Buddy Ryan built a great defense when he took over as head coach of the Eagles back in 1986. It took him a few years to put all the pieces together, but Gang Green's performance in 1991 is one of the best of all time.
Unfortunately, that particular defense didn't get to the postseason. It would have been great to see them playing in January for the one season that everything truly clicked. Instead, we are left with frustrating memories from 1988, 1989, 1990, and 1992. Reggie White and his teammates couldn't shut people down, allowing 20 or more points in each playoff game in those seasons. Despite enormous talent, those teams only won a single playoff game.
Jim Johnson had some great defenses. They shut some opponents down in the playoffs. There were nine games where teams scored 17 or fewer points. Johnson's defense held several teams to single digits. That level of defense helped the Eagles have postseason success from 2000-08.
January is all about defense.
Jim Schwartz has an outstanding defense that sure looks like it is made for postseason success. The Eagles finished fourth in both yards and points allowed. They can rush the passer and cover. They limit big plays. They led the NFL in run defense. The Eagles have every right to feel good about themselves heading into Saturday's game. This group can shut teams down.
A year ago, they limited the high-flying Falcons to just 15 points, less than half of their average. That was far and away Atlanta's worst game of the season. This is a different year and the teams have changed, but it has to help the Eagles' confidence to know they played so well against the Falcons last season.
Schwartz won't make too much of this. He isn't keen on looking to the past, believing that what you did in October 2016 doesn't matter if you don't do it this week. Schwartz does make an interesting point.
Having a great season or a strong track record only matters if the team can play to that level in the game in front of them. The 1999 Rams were one of the greatest offenses of all time. They won a playoff game 11-6. The Steel Curtain, one of the great defenses of all time, won a Super Bowl where they gave up 31 points.
Performance means everything.
The Eagles' defense has been great at Lincoln Financial Field this year. They held five opponents to 10 points or fewer. Eagles fans bring a lot of energy to the stadium and the players feed off that energy. It helps them to play with an edge and fly to the football. Energy and emotion make a difference on defense.
Saturday there will be an electric atmosphere at Lincoln Financial Field and that should bring out the best in the Eagles' defense. They will need that as they try to slow down a Falcons team that made the Super Bowl a year ago and had an impressive road playoff win over Los Angeles last week.
Matt Ryan isn't a superstar, but he is a smart, veteran quarterback. He knows the offense inside-out and isn't going to turn the ball over. Ryan is most dangerous when the Falcons run the ball well and he can use the play-action passing game to deliver big gains.
It is critical for the Falcons to run the ball effectively. In the 2016 loss, Atlanta ran the ball just 13 times for 48 yards. That included a 17-yard run so you can see the average run didn't generate much at all.
The Eagles need to be gap sound and they must tackle well. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are tough, physical backs. They don't go down easily. Penetration will also be key. Both guys are downhill runners who generate power as they build speed. If you slow them down in the backfield, they are less effective.
The Falcons use fakes, bootlegs, and pre-snap movement to try to confuse and slow down the defense. It is imperative that backside defenders don't get careless. They must control their gap on the way to the ball. If the players are too aggressive, Ryan and the offense will burn them.
Atlanta has big receivers. That helps the Eagles, who don't have the fastest secondary. Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, and Patrick Robinson will have their hands full with crossing routes. Chasing Julio Jones all over the field isn't easy. He lines up all over and runs a variety of routes.
Malcolm Jenkins had a terrific game in the 2016 win over the Falcons. He played in the slot for part of that game. Jenkins covered well and also led the team in tackles. His versatility will be key. If he does play in the slot, Corey Graham will be at safety and he's played well down the stretch.
The way to beat the Falcons is by playing well up front. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham must get into the backfield and be disruptive on a regular basis. Tim Jernigan needs to eat up blockers and do the dirty work. Vinny Curry and Chris Long have played their best football of the year in the last month or so. They need to continue that.
The Eagles' offense will also be critical to stopping the Atlanta offense. In the 2016 game, the Falcons only had 48 offensive plays. The Eagles ran 76 plays and controlled the ball for 38:10. They weren't explosive, but the methodical drives kept Ryan, Jones, and Freeman on the sidelines.
The focus will be on Nick Foles at quarterback, but I think this is a matchup that he should handle well. The Eagles need to feed the ball to the running backs, on the ground and in the air. Atlanta has a small, fast defense. You are most likely to have success when you pound on them. Foles can be very good in the short passing game.
The offensive line must control the line of scrimmage. That means blocking defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. He can be a difference-maker. Brandon Brooks, Jason Kelce, and Stefen Wisniewski should be able to contain him most of the time, but he is dangerous.
Those three also must do a good job on middle linebacker Deion Jones. He is a terrific player and the key to that defense. Jones can fly around the field and is a tackling machine. He's less likely to do that if Brooks is pounding him into the ground.
Jay Ajayi faced the Falcons earlier this year with the Dolphins. He ran 26 times for 130 yards and helped Miami pull off the upset. The Eagles may try to feed Ajayi the ball more than usual, but as Doug Pederson has said, they are going to do what's worked all year and that is getting all the running backs involved. LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement will have their share of touches.
Foles doesn't need to do anything special. He must protect the football, make good decisions, and keep the chains moving. If he can mix in some clutch throws or big plays, that's icing on the cake.
There is no question that Foles had some struggles in the final two regular-season games. Part of that is because his teammates let him down. Foles isn't the kind of player who can make up for poor blocking, dropped passes, and penalties. He needs his teammates to play well.
The Eagles played at a high level for most of the year. They can do that with Foles as the quarterback. The guys around him need to do their part by making plays and not mistakes.
Pederson has done an amazing job with the Eagles this year. He has used his players well. He's called the right plays and made the right decisions. This is a huge opportunity for him to show the world that he is an outstanding coach and that he can win postseason games.
I think Pederson will have the right message for his players. They need to play well, but also to have fun. This team was at its best when the players were loose and having a good time. Energy and emotion can make a difference.
If the Eagles feed the ball to their backs and the big guys up front block well, they will move the ball on Atlanta. I still think the key to this game is the Eagles' defense. It needs to have a big game. The Eagles don't need 10 sacks or five interceptions, but Schwartz's crew must play smart and tough. They must win up front and tackle well in space.
If the defense can do the job on Saturday that it has done all year at home, there will be plenty to celebrate on the field and in the stands. It will be a great weekend in Philadelphia.