For the Eagles linebackers, "turnover" has been the theme of the 2008 season since the start of training camp.
There were no minced words this time; this would be a season of growth for the unit. Unlike 2007, there would be no late cuts of popular but fading veterans, a la the emotional release of Jeremiah Trotter. In 2008, before minicamps, the unit's most senior member, Takeo Spikes, had been let go. It was obvious that, at the very least, a new leaf would be turned over this year.
And change needed to be made. In forcing only 19 turnovers in 2007, defensive coordinator Jim Johnson opted to go with youth, speed and potential at linebacker. He didn't have to look far.
Second-year man Stewart Bradley has manned the middle in Philadelphia, joining third-year players Omar Gaither and Chris Gocong to complete football's youngest linebacking corps with perhaps its most untapped potential. All three players were mid-to-late round picks, and it seems the Eagles have struck gold with some of their less-glamorous selections.
"Jim's made a conscious effort of making (turnovers) more of a focal point, and as well as (being in) the right place, right time," Bradley said. "It's about flying around and seeing opportunities to jump on the ball." The Writers' Roundtable: Cowboys Game Recap
So far, Johnson's emphasis has paid off. Through Week 6, the Eagles have forced 12 takeaways, tied for third in the NFL. From the start of post-draft minicamps, Johnson had his linebackers – and the entire defense, for that matter – pouncing on every ball, dead or loose.
Incomplete pass? Jump on it. Fumble? Grab it. Play blown dead? Get the ball anyway.
It's basic fundamentals and almost trivial, but the linebackers can't deny the impact.
"Every time I see an incomplete pass, I still think, 'Pick it up and run,' " Gocong said. "It's something that's definitely carried over to the games."
All three have put their personal stamp on the final product, each with a fumble recovery, plus more. Gocong's recovery came in the end zone for a touchdown at Dallas, Gaither is tied for second on the roster with five pass knockdowns (behind only cornerback Asante Samuel) and Bradley is second on the team in tackles.
And for someone that loves to blitz, Johnson must be in heaven with this unit. All, too, have recorded at least one sack, with multiple quarterback hurries.
"Balls are bouncing right for us. We're certainly getting after people the way we did last year," Gaither said. "We're getting sacks, but it just seems like this year when we get sacks, the ball comes out a little more and we recover them. Who knows why?"
It wouldn't be too big of a stretch to assume a correlation between pressure and turnovers. The Eagles lead all of football with 21 sacks, in large part because of Johnson's willingness to throw his linebackers into – directly at – the fire.
So no, the linebackers haven't gotten their hands on the ball as much as some of the other levels of the defense. But one of them, if not all three, always seems to be around it when it's picked off or picked up.
"I really think it's just hustling to the ball; the ball pops out and we always seem to have more guys there than the other team," Gocong said. "I really don't think it's anything special in terms of ripping or stripping the ball out."
Johnson thinks he's found the right mix of personality and ability to run a successful linebacking corps. Despite starting full-time for the first time this season, Bradley's been given the reigns to the team's defensive radio. The animated Gaither doesn't need a radio for anyone to know what he's thinking. And Gocong fills in the blanks.
It's unsure if the success will be long-term, but the cogs are in motion.
"It's cool. I think we play real well together. O.G. talks, Stew gets the job done in the middle, and I relish my role on the strongside," Gocong said. "We've got a good chemistry going. Hopefully it's here for a long time."