Inside Slant, Matchups, Quotes, Injuries, Etc

War Nest
Posted Oct 6, 2005


For the last five years, the Eagles have owned one of the league's top defenses. They have finished first or second in the league in points allowed in three of the last four seasons, and have finished no lower than seventh since 2000.

They've finished in the top 10 in yards allowed four of the last five years and have finished first in sacks two of the last three seasons.

The one department in which they have not consistently distinguished themselves, though, has been turnovers. In the last five years, the Eagles have finished higher than 12th in the league in takeaways just once (third in '02). Last year, they finished 17th with just 28 takeaways. The year before, 18th with 26.

But four games into the '05 season, the Eagles already have forced 10 turnovers, including four in last week's 37-31 come-from-behind win over the Kansas City Chiefs. That's the third highest total in the league, behind only Cincinnati (17) and the New York Giants (14).

The takeaway improvement is no accident. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has been preaching the turnover gospel since the opening of training camp.

"This year, more than others, I just thought it was an area we needed to improve on," Johnson said. "I talked to them about it more in camp. We still did the same type of drills. But we did a lot more individual drills with our linebackers and our defensive backs as far as stripping balls. And we're always trying to get interceptions. But we've probably emphasized stripping more this year, and on blitzes, getting hands up in (quarterbacks') faces. I think it's paying off."

It paid off huge against the Chiefs. The Eagles managed to erase early 17-0 and 24-6 deficits with the help of those four turnovers, which they turned into 23 points. Cornerback Sheldon Brown had two interceptions, including one he returned 40 yards for a touchdown to give the Eagles their first points.

Shortly after the Chiefs scored again to go up 24-6, defensive end Jevon Kearse came up the middle on a stunt and forced a momentum-shifting fumble at midfield by Chiefs running back Larry Johnson. The Eagles turned that into another touchdown near the end of the first half.

Johnson knows that most of the great NFL defenses down through the years have been great turnover-causing units. The '85 Bears notched 54 takeaways. The '00 Ravens had 49. Buddy Ryan's '89 Eagles had 56.

Johnson's first Eagles unit in '99 led the league in takeaways with 46. But only once since then have they have more than 33.

"The first couple of years here we had a lot of them," Johnson said. "You take it for granted. We had skill guys like Troy (Vincent) and Brian (Dawkins) and Bobby Taylor. We've got that kind of skill back here again."

The Eagles sent three of their four starting defensive backs to the Pro Bowl last season, and the fourth, Brown, probably was more deserving than the other three. They've also got a playmaker on the defensive line in Kearse, who forced 10 fumbles his rookie year with Tennessee.

"You saw last week how (turnovers) can turn games around," Johnson said. "They're so big. You've got to just keep emphasizing it, keep talking about it. I'll talk about it Wednesday. I'll talk about it Thursday. I'll talk about it Friday. I'll just keep talking about it and those guys know it. Even during the game, I'll say, `We've got to get a turnover."'

The Eagles have notched takeaways in three of their first four games. The Birds scored 89 points in those three games. Forty of them came off turnovers.

"The turnovers last week (against the Chiefs) were a big momentum switch," Johnson said. "Our guys realize it. They know how important it is (to force turnovers)."

SERIES HISTORY: 92nd meeting. The Cowboys lead the series, 51-40. Eagles have won 9 of the last 10 meetings, including both games last season. The Eagles' average margin of victory in the last nine wins is 22.1 points.

NOTES, QUOTES

--RB Brian Westbrook was held to 48 rushing and receiving yards on 15 touches Sunday against Kansas City. It was the first time he had been held under 100 yards from scrimmage in 13 games. Part of the reason was the Chiefs keyed on him. Another part of the reason was the Eagles kept him in the backfield more than usual on passing plays to block for their hobbled quarterback Donovan McNabb. Westbrook did catch 6 passes, but none went for more than 11 yards.

--Through four games, the Eagles have no less than three receivers who are on pace to catch at least 88 passes this season: Terrell Owens, who has 32 receptions; tight end L.J. Smith, who has 26 (including 2 nine-catch games); and Westbrook, who has 22 catches.

--Kicker Todd France's NFL career got off to a tough start in the first half Sunday. He had his first field goal attempt blocked, had a bad snap pre-empt his first extra-point attempt and had a kickoff returned 96 yards for a touchdown by the Chiefs' Dante Hall. He recovered quite nicely in the second half, though, and booted three field goals in the 37-31 win. "If I hadn't gotten the opportunity (to kick again) after the first half, it would've been disastrous," France said. "It didn't start great, but it ended good." France could be handling the kicking chores for the Eagles for a while. The player he replaced, David Akers, has a torn hamstring and is expected to be out for several weeks.

--The Eagles continue to have a cockeyed run-pass differential. Against the Chiefs on Sunday, they attempted 48 passes and ran the ball just 17 times, including four scrambles for minus-1 yard by injured quarterback Donovan McNabb. One hundred ninety-nine of their 269 offensive plays, or 74.0 percent, have been pass plays.

Coach Andy Reid doesn't seem concerned about it.

"I think the important thing is finding a way to win the football game," he said. "I really think, when it is all said and done, that people really don't care whether you ran or threw the ball. They care about winning and losing. We are going to try to do what is working for us and do the best we can."

--One of the more amazing aspects of the Eagles' pass-happy offense is that McNabb, whose mobility has been drastically reduced by the sports hernia he's playing with, has only been sacked six times in 184 pass attempts. That's just one sack every 30.6 attempts. In the Eagles' six previous seasons under Andy Reid, their best sacks-to-attempts ratio was in '02, when they allowed one every 15.2 attempts.

--Tight end/long-snapper Mike Bartrum caught an eight-yard touchdown pass against the Chiefs Sunday. It was just the 10th reception of his career, but his fifth TD catch.

--McNabb has thrown 35 touchdown passes in his last 14 games. He's got at least one TD pass in each of those 14 games.

BY THE NUMBERS: The Eagles erased an 18-point deficit in Sunday's 37-31 win over the Chiefs. That was the biggest comeback by the Eagles since October 3, 1993, when they overcame a 21-0 deficit to beat the New York Jets, 35-30.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Any team in the NFL that gets down 17-0 is going to tell themselves it's not over. But only half those teams really believe it. We actually believe it." - DE N.D. Kalu on the Eagles' comeback against the Chiefs Sunday.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

The Eagles used a lot of two-tight end formations last week against the Chiefs. Not because they wanted to run, but because they wanted to provide extra blocking protection for their injured quarterback, Donovan McNabb. They'll probably do the same this week against the Cowboys' 3-4 scheme.

If the Eagles don't think injured defensive tackle Darwin Walker can play this week, they'll likely make a roster move Friday and sign tackle Keyonta Marshall off their practice squad. Walker's injury, and the season-ending Achilles injury to Paul Grasmanis, has left the Eagles with just three healthy tackles.

PLAYER/PERSONNEL NOTES

--FS Brian Dawkins is expected to play Sunday against the Cowboys, but didn't practice Wednesday and is listed as questionable. The MRI he had on his sprained ankle earlier in the week showed no damage.

--DT Darwin Walker, who has missed the last two games with a thigh contusion, likely will miss his third straight game Sunday. He is listed as doubtful and didn't practice Wednesday.

--MLB Jeremiah Trotter is listed as questionable with a quad contusion and didn't practice Wednesday, but is expected to play Sunday against Dallas. --LG Artis Hicks, who had to leave Sunday's game with an ankle strain, practiced Wednesday and is expected to play Sunday against Dallas. He is listed as probable.

--PK David Akers got a second opinion on his torn hamstring. It was about the same as the initial one, which indicated he will be out 3 to 6 weeks.

GAME PLAN: The pass-happy Eagles have thrown the ball a league-high 184 times already. Not much is expected to change Sunday as the Eagles figure to attack the Dallas Cowboys primarily through the air. While the Cowboys have improved their pass defense since last year, the Eagles feel they just have too many pass-catching weapons for the Cowboys and any other defense, for that matter, to deal with. Currently, three receivers - Terrell Owens, tight end L.J. Smith and running back Brian Westbrook - all are on pace to catch at least 88 passes.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH

Eagles MLB Jeremiah Trotter vs. Cowboys RB Julius Jones. Cowboys need to be able to run the ball to beat the Eagles. Trotter is the ignition switch to their run defense.

Eagles CBs Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard vs. Cowboys WR Terry Glenn. Who takes Glenn, who is averaging 25.0 yards per catch, will depend on what side he lines up on. They also will frequently have over-the-top help from FS Brian Dawkins.

Eagles RB Brian Westbrook vs. Cowboys Ss Roy Williams and Keith Davis. Williams is a big hitter, but neither he nor Davis have the coverage ability to stay with Westbrook.

INJURY IMPACT: PK David Akers will miss his second straight game with a torn hamstring. He's been replaced by NFL Europe product Todd France, who kicked three second-half field goals in last week's come-from-behind win over the Chiefs.

QB Donovan McNabb continues to play with a sports hernia that will restrict his mobility to a certain degree. While he can move around, he isn't going to run.

With DT Paul Grasmanis out for the year with an Achilles tear and DT Darwin Walker recovering from a thigh bruise, the Eagles are thin at DT, and probably will sign rookie Keyonta Marshall off their practice squad before Sunday's game so that they'll have four healthy DTs.

FS Brian Dawkins (ankle) and MLB Jeremiah Trotter (quad contusion) both are listed as questionable for Sunday's game, but both almost certainly will play.


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