The numbers just pop off the page. They are extraordinary. Arizona's three leading wide receivers all gained more than 1,000 receiving yards during the 2008 regular season and a fourth receiver caught 34 passes for 448 yards and 4 touchdowns. Amazing stuff. The Cardinals, as they showed again on Saturday against Carolina, strike fear in defensive backfields with the best group of wide receivers in the National Football League.
"Very good across the board," said safety Quintin Mikell. "They have no weaknesses. They have guys who are big and strong and who can run and jump and go get the football. It's going to be quite a challenge for us."
As much of a battle as it will be for the Eagles secondary, however, the team has prepared for matchups like this. During a season when a lot has gone right for Jim Johnson's defense, the play of the secondary ranks right near the top. Mikell escaped the formidable shadow of his safety partner and earned some recognition as a second-team All-Pro player. Brian Dawkins made the Pro Bowl for the seventh season in his Hall of Fame career. The depth and talent at cornerback is what the Eagles hoped it would be when they jumped into the free-agency waters and signed Asante Samuel in the off-season.
How the Eagles will play the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin -- who missed Saturday's game with a hamstring injury but who expects to play Sunday -- Steve Breaston and Jerheme Urban remains to be seen. The Eagles just know they can't allow Fitzgerald, or any of the receivers, as much room to roam as the Panthers permitted in the NFC Divisional Playoff game.
"Fitzgerald is the best receiver in the NFL," said Mikell. "He is a great football player. We had a chance to experience what they were all about before, but they are going to be even better now."
So are the Eagles, if the way they have played in the postseason is any indication. In the 26-14 win over Minnesota a couple of weeks ago, the Eagles allowed only 164 passing yards and intercepted Tarvaris Jackson once. Samuel made that play, picking off Samuel and running 44 yards for a touchdown. On Sunday at Giants Stadium, they gave up just 169 passing yards to Eli Manning and intercepted him twice -- once by Samuel and once by Mikell.
In the win over the Giants, New York's wide receivers combined for 6 receptions and 80 yards.
"Our coverage is the key to what we do defensively," said defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. "I think when you look at our season and how it has gone for the defense, you have to say that in the games we have played well, we have had good coverage. More often than not, we have done the job in the secondary. If we can cover well, it allows us to do other things."
This is the scenario the Eagles envisioned when they signed Samuel. They saw him as a big-game, shut-down cornerback and he earned a Pro Bowl spot in a regular season that would have been even more spectacular had Samuel held on to two or three of the half dozen or so interception opportunities he had in his hands. As it turned out, though, the Eagles have enjoyed even more productivity from Samuel in the playoffs. He has two interceptions and two big returns, one for a touchdown and one that set up a Donovan McNabb quarterback sneak for a score against the Giants.
Samuel is, right now, as close to a shut-down cornerback as there is in the game. He has been that good.
Not to be lost in the shuffle is the play of the other cornerbacks, starting with Sheldon Brown. Steady, solid and physical in every phase of his game, Brown has been buzzing around the football in the postseason, too. He should have had an interception in Minnesota and was nearly flawless against the Giants.
Joselio Hanson's rapid improvement and rise in the last couple of years has been something to enjoy. Signed off the NFL's scrap heap in 2006, Hanson moved from a fringe roster player that season to the team's dime cornerback in 2007 and then, midway through this year, the nickel cornerback. Hanson mans the slot area and does an excellent job in coverage.
Lito Sheppard is a valuable player, a two-time Pro Bowl player and someone who could very well see significant action on Sunday. What happens if the Cardinals decide to spread things out and play Throwball against this defense? The Eagles certainly have enough talent to match up in coverage.
Then again, nobody really matches up against the likes of Fitzgerald, Boldin and Breaston. To defeat the Cardinals' explosive offense, the Eagles need to mix up their coverages and find a way to pressure quarterback Kurt Warner, who tossed 30 touchdown passes in the regular season and has come back with 4 more touchdown passes in the two playoff wins. More important for Warner, he was sacked just one time in the wins over Atlanta and Carolina.
"They have an explosive unit with a quarterback who knows how to get it done," said Brown. "I don't think there is a lot that will fool Kurt Warner. He has seen it all."
It was Warner, in fact, who helped create -- in a roundabout way -- the Eagles' current picture in the secondary. He led the Rams to an NFC Championship Game win over the Eagles to end the 2001 season, and the next year the Eagles drafted both Sheppard and Brown, along with safety Michael Lewis, in the same April. The Eagles found themselves short-handed in that NFC title game when Troy Vincent had to leave the contest with a groin injury, and they vowed to never be that way again.
That's why the surplus of talent in the secondary has been such a blessing for this defense. Not only at cornerback, but at safety, too, where Sean Considine and rookie Quintin Demps have taken reps. On Sunday against the Giants, in fact, Considine replaced Mikell for a couple of series and made a key pass breakup on a throw to tight end Kevin Boss. Demps played as a deep safety in schemes when the Giants showed their "heavy" package and went with two tight ends and just one wide receiver.
It has all come together wonderfully for the Eagles secondary, but the biggest test is Sunday. In the first meeting against Arizona, the Cardinals had a combined 16 catches and 3 touchdowns from Fitzgerald (5 catches, 65 yards, 2 TDs), Boldin (5-63) and Breaston (6-45-1). But the Eagles were able to get out to a 24-7 lead at halftime, making the game -- and Arizona's offensive approach -- one-sided.
This is a different, and much more complete and confident, Arizona team. The Cardinals have shown terrific run/pass balance in the playoffs, but their bread-and-butter strength is the passing game. Warner to Fitzgerald. Warner to Boldin. Warner to Breaston. Warner to Urban.
Dangerous, dangerous, dangerous.
"Oh, we know how good they are. You see the games. You see them making all of those circus catches, those great grabs," said Brown. "We have to be at our best in this game, there is no doubt about that."