It was the priority this time one year ago: Instill in the Eagles defense the sense of ownership when a football was in the air, or on the ground, or visible to be taken away from the offense. The Eagles had a young and improving defense, yes, but what they lacked was the takeaway. So every day in practice the players chased the football, attacked it, made it theirs.
And the approach worked wonders, as the Eagles boosted their turnover totals and the defense rose to third in the league overall standings.
Nice. Impressive. A good turnaround for Team Takeaway, which registered 29 in 2008, up from the paltry total of 19 in 2007. The Eagles defense was very good last year for the most part. But, see, the coaching staff doesn't look at "very good for the most part" and think good things. The coaching staff wants more consistency, more dominance and, in the end, more takeaways and big plays from the defense.
And to do that a lot of things have to fall into place. The Eagles must stop the run as well as they did a year ago. Boy, they were good. Led by tackles Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley, and by the young and aggressive group of linebackers, and by smallish defensive ends who played stout at the line of scrimmage, the Eagles stopped the run. Flat-out stopped the run.
They did a darn good job against the pass, too. And that back four, coming back in 2009 with a new personality for sure, has to be manipulated just right to maybe, just maybe, take this defense to a new level.
What do the Eagles have in the secondary? We know they have a Pro Bowl cornerback in Asante Samuel, and three other really strong players there: Sheldon Brown, Joselio Hanson and Ellis Hobbs. Who starts and who plays where will be determined in time. I know that is going to be a theme to discuss in training camp and while some will turn it into a controversy, I see the depth as a position of strength. The Eagles should be able to match up against any group of wide receivers in the league, and I think they will match up favorably in the end.
At safety, the Eagles know they have one of the better and more versatile players in the league in Quintin Mikell. He got some deserved pub last year, garnering a vote for the All-Pro team. Kudos to Mikell. What the Eagles love about Mikell is his ability to play both safety spots and play them well. He is just a good football player all the way around. He is the leader at safety.
Then the Eagles have a position at free safety that is going to be scrutinized long and hard all season. Brian Dawkins is in Denver, leaving behind the long shadow of brilliance that he cast as an Eagle. The Eagles have to move on here, and they will do so with second-year man Quintin Demps. We saw enough of Demps last year to know that he has quite an upside. He is young, he is raw, he is talented, he can run, he can cover and he is physical enough and rangy enough to play the position. He has to be good from the get-go, of course. Nothing short of that is sufficient.
The Eagles also have some nice depth here with veteran Sean Jones competing with Demps for a starting job. Jones looked in the spring like his knee was all good and he moved around well enough to have his hands on the ball just about every day. Jones is a big, physical player. You have to like what he brings to the table, and whether he starts or not, the Eagles are going to find ways to use Jones to the scheme's advantage.
Rashad Baker and rookie Macho Harris are probably fighting for jobs. Can the Eagles keep five safeties? Yeah, if somebody is lights-out on special teams. But when you look at the numbers, it's more likely the Eagles will go with four safeties and five corners. That's the way it reads here now. Training camp has a way of altering the perspective.
Anyway, the numbers look good in the secondary. The depth is promising. The Eagles can build the X's and O's around their secondary, mixing and moving pieces and altering coverages and doing what they can do to get all of these talented hands on as many footballs as possible.
This defense has a lot to work with. The front four is deep, led by Trent Cole on the outside and Mike Patterson on the inside and with many other talented pieces in the mix. Stewart Bradley has the look of a Pro Bowl player at middle linebacker, heading a group that is one year wiser and more cohesive. The front seven has punch to it, and a lot of pieces.
But the back four can be really, really special if Demps is ready for the prime-time role and if the scheme utilizes all of the bits of talent. Brown is a fine cornerback, isn't he? Few are more tactically sound and solid than is Brown. Hanson fits in perfectly as the nickel cornerback and Hobbs is here to challenge for a starter's job, period.
Of course, Samuel is the star of the group. He is a sensational cornerback who makes his biggest plays in big games. Samuel has the ability to be as close to a shut-down cornerback as there is in the NFL these days, and in his second second in the Eagles defense he will be better than in Year One.
How it works and who starts where is one reason training camp is going to be so interesting and so much fun to watch. There are a lot of talented pieces in this puzzle, and when it all comes together, the secondary has the chance to lead the way and get more touches and more takeaways and have a lot more fun.