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Toughest Test Yet For Developing D

Posted Sep 24, 2013

The record books suggest that Denver quarterback Peyton Manning is having the best start to a season in the history of the NFL, and as you watch him light it up on television, who can possibly argue? ...

In Denver's three victories, Peyton Manning has -- hold on to your desk -- 12 touchdown passes, 1,143 yards (a ridiculous average of 9.4 yards per passing attempt), a 73-percent completion percentage, zero interceptions and a passer rating of 134.7.

Manning is, at this very moment, the best quarterback in the NFL, and there isn't anybody particularly close.

So you might imagine what the Eagles are feeling as they get back on the field and dig in for Manning and the Broncos on Sunday. The game is a fantastic challenge, and a litmus test for a young team putting the pieces together. Manning won't be fooled by anything that defensive coordinator Bill Davis uses on Sunday. In his 16th season, Manning has seen it all and defeated it all in the NFL.

For the Eagles to emerge Sunday with a win -- and that is very much the mindset, for there is never a week in this league when a team lines up thinking anything less -- the defense has to play a sound, physical, intelligent game. Gimmicks won't carry the day. A fortunate bounce here and there would help, and even with that a defense has to go into a game against Manning knowing that the future Hall of Famer is going to inflict some damage.

This is a wonderful opportunity for the Eagles to advance the defense. This is a team in the process of discovery, and to go up against the best quarterback in the league who is playing at an off-the-charts level gives the Eagles a chance to learn more about what they have on the roster.

That said, how does Davis play it? What schematic tweaks does he make with the defense? How many calculated gambles will he take? How aggressive can Davis get with his personnel?

I don't have answers. I know that the Eagles had a lot of success in 2010 against Manning in a 26-24 victory at Lincoln Financial Field when Manning played for Indianapolis. That Eagles defense doesn't resemble this Eagles defense, and Manning played that day with an injury-riddled Colts offense and now he's with a loaded Denver attack that is deep and versatile. On that day, a great win in November, the Eagles slowed up the offense just a bit and played keep away from Manning, and the defense varied its look, came with some pressure packages, and had cornerback Asante Samuel jump a couple of routes and make a pair of interceptions.

Who comes with the pass rush on Sunday, then? Who plays the role of ball-hawking cornerback in this instance?

At the very least, the Eagles have a taste of facing the kind of tempo and precision they will see from Manning, having practiced for two days in the summer against New England's Tom Brady. The veteran put on a clinic against the secondary with his quick releases and remarkable accuracy, and the Eagles defensive backs spoke after those two days of the education they received.

This is where it pays off.

I expect to see the Eagles challenge Manning and a Denver offense that has scored 127 points and gained 1,460 yards. I expect the Eagles to be physical. I expect to see some timely gambles.

And I expect the Eagles to play with confidence.

No team goes into a game thinking it is going to render Manning useless. Instead, the Eagles must find a way to get Manning out of his comfort zone, take away some of his timing and make his throwing windows microscopic. The defense has to be sound in its tackling and aware of every situation and it must rally to the football, 11 men strong. Every loose ball has to belong to the Eagles.

Understand, too, that it isn't just the defense with the responsibility against Manning and the Broncos. The Eagles have to win the battle of special teams, something they did in the first two weeks of this season. The offense has to be efficient and score touchdowns and force Manning into that kind of "shootout" mentality. Will Chip Kelly play "small ball" and slow things down? That hasn't been his style to date, but he's a smart head coach and knows it's a card he might have to draw from time to time.

There aren't a whole lot of people out there who give the Eagles a chance, and that's exactly the kind of rallying cry that can help unite a team still trying to get to know each other. The Eagles-Against-The-World approach has worked in the past around here, and it might well be the correct approach in the days to come as reporters circle around defensive players and ask pointed questions about the defense and its chances of survival against the Manning onslaught.

This is a great chance for the Eagles to find out a lot about themselves. They're playing in a hostile environment against the best quarterback and the best offense in the league. The days leading up to Sunday and then game day itself is a chance for the Eagles to prove something to themselves, that they can go toe-to-toe against the best of the best and win a game and help define the foundation of a new era.

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