My last couple of columns looked back at players of the past. Now it is time to return to the present and take another look at the current team. One of the frequent questions I get is about how good the current defense can be. Can it come close to the great units we had back in the Gang Green era?
The 2008 defense was outstanding. They finished near the top in just about every major category. Most of the key players return so expectations should be pretty high. There is a lot of talent and depth. This defense is very good without a significant amount of great players. We have a lot of good players. There are even some very good players.
Understand what I mean by the word great. Reggie White was a great defensive end. Clyde Simmons, Hugh Douglas and William Fuller were a notch below. Seth Joyner was a great linebacker. Eric Allen and Troy Vincent were great cornerbacks. Brian Dawkins was a great player in his prime. I think people overuse the word great. I reserve that for players that are special, not just good. Going to the Pro Bowl does not make you a great player.
Great players are major playmakers that have substantial impact on every game. Think about the two best defenses in the league last year, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The Ravens have Ed Reed and Ray Lewis. Those guys are special players. Reed is an interception machine. He had nine picks last year. Opposing quarterbacks have to know where he is at all times. His presence in the middle of the field causes a lot of problems.
Lewis has slipped a little, but still makes a lot of plays. He had 3.5 sacks, three interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles. Our entire linebacking corps totaled 5.5 sacks, one interception and three forced fumbles. Set aside stats if you like. Lewis is a tremendous emotional force and leader for the Ravens. He doesn't just make tackles. He comes up with big hits at crucial moments and the whole team feeds off those plays. The Ravens have a number of good players, as do we. The big difference is those two special guys.
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The Steelers also have a couple of big-time players. Linebacker James Harrison and safety Troy Polamalu each had huge years in 2008. Harrison had 16 sacks and seven forced fumbles. He was a force off the edge all year long. Offenses did everything they could to stop him, but Harrison always seemed to find a way to impact the game. His interception and long return in the Super Bowl is one of those plays I think we'll all remember for a long, long time.
Polamalu is arguably the best safety in all of football (if not, he's second to Reed). Polamalu had seven interceptions and also was a key part of the Steelers' stout run defense. He made plays all over the field. Like Reed, opposing quarterbacks have to locate him prior to every snap. Is he blitzing? Is he deep? Is he in man coverage on the slot receiver or tight end? Polamalu is so talented and versatile that it allows the Steelers to be very creative. No team in the NFL is better at confusing offenses than Pittsburgh and Polamalu is a big part of that.
Our best defensive players are end Trent Cole and cornerback Asante Samuel. Both guys had good years in 2008. Samuel was terrific for most of the year, but he did have some costly drops. He had easy interception opportunities in games against Washington and Cincinnati. Samuel might have returned both picks a long way and changed the outcome of those games. We lost to Washington by a touchdown and had the infamous tie at Cincinnati.
Cole had nine sacks and a couple of forced fumbles. He had a good overall year with some great moments. Has he peaked? Can Cole take his game up another notch and become a great player? Let's compare him to Harrison. Signed by the Steelers as a rookie free agent in 2002, it took Harrison a few years to really come into his own. He only had four sacks after his first four years in the league and that's not including the one season he didn't make the final 53-man roster in 2003. He played well in 2007 and then had his great 2008 season. Cole has played at a high level the past couple of years. I'm not sure if we're seeing him at his best or if he can get even better. That's a hard prediction to make. I think Cole's sack total will go up, but I'm just not sure if he can become a player that gets 15 sacks a year.
There are some other Eagles to consider. Brodrick Bunkley is a player with tremendous ability. He played very well the second half of the season and in the playoffs. Bunkley has great potential. He simply needs to be more consistently dominant and more of a playmaker. I hope Bunkley came away from last year frustrated. He showed so much promise, but still has work to do. Some talented young players get a taste of success and then let up. I'm really excited to see Bunkley play this year. It seems to take defensive tackles a few years to put it all together. The time is right for Bunkley to show us what he can do.
Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley isn't the most gifted player, but he is perfect for our defensive system. He made great strides from his rookie year to last season. He made great strides from early in the year to the playoffs. Can he continue to make that kind of progress? If so, he could emerge into a real force in the middle. Bradley was second on the team in tackles and first in tackles for loss last year. That's outstanding for a first-year starter.
I expect Bradley to improve, but I'm not sure what his ceiling is. Bradley is such a good fit for our system that he can potentially become a special player. He's got the size to take on offensive linemen and shed blocks. Bradley is a good tackler and does a good job of locating the ball on run plays. He's also big enough to attack blockers on pass plays. We like to use the middle linebacker to attack the center so that other pass rushers and/or blitzers will have an easier time getting to the quarterback.
There are a couple of areas where Bradley must improve if he wants to be a special player. He needs to be a better pass defender and he needs to be a part of more turnovers. His pass defense got a lot better as the season went along. He started to get a feel for what to do. He basically needed experience. As for turnovers, Bradley had one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. That's a solid total, but I'd like to see him getting four or five turnovers a season. That doesn't sound like a big difference, but think about the impact an extra turnover or two might have had in some of our close losses.
If any of these guys can emerge this year the defense could be that much tougher than last season. Overall the numbers were very good, but there were times when the defense struggled. The first Dallas and Giants games come to mind. There were stretches against Chicago, San Francisco and Washington where we couldn't stop those teams. The NFC Championship game was also a problem for the defense. The final drive of that game was simply torturous.
I am excited to see how good the defense can be this year. Losing Dawkins hurts, but the unit is loaded with talent. Many of the guys are ascending players who should get better this year. We know not everyone will work out as planned, but all we need is for most guys to play to their potential and the defense could be championship caliber.
The defensive line is deep and has a good combination of run stuffers and pass rushers. The linebackers are all young players on the rise. Depth is OK there. The secondary has some new faces, but several of the guys are young veterans. Guys like Ellis Hobbs, Sean Jones and Rashad Baker all have experience, but all are under the age of 28.
Most of the starting lineup will be intact from the end of last year. That kind of continuity is important. Defenses come together quicker than offenses, but you still prefer for the guys to have some feel for each other. Defenses give up big plays when someone blows an assignment or there is a communication breakdown. Guys that have played together are more likely to eliminate some of those mistakes.
Is there anything to fear? Sure, complacency. The 2004 defense was crucial to us going to the Super Bowl. Several of the players then had down years in 2005. Lito Sheppard and Michael Lewis really struggled at times. Darwin Walker wasn't as good. Corey Simon had contract issues and never played for us again. The other obvious problem that can arise is injuries. There's nothing you can do about that so you just cross your fingers and hope the key guys stay healthy.
It takes several years to build a good defense. You add players each year until you find the right mix and the players start to really come together. 2008 was the first year that the guys showed what they could do. That group had a terrific season and got us to the NFC title game. The 2009 defense has a chance to build on that and improve. If they do, Eagles fans are going to have a lot of fun in the upcoming season. After all, nothing warms our hearts more than seeing opposing quarterbacks being slung to the ground or opposing receivers getting leveled by a huge hit. That's Eagles football at its best.