmaker on the defense. I just want to show that I could do that in the game, a full game.”

But he won’t get that chance Sunday against the Cowboys, even with the Eagles riding a seven-game losing streak and all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, even after the team made an example of Jason Babin this week by releasing the underperforming Pro Bowl defensive end.

Neither will backup cornerbacks Curtis Marsh and Brandon Hughes, backup linebacker Casey Matthews or backup defensive tackle Cedric Thornton.

Marsh and Hughes will be lucky to get a few snaps unless an injury to Nnamdi Asomugha or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie forces them onto the field, or unless the Eagles play more dime packages than usual.

Thornton sees playing time in the defensive tackle rotation, but his snaps have decreased as veteran Mike Patterson has worked back into a more prominent role. Matthews, who’s stuck behind Akeem Jordan on the weak side, won’t see any defensive snaps unless the Eagles bring out their bigger nickel package.

A strong argument can be made for benching or a reducing the roles of Asomugha, Rodgers-Cromartie, Jordan, safeties Kurt Coleman and Nate Allen and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins to give younger, hungrier backups their crack at reversing the team’s fortunes.

But Reid seems intent on sticking with status quo.

“We’ve evaluated that,” Reid said. “We’ve looked at that. We think that right now -- and I’m saying this right now -- we’re still early off in this game. But that’s not where we’re going.”

Early off? The Eagles have five games left and probably wouldn’t make the postseason if they ran the table. They’ve made the same bonehead mistakes week after week.

The message in sticking with his current starters would seem to be that the backups wouldn’t fare any better or that their futures in the organization aren’t as promising as they once were.

Draft picks are supposed to be the building blocks of the organization. If Marsh and Matthews can’t get on the field, if Thornton can’t get more snaps, what does that say about team’s evaluation of these prospects and the ability of the coaches to maximize their potentials?

“I’ve never sat this long. I’m an NFL player, so every team I had ever been on I played,” Marsh, in his third season, said. “I’m not used to this, last year and this year. I had high hopes before I got drafted and I still do.

“But I feel like the only way I can continue to get better is to get into a game. I feel like I’ve done everything possible. That’s with a lot of NFL players. Once you get to this level the only way you take your game to the next level is to actually play, and you’ve got to get out there.”

The topic is sensitive because it essentially entails backups throwing their teammates under the bus, so it’s important to read the tea leaves of their responses.

Asked if he could help resolve some of the secondary’s more persistent and glaring problems by by getting onto the field more, Hughes hesitated before responding.

“I’m not going to answer that,” he said. “It’s one of those things where if I get an opportunity I would like to be able to prove myself [to be] capable of playing in this league at corner.”

The Eagles drafted Marsh out of Utah State in 2010 in the third round, a draft pick high enough to expect that Marsh should eventually be given the chance to prove if he can or can’t play.

Midway through his college career he converted from running back to cornerback, so he anticipated that his first NFL year would be similar to a college redshirt season. And when the Eagles traded for Rodgers-Cromartie and signed Asomugha last offseason to pair with Asante Samuel -- three corners who had each made the Pro Bowl -- Marsh understood the situation.

But even though Samuel was traded in the offseason and Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie have struggled this season, Marsh is still waiting for the nod.

“I was disappointed that I didn’t get to play as much last year but I understood the situation,” he said. “This year, I felt like I had really good camp, more solid, and the preseason I felt like was way sharper than the previous preseason. So I felt really good about those and I felt like I’ve been getting better and I’m just waiting for an opportunity.”

Safety has been a weakness for the Eagles for years, but never more than this season. Allen, a second-round pick from 2010, doesn’t consistently make enough plays and Coleman, a seventh-rounder from 2010, has been exposed frequently against the run and in coverage. The more Coleman plays, the more it seems obvious that he’s overmatched.

Both safeties were benched on separate occasions last year, but Reid, for some reason, is reluctant to pull the trigger this time.

The implication would seem to be that he lacks faith in Sims, who picked off a few passes for Cleveland in the preseason to catch the Eagles’ attention and then held his own in an emergency first NFL start against the Saints on Nov. 5, making eight tackles in place of an injured Allen.

“It bothers me because I have family and friends that are wondering what’s going on,” Sims said. “But I can only do so much, just play my position.”

Sims said he thought “a while ago” that Reid would have called his number. “But, you know, I’m just sitting and waiting,” he added. “I can only do my part.”

Reactions from backups varied, some more frustrated than others, some bordering on anger and confusion.

Hughes, in his second season on the 53-man roster after being signed in 2010 off the Giants’ practice squad, isn’t reading too deeply into Reid’s decision to go with his usual starters.

Hughes had some breakdowns in a loss against the Lions when he was forced into a more prominent role on the defense, but he’s not convinced that Reid’s reluctance to play him reflects lost faith.

“If they didn’t believe in me, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “I believe that in my heart. If I wasn’t bringing something to the table, I wouldn’t be here. Naturally, you want to be greedy and you want more. Believe me, I want more. But I know the business side of the things.”

Matthews, a fourth-round pick in 2011, who actually started last year’s season opener at middle linebacker, never should have started so early last year. He wasn’t ready and was clearly overwhelmed as the coaches quickly moved him to the weak side before yanking him out of the lineup altogether just three weeks into the season.

This summer, he came back bigger and stronger and with a firmer grasp on the defense. He practices mostly at backup middle linebacker behind DeMeco Ryans, one of the few guys who doesn’t deserve to be benched, but he could easily supplant Jordan on the weak side if the coaches wanted to measure his progress and evaluate his future.

“Yeah, obviously it’s frustrating when you’re not in,” he said. “I think I could bring something.”

Maybe the coaches aren’t sold on him and don’t believe he’s any more part of the team’s future than Jordan, a sixth-year veteran who wasn’t drafted and has been in and out of the starting lineup frequently during his career.

“I don’t think their opinion or my future has changed,” Matthews said. “Obviously, no one will really say. In the NFL, that’s how it really works. If it has changed I don’t think I would be here. I don’t know what to tell you.”

E-mail Geoff Mosher at gmosher@comcastsportsnet.com