When you think back to last season, as it wound down in its misery and disappointment, nothing stood out more than the sub-par play of the Eagles' secondary. A defense that permitted a franchise-worst 33 touchdown passes lacked the fire and competitiveness needed would be, the thinking was when it was over, overhauled once a new coaching staff was in place and free agency and the draft came around.
Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie had the requisite physical dimensions to excel against the Dez Bryants' and Hakeem Nicks' of the NFL world, but the performance didn't match the expectations and the Eagles made wholesale changes at cornerback for 2013.
Enter Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher. Both are physically able to match up in the league and both have the "nasty" to play a physical game. Neither backs down in coverage. And both Williams and Fletcher know what's coming on Sunday night, just as they knew when Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd came to town and then Calvin Johnson and Kris Durham and, really, a whole host of big receivers who have played the Eagles this season.
"It's a great challenge every week in this league," said Fletcher. "That's just the way it is. Sometimes you're going to win the battle and sometimes they are going to make plays on you. My approach is to battle on every play. I'm going out there and competing on every snap."
Chicago's wide receivers are bigger and better than any group in the league. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery have combined for 170 receptions and 17 touchdowns. Together they've accumulated 2,450 receiving yards. They are what the NFL is all about: Big receivers who can also run and who excel and using their bodies to box out and go up, up, up and make catches. Defending receivers like this on back-shoulder throws is almost impossible.
The task is, pun intended, a tall one for the Eagles cornerbacks. Brandon Boykin, all 5 feet 9 of him in the slot, will see his share of Marshall and maybe even Jeffery, and certainly Earl Bennett, who has 30 catches and four touchdowns on the year.
Chicago's offense is as complete and multi-faceted as any the Eagles have faced this season, and Sunday night represents the kind of late-season test to see just how far the defense has come. The nine-game streak of allowing 21 or fewer points came to a screeching halt in Minnesota last week, so it's bounce-back time for the Eagles on Sunday night.
"They do it all very well," said Williams. "They're big receivers and they create a lot of room with their bodies, so you want to try to disrupt their timing as much as you can. Teams try it. It's not an easy thing to do. Those guys still catch a lot of passes and make a lot of plays. You can't let that get to you, though. You have to keep working at it and make them earn everything they get."
How do the Eagles contain such a potent passing attack, spearheaded by some dynamic playmakers on the outside? The Eagles have to mix up their looks, and they have to be very sound in their technique. Clearly, what the Eagles do up front in terms of pass pressure on quarterback Jay Cutler is going to impact what happens down the field, so coordinator Bill Davis must dial up some pressure and make Cutler throw some balls up for grabs. And when those balls are in the air, players like Williams and Fletcher have to make the plays. They have to get their takeaways.
"That's always the goal," said Fletcher. "When the play is there to be made, you have to make it."
Chicago is going to make plays in this game. Don't expect the Eagles to completely silence an offense that scores points quickly, and that can also beat up a defense with patience and a punishing running game. Williams and Fletcher have to hang in against the best of the best here.
"I'm looking forward to competing, to getting back out there and making something good happen after last week (loss in Minnesota)," said Williams. "This is what you play for. Big game on a national stage against one of the best offenses in the league. It doesn't get much better than this.
"We know what we have to do, so it's a matter of going out and doing it. Come Sunday night, we will see where we're at as a defense."