Look at the names on defense the last time the Eagles were in the playoffs. Darwin Walker. Jeremiah Trotter. Dhani Jones. All of those players are no longer Eagles, and others who started in that game, in January of 2007, are in different roles now. Omar Gaither was a starting WILL linebacker the day the Saints gained 203 rushing yards in a 27-24 win in the Divisional Round of the NFC playoffs. Sean Considine was a starting strong safety. Lito Sheppard was the starting cornerback (on the depth chart, but he missed the game with a dislocated elbow) and Roderick Hood was the nickel cornerback thrust into the starting role with Sheppard sidelined.
The defense played well that year, and stepped up down the stretch to help the Eagles win their last five games of the regular season and make the playoffs. But when the Eagles saw the way New Orleans dominated the football -- the Saints had possession of the football for 35 minutes, 24 seconds -- and had one long offensive drive after another, they knew changes needed to be made.
And so, as we have talked about in the past, the Eagles made changes. Many of them, in fact, to a defense that ranked third in the NFL this season, that ranked as one of Jim Johnson's best groups ever and that once again, a couple of days before they do battle in Minnesota in the NFC Wild Card round of the playoffs, is going to have its mettle tested by one of the best running games and physical offenses in the league.
The defensive overhaul has touched every level. Trent Cole and Mike Patterson remain as starters up front, but the Eagles have Brodrick Bunkley and Trevor Laws in the rotation at tackle, Juqua Parker is the starter at left end, and the Eagles are using Darren Howard and Chris Clemons in a variety of way at end and at the Joker position -- the Joker stands up and can attack the line of scrimmage over center or at another pre-determined gap, or can drop into coverage.
Linebacker has a completely new look, with Stewart Bradley a first-year starter in the middle. Akeem Jordan took over for Gaither -- a valuable piece who can play WILL or in the middle -- and Chris Gocong is the starter on the strong side. In the secondary, Asante Samuel starts opposite Sheldon Brown at cornerback, with Joselio Hanson in the nickel. And Quintin Mikell, in his second year as a starter, is a playmaker at strong safety.
Two seasons ago when the Eagles made the playoffs and reached as the NFC East's victor, they edged the Giants on an overtime field goal and then went to New Orleans and allowed all of those rushing yards and had so much trouble getting off the field defensively. Many pointed to that game as the crossroads moment, but the truth is the Eagles sprung leaks throughout the season against the run.
The Eagles ranked 26th in the league in run defense in the 2006 season. In that Wild Card playoff win over the Giants, Tiki Barber gashed the Eagles for 167 rushing yards. There were a lot of worries about the defense heading into a rematch with a New Orleans offense that gave the Eagles defense many, many problems in the first game the teams played.
This defense? Well, it hasn't been tested in the postseason, but it sure has been great for most of 2008. The Eagles have played solidly as a group, they have bought into what Johnson is selling and they are using excellent technique and toughness up front to beat back the running game. Of course, what the Eagles are going to encounter on Sunday is quite a bit different. Adrian Peterson is a superstar running back in his second NFL season, and the Vikings are a collective truckload at the line of scrimmage. The Eagles know Minnesota is going to try to punch them with the 1-2 tandem of Peterson and Chester Taylor, and hope to set up quarterback Tavaris Jackson for some play-action passes down the field.
Philadelphia's defense is in -- knock on wood -- excellent shape entering the playoffs and the truth is that the Eagles will go as far in the playoffs as the defense takes them. With a resurgent Brian Dawkins fresh off earning his second NFC Defensive Player of the Month Award for December in three seasons, and with the secondary at the top of its game and the front seven attacking offenses in such a fast and physical manner, well, it's easy to feel confident about what the Eagles are bringing to the table for Sunday.
But every snap of the ball is a new challenge, and the Vikings are a scary threat from every yard line. The Eagles have to rally to the ball and they have to have excellent discipline and timing when they get after it as Johnson likes to do.
What a difference two years makes? We'll see. The Eagles sure seem to be in a better place defensively now than they were the last time they made the playoffs. This defense has been one of the NFL's best for 16 games. Game 17 is the next mountain to climb.