This Sunday, the Eagles are heading to their fifth NFC Championship Game in eight years. It is a magnificent feat, considering that many thought the Birds would be sitting at home and watching it on television.
This team was left for dead at the midpoint of the season, with some painful losses to the Giants and Ravens and a putrid tie with the Bengals. A loss to the underdog Redskins in Week 16 all but killed the postseason hopes of this year's team.
Much of the credit for this turnaround has to go to Jim Johnson, the Eagles' renowned defensive coordinator. He has had his defensive unit playing championship-caliber football down the stretch and has done a great job coaching and stifling many potent offenses.
Now, what makes a Jim Johnson defense?
1. Creativity and cleverness
Johnson has made his mark in the NFL with aggressive, highly disciplined defenses. His game plans involve frequent blitzing against both the run and the pass, and they keep offenses guessing. Man and zone coverage are also utilized frequently and create many looks for opposing units to analyze.
Johnson builds his packages around the strengths of his personnel and will utilize his players in various ways to benefit the defense. This has led to the uncharacteristic play of many solid QBs and RBs of late, such as Eli Manning and Adrian Peterson, and has actively disrupted the flow of many offenses.
2. Discipline and accountability
Johnson's unit plays with an emphasis on mental discipline, and each player is taught to focus solely on his gap and cover responsibilities. You won't see many offsides or pass interference penalties from this group; they are focused and are taught to perform the fundamentals right with extreme consistency.
Johnson has also been bold in his personnel decisions; he has held every player accountable for his effort on the field. Two examples that come to mind are the benchings of underachievers Omar Gaither and Lito Sheppard. He plays no favorites come Sundays and has made many decisive moves to put the Eagles in a position to win throughout the duration of the season.
3. Trust and preparation
Johnson has been a stellar coordinator in the NFL for almost two decades, and his players have executed his schemes well throughout most of his tenure in the league. Although his game plans are complex, his units have had a lot of confidence in their efficiency.
Johnson has the same type of confidence in the athletic abilities of his players and at times will adapt his schemes to marry their talents. He preaches unity among all 11 men on the field and has them currently playing like a team, instead of as individuals.
No matter what circumstances occur, Johnson always has his team focused on the task at hand and fired up to play. Even when the Eagles have been blown out, or when the offense has not played well, the unit keeps a strong focus on winning and playing to the final second on the clock.
Arguably the most dominating trait of any elite defense, this quality is stressed by Jim Johnson every day on the football field. Rarely will you find a bad tackler or any ounce of non-aggression from this group; they are extremely well coached and are taught to play at full speed until the whistle.
The menacing front seven can wear down opposing lines and backs, and the secondary is required to play a large role in run support and be physical in coverage. Very few, if any, long runs or pass plays have been broken on this defense. The killer instinct mentality of this group has kept the Eagles in about every game this season.
As I mentioned above, Johnson always has his unit excited to play, and they have played with great heart and determination this year. Even early in the season, when the group struggled at times due to youth and inexperience, he never lost his cool. Johnson remained as patient as ever, helping them learn from their mistakes and growing them into a dominant force.
The defense has never looked passionless; they leave it all on the field and play hungry every week. Johnson has acted as an excellent motivator and fuels their fire for winning with many tactics and great coaching.
The play of this defense is a significant reason why this team is only two games away from a Super Bowl championship, and Jim Johnson has done a uniformly excellent job from top to bottom. His wise personnel decisions, intelligent schemes, motivational tactics, emphasis on detail, and disciplined approach have helped build a thoroughly terrific defensive unit, which can hopefully lead the Eagles to their first Super Bowl championship.
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