The offense has the sizzle and, yeah, it may be one of the most exciting the Eagles have ever had. And it is worth all the headlines it has generated. But we're deep into December and the weather has been whipping out there and it's time for the Eagles defense to make its own stand.
The signs are there. With all of its pieces on the field last week, the Eagles took the ball away from San Francisco four times and shut down a 49ers offense that fielded some explosive weapons. Now, a new challenge waits. Denver has a relentless running game when it is going right, and wide receiver Brandon Marshall is as dangerous as any in the game. Tight end Tony Scheffler is athletic and is an inviting target for quarterback Kyle Orton.
As much as I think the Eagles can score points on Denver and up the tempo here and get involved a little bit in a track meet, a late-December game in Philadelphia usually means fewer points and more defense. So here is what I want to see from the Eagles D as Sean McDermott hopes to mix and match his personnel to create some problems for the Broncos.
**DE TRENT COLE AGAINST LT RYAN CLADY
Great matchup. Two players who should be in the Pro Bowl. Cole has every move in his arsenal and he will need them all against Clady, a second-year player who has balance, size, a good punch and power. You know that Cole is going to bring it on every down against Clady, and that the two will have a battle on the field.
Cole says that Seattle's Walter Jones is the best left tackle he has faced, and that teammate Jason Peters is a handful every day in practice and, certainly, in training camp. Clady is in that upper-echelon category, and if Cole can demand an extra blocker, well, he will have done his job very, very well. If Cole wins this battle, expect the Denver offense to have all kinds of trouble.
**LB WILL WITHERSPOON AGAINST RB KNOWSHON MORENO
The rookie Moreno leads first-year backs in rushing yards and has a chance to reach 1,000 for the season (he has 879 yards to date), but it is in the receiving game where Moreno could do some real damage. Actually, it's more than Moreno coming out of the backfield. He and Correll Buckhalter have combined to catch 49 passes and with Orton expecting pressure, I can see a lot of short dumps and quick throws to the backs.
Witherspoon has made a world of difference in coverage for this Eagles group of linebackers. He covers sideline to sideline and does not stop running. The acquisition of Witherspoon saved this defense a whole lot of hurt this year.
**EAGLES SECONDARY AGAINST WR BRANDON MARSHALL
This is the matchup that everyone wants to see, but it is hard to pin the responsibility of containing Marshall on any one or two players. It is going to take a team effort to hold down the explosive Marshall, who is 6 feet 4, with great hands and a very physical presence. And with starting wide receiver Eddie Royal out for this game, the Broncos may dial up Marshall's number 20 or more times.
Cornerbacks Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown generally don't flip-flop sides, so both will see a lot of Marshall. They will have help over the top from the safeties. The Eagles won't leave Marshall alone, and they know he is going to be a handful in the red zone.
Both Samuel and Brown have been ball hawks this year and they could have a chance for some big plays here, especially if the Eagles put some pressure on Orton. They will have to contend with Marshall, who doesn't give up on plays and who has the ultra-competitive fire that makes him so great.
**EAGLES LDE JUQUA PARKER AGAINST RT TYLER POLUMBUS
Parker has quietly had a very fine season. He has continued to play at a high level with great energy and his 6 quarterback sacks tie a career high and rank second on the team this year. Parker also has 18 quarterback hurries to rank second behind Cole. He has a chance to use his quickness against the second-year man here. Polumbus is 6 feet 8, 300 pounds and he has had some troubles stepping in for the injured Ryan Harris.
Look for the Eagles to attack this side of the line of scrimmage. It is very important that the defense clearly wins this battle and shuts down the running game behind the two-tight end set when Daniel Graham joins Scheffler on the field. Parker has to be stout against the run, and he has to get into the backfield and reach Orton for some big plays.
**EAGLES S QUINTIN MIKELL ON THE BLITZ
Whether Mikell is blitzing or helping in coverage against Marshall, he is going to be amped to show mentor Brian Dawkins what he can do, what he has become. It was great to see Mikell get his hands on the football last week and to make a big play. He needed it. Now he hopes the takeaways come in bunches.
Mikell may move around a bit more than normal here and try to create some havoc. The Broncos have been open to some blitzing, and you know the Eagles like to blitz. Mikell is also going to be huge in run support as the Broncos look to establish Moreno and Buckhalter.
This is a big one for the Eagles defense. They have a chance to make a statement heading into the NFC East and NFC showdown next week in Dallas. Playing well against Denver here would be an encouraging sign that the defense is priming up for the playoffs.