Philadelphia Eagles News

Johnson Looks For D To Play Big Vs. Steelers

Jim Johnson has his plan in place, and he isn't about to give away any secrets. You walk into his NovaCare Complex office and you expect to see a vault and a key and an invitation to his world of exotic blitzes and pressure schemes. You expect a coach who is coming off a tough game in Dallas to have a bit of impatience about him. You expect Johnson to be on edge, sizzling inside, ready to hurry up on the way to Sunday.

That isn't the case. Johnson has been around too long to panic. He thinks he knows what he has with this defense, and he likes it.

"I think we're faster, I think we have cover guys and I think we have young linebackers who can run," said Johnson. "We just have to keep the pressure on the quarterback and we have to play at a consistent level. We may have a game where we don't play that well. It happened in Dallas. We can't let that happen very often, and I don't think we will."

Johnson knows the defense has an important test on Sunday when the Steelers come to town. A run-first team, Pittsburgh is powerful and mauling and very much fits its stereotype, but the Steelers can also drop back and throw the ball to talented receivers Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes, plus play-making tight end Heath Miller.

What Johnson wants to avoid, at any cost, is a second consecutive "down" performance from the defense. Yeah, the Eagles produced two turnovers and scored directly off one of them -- Chris Gocong's fumble recovery in the end zone -- and added another touchdown after Asante Samuel set up the offense deep in Dallas territory after an interception. And the Eagles did a very nice job against the run, allowing a good Cowboys running game to gain just 68 yards.

But there were too many big plays and too many Dallas touchdowns in the red zone and, well, what's past is past and Johnson is moving on.

Sunday waits.

"The Steelers are a good team, a balanced team, but they are a very good running team," said Johnson. "We have to take away the run first. I respect their quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger). He's a good competitor and he has a great feel for the game. He's not scared. He stays back in that pocket. A guy may be covered but he still drills the ball in there and he plays with a lot of confidence.

"He's a guy who plays with a lot of poise. He doesn't get rattled. He is a young guy, but he goes after a defense."

How good is this Eagles defense? The expectations are high, for sure. The Eagles have torn apart their front seven in the last couple of years and they like their youth and athletic ability there. The secondary, already good, added premier cornerback Samuel in the off-season. The Eagles enjoyed a strong preseason and the dominated St. Louis before running into the big-play offense in Dallas.

"I'm not happy about it," said Johnson. "We made some mistakes, caught caught in some tough matchups and Dallas did a good job. We have to learn from it. The biggest key is to get right back after it.

"After such a tough game, the physical part is the challenge. I think the Steelers want to pound the football. They run the football so well, and they have to run the football to make their passing gmae work to a certain degree. That's what we look for."

There are no major personnel changes planned, although Johnson thinks that end Chris Clemons could play quite a few more snaps than he has played through two games. Johnson is pleased with the run defense to date, although the ground game that comes from the western part of the state is a different animal, entirely. This is a running game that brings it and brings it and brings it some more. The Eagles aren't all that big up front, so will Johnson commit more of his defensive backfield to supporting the running game and risk the play-action passes that Roethlisberger can throw over the top of a defense?

What about Brian Dawkins, who was criticized by the media and some fans after the tough game in Dallas? What has he been like this week?

"Brian is a great competitor," said Johnson, "and I think he has had some of his best practices of the season this week. He wants to show people. He is really going after it."

Whatever tricks Johnson has up his sleeves are being kept there. He's going to do something different for Sunday; Johnson always has some new wrinkles to play with on game days.

This is not just another game for Johnson. It is a terrific test for a young defense coming off a physical, draining loss to the team's most intense rival. How much energy and physical play can the defense muster?

"We're going to find out," said Johnson. "I'm looking forward to it."

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