IF THE EAGLES get good pressure on the opposing quarterback, Jim Johnson's defenders expect to wreak havoc.
And sure enough, the last time the Birds faced Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, back on Nov. 4, havoc was wreaked. But the Eagles were wreakees, not wreakers.
Time and time again, Romo danced away from pressure and found receivers open in the middle of the field - often Terrell Owens, who romped through his former teammates for 10 catches and 174 yards.
"We added pressure," Eagles weakside linebacker Takeo Spikes recalled yesterday, as the 5-8 Birds prepared for this weekend's visit to the 12-1 Cowboys. "When there was pressure added, he dumped the ball off. We had some busts; [but] at times, it wasn't busts, guys were out there playing hard, trying to make plays, and failed to cover up the back. We're pretty much sure, [this time] they won't be open for that reason."
Largely lost amid the general disappointment in the Eagles' fortunes this season has been the fact that the defense has been decent; last week the Giants managed one touchdown, for which they drove all of 37 yards after a Brian Westbrook fumble. But the Cowboys pounded the Birds, winning 38-17, Romo completing 20 of 25 passes for 324 yards and three touchdowns. No other opponent has scored so many points.
"It was probably our worst defensive game, to tell you the truth," Johnson said yesterday.
Johnson is in his ninth season here, facing a challenge in Romo unlike anything he has seen in the NFC East until now. For much of the Andy Reid era, Donovan McNabb was the only emerging star quarterback in the division. Johnson was able to blitz and befuddle a long progression of Quincy Carters, Patrick Ramseys and Eli Mannings. Romo, 27, in his second season as a starter, is something different.
"Right now, he's playing as high-performance as I've seen since I've been here," Johnson acknowledged. "I can't think of anyone else in the division who has played like him."
Almost exactly a year ago, on Christmas Day, the Eagles went to Texas and handled Romo well, holding him to 14-for-29 for 142 yards, his lowest total of the 11 games he started in 2006. Jeff Garcia led the Birds to a 23-7 victory that might have been that team's best performance.
"He's probably a guy who has much better vision this year than last year," Johnson said. "If the first receiver's not there, he goes to the second. If the second's not there, he goes to the third. He's been very effective on checkdowns when people take away their main receiver . . . He's doing a great job with that, probably as good as anybody in the league right now."
It could be that the way to defense Romo - not that there is a great way, given the Cowboys' extensive weapons - is not to blitz but to cover, hoping he'll throw into coverage, the way a quarterback he has been compared to sometimes does.
"A lot of guys compare his game play to Brett Favre," Spikes said. "He's a guy where, he may not throw off the front foot, he may not step into every throw, but he's very football savvy. He understands the game, and he will do whatever it takes to make plays. A guy who has great escapability, and at the same time, at the last minute, he's going to make a play happen. He's a playmaker."
Corner Lito Sheppard agreed, and cited an example from the November game.
"On one play, Romo did a great job of sidearming a pass - 'QI' [safety Quintin Mikell] was right in his face, he sidearmed it around him, they were able to get 30 or 40 yards on that one," Sheppard said. "He does a great job of moving around."
Though that Nov. 4 game was a blowout, there was a point where the Eagles had a real chance to make a game of it. They trailed just 14-7, time ticking down in the first half, when Sheppard stepped in front of Romo's receiver, Patrick Crayton, and pilfered his seventh interception against the Cowboys since 2003. But Dallas safety Ken Hamlin's pick of McNabb gave the ball right back, and the Cowboys ended up taking a 21-7 halftime lead anyway.
Romo has thrown 14 picks this year, which is a lot, but five of them came in one game, against Buffalo.
"He's a very accurate quarterback," Sheppard said. "If you're close to the receiver, you definitely have a chance to make plays . . . I wouldn't necessarily say he has the strongest arm, but he does a great job of timing it up, and putting the ball where the receiver has a better chance of making the play than the DB. If you take some chances, you can probably steal one, but if you don't steal it, you just know you can get burned."
If the Eagles' defense has a chance on Sunday, it might lie in approaching the Cowboys unconventionally, the way they approached the Patriots back on Thanksgiving weekend. The Pats scored three offensive touchdowns in a 31-28 victory, but compared to some of the performances New England has managed this season, it almost seemed the Pats were struggling. The Eagles sacked Tom Brady three times, using a three-man front quite a bit and blitzing linebacker Chris Gocong from unpredictable angles. One of the main things they did was limit Randy Moss (five catches, 43 yards, all in the first half). Moss didn't catch a pass after taking a big-time hit from safety J.R. Reed in the third quarter.
"That's the same type of character we're going against, literally," Johnson said, drawing chuckles from his audience. "That's the same type of person you're going against. We didn't do a good job against T.O. last time. I know our guys are up to it. We'll see how it goes."
Sheppard said the receivers are similar, but he wouldn't bet on Owens reacting similarly to getting laid out.
"That'd get T.O. a little 'crunk.' You give him a good hit, he's coming back for more, I guarantee that," Sheppard said.
Johnson noted that first-year Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett moves Owens around more than the previous coaches did.
"We have to make sure we're in the right combination coverage, depending on where he is," Johnson said.
Johnson said he feels Sheppard is finally healthy, and he wants to see better play from his secondary, really the defense's only disappointing unit this season. The Birds rank ninth in the NFL against the rush, but just 18th against the pass. *