Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
15 Dec 2004
By Michael David Smith
Jim Johnson has been the defensive coordinator in Philadelphia since 1999, when Andy Reid became the head coach, and it's hard to argue with their success. With Reid running the offense and Johnson running the defense, the Eagles made the playoffs each of the past four years and seem about as close as any NFL team can get to being a sure thing to get into the Super Bowl this year. What's more, fans and commentators respect Johnson because he disdains the safe, laid-back defenses that so many teams run and instead favors a blitzing, aggressive approach. What's not to love?
The problem is that the Eagles, who have been so good in so many facets of the game, have been mediocre at stopping the run this year. I watched the Eagles' defense on every play of their 17-14 win against the Eagles Sunday night, and although they held Clinton Portis to 80 yards on 23 carries, I saw some things that ought to concern Eagles fans.
After Ladell Betts returned the opening kickoff 70 yards and had a 15-yard penalty tacked on at the end, the Redskins had first-and-goal on their first play. But the Redskins' line didn't seem to block the way Portis thought it would, and he hesitated. At that point, you'd expect a top rushing defense to swarm to the ballcarrier and tackle him behind the line of scrimmage. But the Eagles seemed to wait passively for Portis to get to them, and he gained two yards. On the next play, Portis ran to the left, directly into the path of the Eagles' defensive end, Jevon Kearse. Redskins left tackle Chris Samuels had no trouble pushing Kearse inside as Portis ran into the end zone on the outside. Kearse seemed to think he was being held, gesturing wildly at the officials, but it wasn't a hold; it was just a dominating block. Linebacker Mark Simoneau tried to fill the hole created by Samuels' block of Kearse and didn't come close; he missed Portis by several yards.
Philly's best run defender Sunday night was Jeremiah Trotter, the middle linebacker who entered the starting lineup halfway through this season to address the run-stopping deficiencies on defense. At 262 pounds, Trotter would seem to fit the bill of the linebacker who stuffs runs to the middle but doesn't do anything outside, but actually I was very impressed by his pursuit. On a 13-yard run by Portis, Trotter hustled to the outside to make a tackle that might have gone for a touchdown otherwise. He also got into the backfield in a hurry on one play to tackle Portis for a loss. Trotter has a history of knee injuries, but he moved around quite nicely on Sunday.
On a nine-yard run by Portis in the fourth quarter, Brian Dawkins similarly pursued to the outside and made a touchdown-saving tackle. Dawkins' presence makes the front seven look better than it is. His ability to come up in run support prevents opposing teams from breaking long runs. Both Dawkins and Trotter impressed me (I even started wonder if Dawkins, and not Ed Reed, is the NFL's best safety), but if your middle linebacker is making tackles on the outside, and your safety is preventing touchdowns, there are problems up front.
(Interestingly, Dawkins and Trotter also illustrate why the Eagles' front office is so successful. When he wanted more money than the Eagles thought he was worth, they let Trotter go off to Washington for two years, only to sign him to a much more reasonable deal this year. On the flipside, the Eagles have always known Dawkins was an important part of their defense, so he's on his third contract with Philly.)
Portis's second touchdown Sunday, a two-yard plunge in the fourth quarter, nicely illustrated the Eagles' problems. Redskins tight end Robert Royal absolutely buried Eagles linebacker Ike Reese. Left tackle Chris Samuels and left guard Derrick Dockery knocked defensive end Hugh Douglas and defensive tackle Darwin Walker back into the end zone. If that's the way the Eagles perform in a goal-line stand, they could be in serious trouble in January. (And that wasn't the only time Dockery overpowered Walker. I wouldn't want to be Walker during film session.)
Part of the Eagles' problem up front is injuries. Defensive end N.D. Kalu has missed the whole season; ends Derrick Burgess and Jerome McDougle didn't play at all Sunday. Corey Simon and Hollis Thomas both suffered injuries during the game -- Thomas may now be out for the entire playoffs -- and Kearse was in and out of the lineup, as he always seems to be.
But I think an equally important problem for the Eagles is their lack of size. For instance, I enjoyed watching the hustle of linebacker Keith Adams, but at 5-foot-11 and 223 pounds, I just don't think he's big enough to be an NFL linebacker. Walker weighs 294, pretty small for a tackle, especially one who does so little to fight off blockers. At 6-foot-4 and a wiry 265, Kearse is very good in pursuit but can be beaten by teams that run directly at him. And 211-pounder Michael "Moneyball" Lewis isn't small for a safety, but he sure plays like it: He simply jumped on Portis's back and went for a ride on one play. Johnson likes speed on his defense, but give me a lumbering Grady Jackson over his current linemen any day.
Two players who looked surprisingly good against the run were tackle Sam Rayburn and cornerback Sheldon Brown. Rayburn doesn't make spectacular plays the way Kearse does, but he's their most dependable run-stopping lineman, and he's not bad in passing situations. In Johnson's defensive scheme, the Eagles' corners usually line up about six yards off the line of scrimmage, and Brown looked very quick in closing to the ball on running plays. Before the season I thought cornerback would be the Eagles' weakness, but I really like Brown's aggressiveness. At the same time, I think a team that runs the play action well could have a lot of success against Philadelphia because the secondary seems to play a big part in run support.
Is it just nitpicking to find flaws like these on a team that has dominated its conference all year? I don't think so. As good as the Eagles have been this year, they could struggle against Shaun Alexander if the Seahawks come to town, or Ahman Green if the Packers come to town. The Eagles are the class of the NFC, but if they face the wrong running back at the wrong time, they could be in trouble.
Each week, Michael David Smith looks at one specific player or one aspect of a team on every single play of the previous game. Standard caveat applies: Yes, one game is not necessarily an indicator of performance over the entire season. If you have a player or a unit you would like tracked in Every Play Counts, suggest it by emailing mike-at-footballoutsiders.com.