NFC East: Brian McNabb
|Chris Gardner/Getty Images|
|Jim Johnson's defense will have some surprises for the Vikings.|
Like most NFL cities, Philadelphia is all about the quarterback. The topic of Donovan McNabb's future has become the gift that keeps on giving for the media. And when head coach Andy Reid benched his favorite player at halftime against the Ravens in Week 12, it became the story of Philadelphia's season.
It's too bad, because Jim Johnson's defense is having one of its best seasons in club history. No matter what happened on that fateful November afternoon in Baltimore, the Eagles wouldn't be alive if it weren't for their defense. They finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the NFC and third overall.
"Sure, the defense gets overshadowed a little bit," said starting safety Quintin Mikell, who has emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber player this season. "But we're still OK with it because at the end of the day, it's not about recognition. We're trying to win games.
That's why a win or loss Sunday may not have as much to do with McNabb's arm as one might think. It will come down to whether the Eagles can slow down the best running back in football, Adrian Peterson, and make Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson beat them. And no matter how much they're praising Jackson this week, the Eagles believe their pass rush will be too much for him to handle.
Johnson has been known to pack more than 20 blitz packages into a game plan, but according to Mikell, the veteran assistant's outdone himself this week. Mikell wasn't specific, but he said 25 different blitzes sounded about right. He's likened Johnson's defense to playing in a video game.
"You have to be smart to play in this defense," said Mikell. "He changes it every week, so even the same blitzes are arranged in a completely different way. It makes it fun, and he'll get you where you can get to the quarterback scot-free."
Along with the Ravens and Steelers, the Eagles are ranked in the top five in the league in total defense, pass defense, run defense, points allowed and third down efficiency. Philadelphia went to NFC title games on an annual basis at the beginning of this decade, but none of those teams could boast numbers like these. Over the past seven games, teams have only managed 3.1 yards per carry against the Eagles, which bodes well against a team that is built around Peterson's immense talent.
The thing that is so impressive about Johnson is that the defense didn't appear to be loaded with talent heading into the season. No one knew how Mikell would fare as an every down safety, but recently veteran Brian Dawkins said the former undrafted player out of Boise State was the best safety he had played with. After a sluggish start, Johnson benched weakside linebacker Omar Gaither and replaced him with Akeem Jordan, who covers more ground and is much better against the pass.
And instead of coddling Lito Sheppard, Johnson benched him as the nickel cornerback in favor of Joselio Hanson, who has been superb. Not usually prone to hyperbole, Johnson told reporters earlier this week that he couldn't recall feeling this confident about a unit heading into the playoffs.
In one of this week's most popular story lines, Johnson is squaring off against Vikings head coach Brad Childress, the former offensive coordinator in Philly. The two used to see each other every day in practice, so Johnson's planning to be more creative than ever. And if that means only having two down linemen in some formations, so be it. Childress almost seems amused by how willing Johnson is to experiment with his blitz packages. He thinks the longtime assistant has built up more wiggle room than most NFL assistants.
"Well you know he's developed [blitzes] over a career and spends a great amount of time on it," said Childress. "He attacks protections. He attacks formations. He attacks personnel groupings. It's very wide ranging. He's got some of those retirement blitzes you know where if [Vikings defensive coordinator] Leslie [Frazier] ran it here, you know they might say that's not sound with 10 guys on one side and one on the other."
The Eagles have a healthy respect for Peterson, but they also have plenty of confidence heading into Sunday's wild-card matchup. They held Peterson to 70 yards on 20 carries in a win last season.
Johnson has credited his defensive ends for a dramatic improvement against the run over the past seven games. I watched the Redskins push the Eagles around at the line of scrimmage in their first game in October. But players such as Trent Cole, Victor Abiamiri and Darren Howard started doing a much better job of "setting the edge," which means they're turning things inside.
Peterson loves to bounce outside and use his speed to turn the corner, so the Eagles will face perha
ps their toughest test of the season.
"We have to get a lot of guys to the ball," Mikell said. "We have to minimize the amount of times he reaches the second level. I know I don't want to be back there one on one with him very often."
Mikell was half joking when he made said that. He's one of the leading tacklers in Boise State history and that remains the strongest part of his game. Mikell became aware of Dawkins when he was in college and studied him on TV from 2000-03. Now, the two are inseparable.
"He taught me to take care of my family, to play through injuries and how to conduct myself outside the locker room," Mikell said. "I remember watching him knock Michael Vick out of a playoff game, and I'm pretty sure he knocked himself out, too. That's the kind of player I wanted to become."
Mikell appears to be headed in the right direction -- just like the rest of the Eagles' defense.