After watching the Birds’ defense struggle since 2004, it looked like the Jim Johnson blitz heavy, “bend but don’t break” defense had seen its time come and go. Then, lo and behold a Jim Johnson style defense won the Super Bowl last year. Unfortunately, that defense belonged to the Giants and was piloted by former Eagles’ linebacker coach, Steve Spagnuolo. Nevertheless, it does give the Birds’ hope that they can become a contender once again with their style of defense.
While there was definite improvement in the run defense and Jim Johnson’s guys gallantly kept the Birds in a lot of games in ‘07, there are a lot of areas on the defense with question marks. This post tackles the top 5 questions that face the defensive side of the ball that will need to be answered positively if the Birds are contend in the NFC East.
(1) Will the Birds create more turnovers in ‘08? Last year, the Birds finished dead last in the NFC in takeaways with a paltry 19 and were the only NFC team that failed to score a single defensive touchdown. Obviously, these two stats will have to change next year if the Birds are to make it back to the playoffs. The addition of Asante Samuel, along with having B Dawk and Lito healthy all year should undoubtedly increase the interception total. An improved pass rush and playing with the lead more often than last year should also lead to an increase in takeaways. Overall, turnovers usually come in bunches depending on how the ball bounces. After a year of failing to get many bounces, I think the Birds’ turnover total will increase simply because they are due.
(2) Who makes the team and gets the majority of playing time at Defensive End? I don’t think there is another position on the team that is so unstable. Other than Pro Bowler Trent Cole, every other guy is a question mark. Juqua Parker (formerly Thomas) was exposed last year as a guy that performs pretty well as a rotational guy, but isn’t a starter you can count on to play the majority of snaps. Darren Howard was pretty much ineffective all year. We didn’t see enough of Victor Abiamiri to determine if he can play. At 240 lbs, free agent Chris Clemons looks to be a situational pass rusher. He racked up a decent amount of sacks for the Raiders, but that team played a ton of garbage time last year. I wonder how many sacks came in meaningful minutes. I really don’t expect much out of third round pick, Bryan Smith, a 245 lb, Div IAA defensive end. To be that small and succeed in the NFL at DE, you really have to run. Smith ran a 4.86 which is pretty pedestrian for a DE in the NFL. If you are looking for a bust from our 2008 draft, I’m putting my money on Smith.
So, who gets the majority of the playing time next to Cole? I’m guessing you’ll see a lot of Parker, Abiamiri, and Clemons on every third down. They can’t be any worse than the combination of Jevon Kearse and Darren Howard from last year. I also expect Darren Howard to be cut (although I did read he is tremendous shape, which may save him from the scrap heap.)
(3) Can the linebackers actually play on a high level? I really want to share the excitement of all my fellow Eagle fans when it comes to the potential of the ’08 linebackers. However, I am a realist and I use prior history to gauge future performance. In their entire tenure in Philadelphia, Andy Reid, Jim Johnson and Company have never drafted a single decent linebacker. With that history of past draft failures, why is everyone so ready to canonize former draft picks Stewart Bradley, Omar Gaither and Chris Cogong as solid NFL starters? As Bill Parcells once said about Tony Romo, can we “put away the anointing oil?”
Plus, a lot of people are basing their opinion on two meaningless games at the end of last year for believing Bradley is the real deal at MLB. I’d like to see him out there in a crucial NFC East game before I get overly excited about Bradley. I think Gaither is a decent player and is ideally suited to play the weakside, but what did Chris Gocong really show anyone last year? The best thing that I can say about Gocong was that he was better than Dhani Jones, which isn’t really saying anything.
I want to see these guys succeed as much as the next guy, but I need to see more before I commit that they are the second coming.
(4) Where is the depth at Defensive Tackle? We can all agree that Mike Patterson and Broderick Bunkley are an above average starting tackle duo in the NFL. However, they seemed to wear down as the year went on due to the lack of depth behind them. The Birds’ brain trust must have seen the same thing because they drafted a defensive tackle with their first pick of the draft. Unfortunately, Trevor Laws is a bit undersized for DT and it may take him some time before he learns how to play on the NFL level. Montae Reagor was basically invisible last year, so I’m really not expecting much from in ’08. For some reason, Kimo von Oelhoffen was brought back to the mix, but he didn’t show he had a lot left in the tank last year. Basically, the success at this position could come down to how quickly Trevor Laws gets acclimated to the NFL and begins to contribute.
(5) Who starts at Strong Safety? The contenders for this job appear to be Sean Considine, who went down after the 8th game of the year, and Quentin Mikell, who started 11 games last year. Mikell started 11 games last year and was a total, 100% improvement over Considine, who reminds me of Mike Mamula in that he is always a step late from making a big play. On the other hand, Mikell, and even the one footed JR Reed, made more plays than Considine. I will make this one simple. If Sean Considine wins the starting job, we are totally screwed.
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