Eagles facing early crossroad in title defense

Are Cowboys a threat to Eagles in NFC East? (1:21)

Max Kellerman and Will Cain get heated about whether the Cowboys pose a threat in the NFC East to the Eagles, while Stephen A. Smith enjoys the show. (1:21)

PHILADELPHIA -- The 2018 Philadelphia Eagles find themselves at an early crossroad.

The dreamlike state that fell upon this city following the first Super Bowl championship in team history has been replaced by the harsh reality of a new season in which nothing is guaranteed and everyone is coming for the crown.

Coach Doug Pederson warned as much, even pushing the mantra “Embrace the Target” beginning early this offseason to drill home that they are going to get their opponent’s best shot week after week.

That theory has largely held up through four games. The Eagles haven’t always been ready for it, or maybe equipped to handle it, and sit at 2-2 as a result. Next up is a desperate Minnesota Vikings team with revenge on their mind following the 38-7 pummeling in Philly in the NFC Championship Game.

“First of all, we have to understand that we are champions, and you have to play, you're expected to play a certain way,” Pederson said. “When you don't live up to that expectation, we need to just zero down on it and figure out why. The sense of urgency from players and coaches needs to heighten just a little bit. It's not a panic mode, but it's a heightened awareness of who we are as a football team, where we want to get to.”

Right now, the Eagles are a .500 football team with an offense that ranks 26th in points per game (20.5) and third in penalty yards (343). The offensive line, touted as one of the best in the sport, has been leaky at times and was partly responsible for the 11 hits and four sacks Carson Wentz absorbed last week in an overtime loss to the Tennessee Titans. The defense has been unreliable on the road and is coming off a performance in which it allowed three fourth-down conversions on a single drive in overtime.

Injuries are piling up. The loss of safety Rodney McLeod (knee surgery) arguably cost them the Titans game (his replacement, Corey Graham, was out of position on the defining fourth-and-15 conversion) and leaves them vulnerable on the back end. He is the fourth Eagles player to hit injured reserve this season, joining wide receivers Mike Wallace and Mack Hollins and tight end Richard Rodgers. Jay Ajayi has a fracture in his back, and his running mates, Darren Sproles and Corey Clement, haven’t been able to stay on the field consistently.

Add the fact that Wentz (ACL/LC), defensive end Brandon Graham (ankle) and receiver Alshon Jeffery (shoulder) are just getting back onto the field/rounding into form, and you can see where some of the issues are stemming from.

On the bright side, some of those key players such as Wentz and Jeffery are now back in the fold, and with the arrow pointing up. That’s the way right tackle Lane Johnson chose to look at it while discussing the state of the team on Tuesday.

“We’re starting to get everybody back,” he said. “It was only Carson’s second game. We’re getting Jordan Matthews back, getting Alshon Jeffery back, so it takes time for a cohesive group to get back into a rhythm. Sometimes it’s not pretty, and that’s the way it is.

“Around here, we expect to win, the people demand us to win, and when we don’t we have to go back in the mirror and look at ourselves.”

Long playoff runs come at a price. Surgeries are delayed, as they were with Jeffery and Graham. Injuries have less time to heal, and minds have less time to refresh. Opposing teams become hyperaware of what you’re doing, and they dig hard into the tape to figure you out. Every game is a measuring stick game for the team you’re playing.

The Eagles are dealing with all of that, all at once. And there isn’t much give in a schedule that still includes tilts against the New Orleans Saints, Jacksonville Jaguars and Los Angeles Rams.

The champs are being tested, and it might be exactly what they need.

“I’ve been here six years. Usually when stuff is not going good, that’s when we probably get the most motivated, and that’s when you can learn the most about yourself and about your team,” Johnson said. “It’s easy to be humble and excited when things are going good. I think it really identifies the character you have, your teammates have when things aren’t going good to see if we can get it back on track.”