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Spadaro: Defense returns to its ballhawking mentality

Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro
Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro

With its personnel all present and accounted for, the Eagles' defense on Sunday did what it had done for much of the regular season before some tough injuries challenged the secondary: They took the football away from the San Francisco 49ers. Three times in all, just like before safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson and cornerback Avonte Maddox suffered injuries late in the year.

A takeaway machine.

Maybe you lost it in all of the euphoria from the NFC Championship Game, but with the defense intact for the first time since the Green Bay Packers played at Lincoln Financial Field on November 27 and Gardner-Johnson suffered a lacerated kidney, the Eagles put out a defense that had every piece in place. Gardner-Johnson was at safety, and he was all over the place with speed and aggressiveness and energy – not to mention five extremely physical tackles that really added some nasty to the defense. Maddox, in his first game back since suffering a toe injury in the Christmas Eve game at Dallas, had three tackles, including one for loss playing the slot cornerback position.

"We just had a great game collectively," Maddox said after the game. "Those guys up front put the pressure on and it goes from there."

It sure does. And as the Eagles turn their attention toward Super Bowl LVII and the Kansas City Chiefs, it's important that the defense continues to build. Kansas City's offense will be the greatest challenge for the Eagles all season – the same is true in every phase for both teams, as both the Eagles and Chiefs have been the best teams in their respective conferences throughout the season – led by quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his big arm, mobility, accuracy, creativity, and confidence in big-game moments; a receiving corps led by tight end Travis Kelce and speed on the outside; and depth of talent at running back all fueled by a very, very good offensive line.

It's going to be a great challenge, as it should be.

The latest addition to the gallery is a look at the Super Bowl Media Day with FOX in preparation for the network's broadcast of the big game.

But the Eagles know that they are going in whole, which is so crucial. Philadelphia had 27 takeaways in 17 regular-season games – they led the league in the category until a late-season dip in production – and truly crushed it in that department when everyone was healthy. To wit:

• Three takeaways in the Week 2 win over Minnesota, a game that served as a sign for just how good the defense could be against a potent Vikings offense. The Eagles blanketed wide receiver Justin Jefferson – much of the coverage fell on the shoulders of cornerback Darius Slay, who was outstanding in earning NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors, but it was also a group effort – and shut down Minnesota.

• The following week at Washington, there was one big takeaway that led to a touchdown during a dominating defensive effort – fueled by nine quarterback sacks – in a near-shutout of the Commanders.

• Philadelphia recorded a season-most five takeaways when Jacksonville came to Lincoln Financial Field to help the team rally from a 14-0 deficit.

• In the win over Dallas two weeks later, the Eagles intercepted quarterback Cooper Rush three times to key that win.

• Jonathan Gannon's defense then had three straight weeks, and four of the next five weeks, with two takeaways and the defense was really humming.

Then Gardner-Johnson, who led the NFL with six interceptions at the time, suffered his injury against Green Bay and the numbers dropped.

"He's a guy who is a ballhawk," cornerback James Bradberry said. "When he's out there, you know he's looking to make a play. Always. That's his mentality and that's the mission he's on."

With Gardner-Johnson out, the Eagles turned to Reed Blankenship and he responded. The silver lining with CJGJ out was that the Eagles learned that Blankenship – one of three non-drafted players to make the team's initial 53-man roster – was not going to shrink in the moment. In fact, he had an interception of quarterback Aaron Rodgers in that prime-time game after Gardner-Johnson went out and played well the rest of the season and then on Sunday forced a fumble and recovered it late in the win over the 49ers.

Maddox has battled injuries all season, and the Eagles inserted Josiah Scott and he contributed to one of the best defenses in the league. Maddox, as he neared his return last week, talked about missing being on the field with the rest of the defense – one that ranked among the best in the NFL in most major categories all season.

"You look at what we do and it's like, 'Who's going to make a play now?' That's the mindset we have. We want to cause havoc. We want to take the football away," Maddox said. "I can't wait to get back out there. I know I'm going to be flying around. That's just how I play."

We saw that on Sunday. Gannon and his staff will put together a game plan for the Super Bowl with the intention of limiting big plays and of taking the football away. Those are "winning" stats for Gannon. The Eagles know they are going against the best – Mahomes has passed for 5,250 yards, 41 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in the regular season, and he's thrown four touchdown passes and zero interceptions in the postseason.

But the Eagles are whole now, and anything is possible. Don't overlook this defense and its ability to take the football away. They've been changing games all season, and there is no reason to think the Eagles are going to stop just because it's the Super Bowl next.

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