THE EAGLES will do a better job of protecting Donovan McNabb this Sunday than they did the last time they faced the Giants.
That's not the boldest of predictions. No team has ever given up a dozen sacks twice in the same season, let alone to the same team.
But there are more practical reasons to expect improvement, as well. That Sept. 30 debacle, in which the Giants recorded the fifth 12-sack game in NFL history, had a lot to do with Winston Justice coming unglued in his first start; Justice should watch this game from the safety of the sideline, with William "Tra" Thomas back in his usual spot protecting McNabb's blind side. Justice particularly had touble with the silent count, the Meadowlands crowd at full throttle. This time, the Giants' offensive line will be worrying about crowd noise.
And maybe most important, the Giants threw a lot of blitzes and movement at the Eagles that the Birds hadn't seen on tape. Now they have, even if they haven't much enjoyed watching that tape this week, reliving their most futile offensive effort.
"Nobody wants to live in history," Thomas said this week. Thomas missed the infamous game, a 16-3 loss, with a knee injury. "It was just something that we had to deal with, a rough day for the line . . . you push through it and move forward . . . They threw a lot of different blitzes at us, and with the silent count, you can't really see everything, because you're focusing in on the ball. A lot of times, those blitzes will get you because you're looking at the center . . . the ball is snapped and you're trying to find everybody. At least, being with the cadence, we'll be able to look at them and see what's going on."
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was just as reluctant to revisit the horror of the dozen-sack night. But he indicated that the Eagles perhaps keyed too much on defensive end Michael Strahan (one sack) that evening, not giving Justice enough help on Strahan's fellow ends, Osi Umenyiora (six sacks), and Justin Tuck (two sacks). Umenyiora came out of Week 13 tied for second in the league with 11 sacks, and Strahan and Tuck aren't far behind him, with nine apiece. That's 29 sacks from three players, more than 19 NFL teams had managed, going into last night's action.
"There are a couple of things that we do schematically. I hate to go backwards and talk about that game, because that was a bad thing that happened there," Mornhinweg said. "We normally concern ourselves with No. 92 there, Strahan . . . When you have one great pass rusher, you can do some things to keep him away from the quarterback. When you have two, you've got some problems there, but you can still do a couple things. When you have three, now it becomes a pretty good problem and they've done a nice job of trying to get those guys matched up one-on-one without any help [for the blockers]. We've got a good challenge, the backs and the tight ends, and certainly the offensive line."
Speaking to New York-area media yesterday, Umenyiora hardly seemed more eager than the Eagles to talk about his career night.
"It was just one of those things that happened," he said. "That was a long way in the past; it has gotten me nothing but double and triple teams, so I don't really want to speak about that anymore."
Umenyiora also seemed pretty certain things would be different this time.
"I don't think they're going to let that happen again. If it does, someone could lose their job, and I am not talking about the players, it would probably be a coach," he said. "I don't think they will ever let that happen again."
Thomas and the other Eagles certainly would never imply that Umenyiora's performance was a fluke, though. In his fifth year since being drafted in the second round (56th overall, a mere 41 slots after Jerome McDougle, whom the Birds traded up to take 15th), Umenyiora seems poised to lead the team in sacks for the fourth time.
"He's a high-motor guy," Thomas offered. "He's fast, and he has enough power where he can bull-rush. He has a good mix of everything that makes a great defensive end."
Center Jamaal Jackson said that for all that, the answer to keeping the 5-7 Eagles' playoff hopes alive against the 8-4 Giants wouldn't lie in any newfangled blocking system or complex strategy.
"Block 'em," Jackson said. "That's what you have to do, stop 'em from hitting the quarterback . . . We played bad [in the previous meeting], and we're just trying to right the wrong . . . If they [the coaches] choose to have backs in [to block], then that's what we'll do. If not, you've just got to 'man up.' "
McNabb's mobility increased dramatically in the weeks following that New York game, as he marked the anniversary of his ACL surgery, but he suffered a sprained right ankle (and jammed right thumb) Nov. 18 against Miami. McNabb will be returning from those injuries this week. He said he expects to be as mobile as he was before he hurt his ankle, but Jackson said the line would like to be able to give him a little more time than usual anyway.
"It's going to take some extra protection to get him in the groove" after missing 2 weeks, Jackson said.
Tight end Matt Schobel agreed with Jackson about the answer not lying in schemes or surprises.
"To say we're going to completely change the scheme and stuff like that, we do what we do," said Schobel, who started the Sept. 30 game in place of ailing L.J. Smith but will back up Smith this week. Smith is a stronger blocker and more dynamic receiver. "We just have to play better than we did last time. Obviously, it starts up front. We have to get into our routine . . . it always helps to get the running game going, stay out of third-and-long."
Brian Westbrook also missed that other game, with an abdominal injury. He ran for 141 yards on 20 carries the last time he faced the Giants, the Birds' 23-20 playoff victory at the Linc on Jan. 7. But Steve Spagnuolo was still an Eagles assistant that day; now he runs the Giants' defense, which might have had as much to do with the Sept. 30 carnage as the Umenyiora-Justice mismatch.
"Spags knows our offense very well. He was here for years, practicing against our offense, during camps as well," Westbrook said this week. "He knows our offense very well and he knows our protection, so we need to figure out what we're going to do to try and counterbalance his knowledge . . . The way we weren't making plays, they were able to just pin their ears back and just rush the passer . . . We don't want to get in that position anymore. We don't want to put our quarterback in that position, either." *