Philadelphia Eagles increasingly turning to defense

Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel celebrates after picking off Giants quarterback Eli Manning on Sunday.

Associated Press

Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel celebrates after picking off Giants quarterback Eli Manning on Sunday.

PHILADELPHIA — The mere mention of the Eagles conjures images of quarterback Donovan McNabb throwing on the run or running back Brian Westbrook leaving opponents grasping at air.

Coach Andy Reid's background and his significant influence on the offense only perpetuate the notion that his team is a one-sided ball club.

But watch the Eagles closely and maybe you will find they aren't who you think they are. It's apparent this late-season surge is as much a result of dominant defense as anything else.

The fact is so unavoidable that even the man pulling the offensive strings can't ignore it.

"People say every once in a while that I like to throw the ball around and coach on the offensive side," Reid said. "I know that you win games on defense and (by) mashing the football. If you don't play good defense, you're going to struggle."

This isn't a trend that just emerged during the Eagles' current 6-1 stretch. The team finished the regular season No. 3 in total defense behind two other units that are still playing: the Steelers and Ravens.

Those AFC clubs often dominate the conversation when it turns to the league's best defenses. But the Eagles are making a compelling case for themselves, just in time to face the high-flying Cardinals offense in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.

If anyone has the personnel to match up with Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner and his sidekicks — especially All-Pro receiver Larry Fitzgerald — it's the Eagles.

The secondary is loaded. Cornerback Asante Samuel has an interception in each of the team's two postseason games. Safety Quintin Mikell was named second-team All-Pro last week. Even 35-year-old Brian Dawkins, in his 13th season, continues to make plays, recording 10 tackles against the Giants.

The front seven is no less fearsome, as evidenced by Sunday's consecutive fourth-down stops that left the Giants dejected and fueled Philadelphia's win.

"We set out to do what we've been doing from the beginning of the season: Be a defense that doesn't give up a lot of big plays (and) be a defense that gets stops," Dawkins said.

Can they do that against an offense that has thrown for 500 yards in two postseason games and suddenly has found a running game?

"They're playing awfully good right now," Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said. "I know one thing: If Kurt Warner has time, he's as good as anybody."

Said cornerback Sheldon Brown: "Larry Fitzgerald is playing phenomenal right now. They're running the football very well, too. It's going to be a tough football game. They believe in their ability and their passing game."

It's easy to point to the Eagles' seemingly routine 48-20 win against the Cardinals in November. But that game, the Eagles say, has been rendered meaningless by the location of this game (Glendale, Ariz.) and the Cardinals' recent play.

"The best thing is to look at the team and the way they're playing," Reid said. "To be honest with you, I didn't think we got their best shot. They weren't playing good football, they were coming off a tough game, it was Thanksgiving Day. This will be a different football team that we will see there. … They're playing very good football right now."

Just like the Philadelphia defense.

"We're playing with heart," linebacker/defensive end Trent Cole said. "Everybody knows we have one goal in mind: To get to the end."

The Eagles might have the defense to get them there.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Philadelphia Eagles increasingly turning to defense 01/12/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 22, 2009 2:26pm]

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