With 10 starters returning from last season's team, with depth as far as the eye can see, and with a proven scheme that has more range to show something different from week to week than just about any in the NFL, the Eagles feel pretty darn good about their defense. Jim Johnson's group ranked third in the league last year, and has its sights set higher for 2009.
What will it take to get there?
The Eagles concentrated most of their off-season activity on the other side of the football, re-tooling the offense in the last few months. Meanwhile, the defense is relying on continuity, the improvement of its young core and a couple of new pieces to push it to the top of the heap. Is that enough? It has to be, given that the Eagles are virtually set across the board on defense.
What makes this defense so good -- on paper, yes -- is the talent level here. You can look up and down the defense and see Pro Bowl-caliber players -- up front you have end Trent Cole and tackles Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley, at linebacker Stewart Bradley is on the verge and cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown, along with safety Quintin Mikell -- in key spots. There are reserves who are pushing for playing time at each level of the defense and while the defense is a young group, it has experience within the scheme and Johnson knows he can toy with the X's and O's and his players will understand the tweaks.
At the same time, improvement won't come automatically. Just when you think you've got this game figured out, the NFL changes the script. As good as the Eagles were last season, they know that their 2009 opponents are spending the off-season studying every aspect of this defense. There are weaknesses here, as there are with every player, every system and every team in the league. Arizona did a terrific job of anticipating the Eagles' blitz game and also kept the defense honest by running the football effectively.
So this off-season is about adjustments and about making advancements. The highest-profile position to watch is free safety, where the Eagles have a new starter for the first time in 13 seasons. Brian Dawkins is in Denver, and Quintin Demps is the starter. Every move he makes will be scrutinized, of course. Demps went through the post-draft mini-camp and graded highly as far as his mental assignments, so he is off to a promising start in his second season.
The Eagles added a couple of safeties in free agency and then brought in Macho Harris via the draft, so they have numbers and they have options and they have depth should Demps not take the opportunity and excel at free safety.
The linebackers are largely the same as last year, another year better. Bradley had never played middle linebacker, remember, prior to 2008. He went out and had a sensational year. Bradley enters this season as a leader here, a player the Eagles can look to as a high-level playmaker and one of the best at his position in the game. Akeem Jordan and Omar Gaither are expected to battle it out at WILL linebacker, and Chris Gocong has the SAM job with the experience of another season under his belt.
Up front, you know the names and you know the questions. It is a good, good group, one that could be made even better if young players like Victor Abiamiri, Bunkley, Chris Clemons and Trevor Laws take big steps forward.
Injuries are going to be a factor, because good health last year was a big factor in the success of the D. Can the Eagles stay that healthy again? And if not, are they equipped with enough depth?
The depth looks promising. Look around the starting lineup and think about a player, any player, going down. The Eagles appear to have a good alternative ready to step in to cover an injury or two or three. Trading for Ellis Hobbs was huge, as was retaining Joselio Hanson prior to free agency. Both Sean Jones and Rashad Baker make for good safety depth. Up front, Laws is ready to challenge for a starting job, and the Eagles have six ends they want to rotate.
To get to the top, the Eagles need more big plays, more takeaways, better pressure on a consistent basis. They need to be better in the red zone. They need to tackle with more consistency than they showed in the NFC Championship Game loss.
Everybody is talking about the offense, and rightly so. It has been an exciting makeover for that side of the ball. But we all know how it works. To win the Super Bowl, the Eagles need the defense to set the tone, and to play high-level football for the entire season. Some of the things the Eagles have penciled in aren't going to work. There are also going to be some surprises in a good way.
At this point, the Eagles appear to be well equipped for every scenario. Then again, though, this is the NFL and how can anybody predict with certainty what will happen from one week to the next? The goal here is the highest one, to make the defense the very best in the NFL.