The Eagles' defense was the NFL's best in 1991 and it was never better than it was on Monday night, December 2 in the Astrodome.
The Houston Oilers were 9-3 and unbeaten at home. They were averaging more than 400 yards per game with their flashy, wide-open Run and Shoot offense. Their quarterback Warren Moon, a future Hall of Famer, was having his best season and the Houston fans were talking Super Bowl.
Then the Gang Green defense came to town and left the Oilers' season in ruins. The Eagles won the game 13-6 but the final score doesn't reflect how thoroughly they dominated the prime-time contest. It was a total beat down. In Eagles lore, it is remembered as The House of Pain Game, which is the first subject of a new podcast from Eagles Entertainment called Return Game, presented by NovaCare Rehabilitation, that premieres on Friday.
The House of Pain was the name given to the Astrodome that season because the Oilers were demolishing one visiting team after another. They routed the Raiders 47-17, the Broncos 42-14, and the Bengals 35-3, all to the delight of their pompom-waving fans. Their offense was built for the dome with no weather, no wind, and a fast playing surface that was ideally suited for a team that wanted to throw the football.
I was in Houston that week interviewing the Oilers and they were totally confident they would slice and dice the Eagles' defense. Wide receiver Heywood Jeffires said flatly: "There isn't a defense in football that can stop us."
The Eagles were the No. 1 defense in football that season. They ranked first against the run, first against the pass, and first overall. No defense had done that since the 1975 Minnesota Vikings. Their defense was so good, it allowed the team to keep winning even though injuries forced them to play with five different quarterbacks. Randall Cunningham went down in Week 1 and Head Coach Rich Kotite tried to survive with Jim McMahon, Pat Ryan, Brad Goebel, and Jeff Kemp taking turns under center.
The defense kept the Eagles afloat. They were 7-5 coming into the Oilers game and riding a four-game winning streak, but Defensive Coordinator Bud Carson knew this would be their toughest test. The Oilers were an explosive offense that played at a fast pace, especially at home, and could score in a hurry.
Normally when a team is ranked No. 1, coaches don't tinker with the formula but Carson devised a whole new defense for this game. He installed a 4-2-5 scheme with just two linebackers, Byron Evans and Seth Joyner, and inserting Otis Smith as an extra defensive back. He knew the Oilers had no interest in running the football so he replaced one of his linebackers with an extra defensive back to play the pass.
Carson's game plan was simple: Jam the receivers, disrupt the timing, take away the quick throws, force Moon to hold the ball, and blitz off the edges against the five-man protection.
In studying the film, Carson saw most teams tried to contain the Houston offense. They played off the receivers, gave them the short stuff, and tried to limit big plays. It wasn't working. Moon cut those teams to pieces. Carson's plan was to attack them. Put the pressure on them instead of the other way around.
The problem was one of his key players, Joyner, was sick with the flu. He had a 102-degree fever and could hardly get out of bed.
"I was sick for a whole week," Joyner said. "I got it really bad (Sunday) night. I was throwing up all day. My stomach was bubbling. It was hard to breathe. But you have to play."
"Most guys wouldn't have played as sick as he was," Carson said, "but Seth isn't most guys."
Joyner played perhaps his finest game that night. He had eight solo tackles, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and two sacks. Dan Dierdorf, the ABC-TV color analyst, said: "If there is a better linebacker in the NFL than Seth Joyner, I haven't seen him."
Early in the game, Wes Hopkins hit wide receiver Ernest Givens coming across the middle and broke his nose. Givens was finished for the night. Smith and safety Andre Waters leveled receiver Drew Hill and forced a fumble. By the fourth quarter, Jeffires was the last receiver left standing.
The Eagles forced five Houston turnovers and sacked Moon four times. It was the first time in more than two years that Moon failed to throw a touchdown pass. The Eagles didn't generate much offense either – their only touchdown came on a 22-yard pass from Kemp to tight end Keith Jackson – but it was enough to earn the victory.
"We played with tremendous intensity," Kotite said afterwards, "I never saw a defense do what we did tonight. It was a great win under very difficult circumstances. The Oilers are a very good team and the fans make this a tough place to play."
Defensive tackle Jerome Brown provided the memorable final line of the night: "They brought the house and we brought the pain."
An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for NBC Sports Philadelphia. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of hisEagles History columns here.He is also the author ofThe Eagles Encyclopedia: Champions Edition which is in bookstores now.