Philadelphia Eagles News

Sunday A Huge Test For Eagles D

But it wasn't enough. No sir, it wasn't good enough. The coaches said it. The players said it. The media and the fans surely said it, over and over again.

At this time of the year, the focus is just as much on the things that didn't go well as it is on the things that worked. So we have obsessed on the Steven Jackson touchdown run that opened the Rams' offense, and the handful of gashing runs the Rams had, and of the open receivers who, fortunately for the Eagles, couldn't hang on to Sam Bradford's passes.

All in all, the opener was an overwhelming success for Juan Castillo's defense. In the NFL, however, reality sets in very quickly.

"We know we have a lot to work on," said Castillo. "We have to communicate better, put players in better positions and execute what we're trying to do. Everybody understands how much more work we need to do, and this group is excited to get it going again and make improvements."

The next test is far more difficult for the Eagles. The Atlanta Falcons, despite their rugged start Sunday in Chicago, have as balanced and as explosive an offense as the Eagles will see all season. Quarterback Matt Ryan pilots an attack that features running back Michael Turner, wide receivers Roddy White and rookie Julio Jones and future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez.

Atlanta is capable of dominating defenses with Turner and the powerful running game, and with the addition of Jones the Falcons have a deep and complete group of wide receivers.

How do the Eagles play this one? What do they do with White, a Pro Bowl receiver? How improved is the coverage against tight ends, a sore spot in the past?

"We have to play better," said safety Jarrad Page. "We know that. It's a mental thing, not a physical thing, and that's the good news. It's a matter of getting everyone on the same page and working together."

Head coach Andy Reid calls it a "fit," a football term that indicates how one group is working in sync with the rest of the defense. If the front four is pushing up the field, the linebackers have to be tight with them in the right gaps. The coverage behind the pass rush has to be cohesive. The gaps have to be much smaller in the defense than they were in St. Louis.

This is a building-block game for the defense. If the Eagles can go into the Georgia Dome and contain Atlanta's defense, well, we maybe can start to have some sustained confidence in this group. The theme around the league in Week 1 was that offenses were ahead of the defenses in general.

In the game of cat and mouse that is the NFL, the defenses are going to be much improved in Week 2. They change the rules all the time to keep offenses ahead of the defenses. It won't be long before the defenses in 2011 take charge.

How long will it be before we truly know how good this defense, and what kind of personality it brings to the field every week? There are still so many new pieces, something obvious by the missed assignments on Sunday.

I'm interested in seeing how Castillo uses his defensive backs. Does he put linebacker Jamar Chaney on Gonzalez, who remains a vertical threat in his 14th season? Does he assign Nnamdi Asomugha on White, who had a whopping 115 catches, 1,389 yards and 10 touchdowns a season ago? Or do the Eagles keep it as they did in St. Louis, with Asomugha on the right side of the defense and Asante Samuel on the left side?

These are two of the many questions the Eagles must answer. Primarily, though, everyone wants to see the run defense against Turner, who gained 1,371 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2010. Turner is a squat, burly runner who has power in his 244 pounds. He is not an easy running back to bring down.

Then there is Ryan, who endured a ferocious Bears pass rush in Sunday's loss. Matty Ice is a winner, and he is, as evidenced by his nickname, a cool customer. Can the Eagles rattle him with a four-man pass rush, as they employed for most of the game in St. Louis? Or does Castillo unleash a creative pass rush that he has worked on since the start of training camp?

There are many plots and sub-plots working here. The Eagles are likely to use four cornerbacks at times as the Falcons spread the field. Atlanta can run out of that formation, too, testing the Eagles' ability to win one-on-one battles and have their back seven support the run.

Most of all, for Eagles fans I'm sure, eyes are going to be on the linebackers. They had their ups and downs in the opener. Rookie Casey Matthews has been the subject of a lot of scrutiny, some of it accurate and some of it not as justified. He needs to line up the defense correctly and he needs to play the aggressive, instinctive game the Eagles saw from him at Oregon.

The challenge waits, then. Atlanta is a different offensive animal than is St. Louis. More complete. More explosive. More experienced. Better all around.

The Eagles defense passed its first test in the win over St. Louis. A larger, much more significant, test comes Sunday night in the Georgia Dome.

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