The Philadelphia Eagles have a new identity lately—one of a feared defensive team.
This is not to suggest that longtime Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson hasn't assembled some incredible defensive units throughout his tenure, or that suddenly he is more genius than in previous years. He is arguably the best defensive coordinator in the NFL, and has been for quite sometime.
It's just that when you have exciting offensive play-makers like Donovan McNabb and Brian Westbrook on your team, there is a tendency to take the defense for granted. Defense is viewed by most who watch the game like insurance; when things are going well, who needs it, but when things go wrong, it's the most important thing you can have.
Looking back through previous rosters in the Jim Johnson era, there is a long list of big name defensive players: Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, and Brian Dawkins just to name a few.
And this season is no exception.
There is, however, something different about the defense this year. When the Eagles are forced to punt, I actually look forward the 'opportunity' that the defense has been given. Instead of generating frustration, the Eagles inconsistent offense has really given the defense a chance to stand in the spotlight.
And they have delivered.
The biggest difference is the ability to stop the run, which has been one of the biggest weaknesses with previous Eagle teams. This season the Eagles held opponents under 100 rushing yards per game (92.2) for the first time in any of their previous playoff runs. And when they are able stifle their opponents running game, the secondary takes care of business.
Two of the Eagles' run-stopping stars this season have been defensive tackles Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley. The Eagles have long been criticized for using first round picks to draft defensive players, and it was no different with these two selections.
Patterson was the 31st pick overall in the 2005 draft and Bunkley was taken 14th in 2006. The majority view in Philadelphia has been that the team should have traded up to get Donovan McNabb some much needed receiving help that they really only had with Terrell Owens in 2004.
Looking back, I can only imagine what the team would currently look like had they reached for a receiver. There are not many star wide-outs from those drafts (at least who merit first round consideration), and Patterson and Bunkley have been fantastic.
After a disappointing rookie campaign, Bunkley was able to turn around critics and really come into his own this season with 30 tackles and three sacks. There is no question that both are major contributors to the improved run defense of the past two years.
Andy Reid has had many calling for him to give up General Manager duties with the team, yet he has come up big recently with studs like Trent Cole, Bunkley and Patterson.
The Eagles run defense faces their biggest challenge yet this weekend against the New York Giants, the NFL's top rushing team. The Giants have a formidable trio in Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw (nicknamed Earth, Wind and Fire by Derrick Ward).
The trio amassed 2,469 yards this season, with both Jacobs and Ward reaching the 1000-yard plateau—only the fifth time two teammates have accomplished that feat. Their 1-2-3 punch is an amazing change of pace that most teams have trouble containing.
In the Eagles' first meeting with the Giants back in November, the Giants won 36-31 and rushed for a combined 219 yards. Brandon Jacobs was overwhelming on several plays, often carrying what seemed like half the Eagles team on his back to gain a few additional yards.
In their second meeting last month, the Eagles easily beat the Giants 20-14 in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the score might indicate. The Giants scored their first points on a blocked field goal as time expired in the first half, and scored a late game touchdown when the Eagles secondary were playing soft and only defending against a big play.
The Eagles held the Giants to 88 yards in that game, and Jacobs was a non-factor. He left the game with a knee injury in the third quarter, and missed two of his next three games. Jacobs did return to practice this week on a limited basis and is fully expected to play this weekend, but how effective he will be remains to be seen.
One other major difference with the Giants team that the Eagles beat in early December was the lack of Eli Manning’s' favorite target, Plaxico Burress. The game was played in the week that followed Burress' accidental self-shooting, which led to his ultimate season-ending suspension from the Giants.
The Giants dismissed the notion that Burress was a distraction that contributed to the loss, but the lack of his presence on the field has to be a concern for Eli Manning and the team at this point.
Although the Giants won the most important of their final four regular season games (beating Carolina in OT 34-28 to lock up home field advantage), they lost the other three and have not at all looked like the team that started the season 11-1.
The Eagles, on the other hand, have won five of their last six games, and look nothing like the team that lost three in a row, which resulted in the much-debated benching of Donovan McNabb. McNabb is a big part of the offensive resurgence, looking precise when he has needed to be, and helping the Eagles improve on the third down/short yardage problems that plagued them throughout the year.
If the Eagles are to beat the Giants and move any further in the playoffs, the offense is going to have to contribute a bit more. The Eagles won a game of field position against the Vikings, and held Adrian Peterson in check, which was more than enough to beat Minnesota on Sunday.
The Vikings made too many mistakes, and although they were able to force a few McNabb turnovers and hold Brian Westbrook to 38 rushing yards, they were not able to capitalize.
The Eagles will need to convert on a few more red zone opportunities and do a better job protecting the football.
Andy Reid also needs to continue running the ball, even when the running game isn't there. Westbrook proved once again this week that it only takes one play to catch the defense snoozing and break free for a big play. For all the talk during the telecast of Adrian Petersons' 'Big Play Ability', Westbrook proved to be the biggest play-maker.
Based on what I have seen with this Eagles team over the past six weeks and their ability to improve and patch-up the problem areas from one week to the next, there is nothing to suggest they can't keep winning.
Hopefully next week will mark the return of the 'Earth, Wind, and Fire' moniker to its rightful owner.