Philadelphia Eagles News

A Remarkable Defensive Facelift

You remember the days when it was all coming together for new head coach Andy Reid, when he turned the defense over to Jim Johnson, who did so many creative things with veterans like Brian Dawkins, Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Jeremiah Trotter, Hugh Douglas and the gang.

Those were great Eagles defenses, led by a tight-knit group of veterans who won with talent, with heart and with emotion.

The pieces went away in the years that followed, slowly and surely. The Eagles did their best to replace talent with talent -- Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown stepped in for Vincent and Taylor at cornerback, Trent Cole moved in when Douglas moved on and Mike Patterson was a capable step-in for Corey Simon -- but the challenge was enormous. Efforts to replenish the defense through the draft weren't as successful as the Eagles wanted. Some trades didn't pan out. Free-agent signings worked to a degree, but just not that well.

When Johnson passed away prior to the 2009 season, Sean McDermott was left with a starting lineup that, quite honestly, didn't resemble the glory years of the early portion of the decade.

While the Eagles won 11 games in the regular season in 2009, and then 10 and a division title in 2010, the defense was in desperate need of an overhaul.

And so it has been the mission of general manager Howie Roseman and head coach Andy Reid to do just that. The offense had its own transformation to be had, one that began immediately after the 2008 NFC Championship Game loss to the Cardinals.

The defense, with a two-year plan, is just about there.

In the last year -- actually, the last eight months -- the Eagles have provided a talent infusion to the defense, one that potentially -- fingers crossed -- can lift this team to great heights.

Juan Castillo was installed as the defensive coordinator after a 2010 season playoff loss to Green Bay and overhauled the scheme. The personnel has followed suit.

Think about the new players who have joined the team. It's a standout cast of players, and the Eagles aren't necessarily finished adding to the mix. They signed cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, defensive end Jason Babin and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins last year during free agency. They traded for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

All of those players were vital contributors to last year's defense, one that admittedly struggled to find itself before switching into high gear in the final month of an 8-8 season. Asomugha was a Pro Bowl corner, but you can see the ability is there if he is put in the right position. Babin garnered 18 sacks and made the Pro Bowl. Jenkins was a first alternate to the Pro Bowl and a great team leader in a difficult situation. Rodgers-Cromartie found his stride when he replaced injured starter Asante Samuel in the final couple of games of the season.

By trading for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans this week, the Eagles added perhaps their most important piece to the puzzle. Ryans is a leader, born and bred, as well as a darn fine football player. He fits a position of absolute need for a defense that hasn't had that kind of player since Trotter's best days in the early 2000s.

Now, all of a sudden, the defense has players who are among the best at their positions in the NFL. Cole and Babin are great pass rushers who form a dandy twosome. Jenkins is a physical, nasty battler inside in the trenches. Asomugha, Samuel and Rodgers-Cromartie have the size and skill to match up with any receiving group in the league.

And Ryans is the quarterback of the whole thing. He is going to be the engine that makes it all work. Not the savior, because in the NFL it requires a village of teammates to win football games, but Ryans becomes the instant leader of the defense and the emotional spirit that has been missing since Dawkins became an unrestricted free agent and signed with Denver after the 2008 season.

It is remarkable to me, stepping back, how quickly the defense has been given a new personality and a new heartbeat. In that playoff loss to Green Bay, the Eagles started Juqua Parker, Mike Patterson, Antonio Dixon and Cole up front. Ernie Sims, Stewart Bradley and Moise Fokou started at linebacker. Samuel and Ellis Hobbs were the cornerbacks, and Nate Allen and Quintin Mikell manned the safety spots.

One full season later, who remains? Who figures to start this year?

Amazing, isn't it?

But it was necessary, no question about it. The Eagles needed new blood on defense, and they are going to continue to search for ways to improve their roster on both sides of the ball. And in time, well, right now, the reality is that Dawkins and Vincent and Trotter and Douglas and all of those great names seem so far in the past. Ancient history, in NFL years.

The new names are Babin and Jenkins and Asomugha and Rodgers-Cromartie and Ryans and who knows who else in the near future. A new generation here, as the Eagles look for some of the old-days success on the defensive side of the football. 

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