Philadelphia Eagles News

Linebackers Enjoy Time In Johnson's Defense

They are off to the side, four of them, and somewhere the sounds of "Sweet Georgia Brown" are ringing as Chris Gocong and Omar Gaither face each other, a football for each man, and they are moving it through their legs in figure-eight motions until Gaither cries out, "My quads are burning!" The two, plus Stewart Bradley and Akeem Jordan and linebackers coach Bill Shuey, burst out laughing. The drill is one of many Shuey employs -- along with a hot-potato version of a game with a football and a tennis ball-catching game to develop hand-eye coordination -- during the course of practice to keep things fun, focused, intense.

In the dream scenario the Eagles laid out in the off-season, the overhaul of the linebackers would play out as it has the first three weeks of the season. Bradley has fit in perfectly as the team's rangy, emotional, intelligent middle linebacker. Gaither is a great match for the get-to-the-ball and play-in-coverage WILL linebacker and Gocong is a terrific piece in the physical, smash-mouth run defense that leads the league.

Not only that, but the Eagles are excited in the young depth they are developing -- Jordan, who is the versatile linebacker and a key to the speical teams coverage, rookie Joe Mays, who showed the promise he has with a magnificent preseason and Tank Daniels, who is primarily a special-teams stopper but who is also a player that fits in nicely on the strong side in this system.

The group, as a whole, through three games, has lived up to the hopes and dreams and expectations. The exciting part, the really, really, really exciting part is that it should only get better.

"I think we're just beginning, yeah," said Bradley. "It's fun. It's a good group of guys."

Three of them, on this particular post-practice day, are sitting at their lockers. The linebackers are situated in the back left-hand corner of the locker room, as they have always been. Gaither and Bradley flank Gocong, and I'm interested to know what it's like to be part of Jim Johnson's defense, especially when he calls the blitz and the dogs are let loose.

"It's the best thing ever," says Gaither. "I would say you don't have to think, that you just have to go after the quarterback, but that's not true. Hey, we blitz with rules. It's crazy."

How does it happen? To the fan, well, it seems like on almost every play.

"Not a lot," says Gaither.

"Are you talking about 'Regular' or are you talking about 'Buffalo?' " asks Bradley.

To tell you the truth, I say, I was just asking ...

"It all depends on what the offense is doing," says Gaither. "If you're playing an offense that uses a lot of the spread, you have some leeway. You can use your instincts if you see something there."

Gocong is silent.

"How much do you blitz, Chris?"

He smiles.

"Every now and then," says Gocong, and Bradley and Gaither laugh.

I wonder if this is what they dreamed of doing, of roaring through the gaps and swooping down on the quarterback and making the big plays behind the line of scrimmage. They watched Lawrence Taylor when they were kids and they understand the mold of greatness that he brought to the table.

"I played rugby dude," said Bradley, who was a safety in his only year of high school football.

"I always wanted to be Barry Sanders," said Gaither. "I was a running back. I had a slight *change in plans in high school. Blitzing? I don't even remember blitzing *ever *in little league football. In high school we didn't blitz as much. I remember in little league I was the fastest man in the league and I was playing *guard. Seriously. I was a pulling guard, just running everybody over."

Gocong and Bradley break up.

"You might have been the fastest lineman," says Gocong, who never played linebacker in his life until last season.

"No, I was the fastest player in the league. That's what I'm saying," says Gaither. "When I was 12 years old, I played third in the AAU Olympics in the 100-meter dash."

"What?" says Bradley.

"I don't deal with the haters," says Gaither, and turns his back away from Gocong and Bradley.

Fun stuff. I want to know this, though: Who blitzes the most among the three of them? Are there set percentages? Any clue at all?

"Gocong gets to go on (the run), but it really doesn't count," says Gaither, laughing. "No, it depends on week. Jim draws it up and we just go out and do it"

"We didn't blitz that much against Dallas and then we had 1,000 blitzes against Pittsburgh," says Bradley. "It all depends on Jim."

There must be a secret, then, to being a good blitzer.Timing? Speed? Power?

"All of the above," says Gaither.

"Selling out," says Bradley.

"The ability to get home," says Gocong. "If Jim calls a blitz, you better get home."

Who knows what Johnson has in store for his 'backers on Sunday night? The Bears are a physical offense with a good running game and a quarterback who is smart and who is going to recognize when the Eagles are coming. The linebackers, the kids, are such a huge key to what Johnson wants to do. For the first time in years, the Eagles have a group that is together, that is going to stay together and that is, if early results are honest, going to be very good for years to come.

"It's great to be part of this, but we also know we have so much room for improvement," said Gocong. "Every day is a step forward for me, I know that. I think we have a lot of confidence that when we are on the field, we're going to make something good happen."

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