WHEN THE crime-scene investigators are brought in to look for evidence
in the death of the 2007 Eagles, they'll discover more fingerprints than in a gas station
They'll find Andy Reid's all over the place. They'll find Marty Mornhinweg's and Tom Heckert's and A.J. Feeley's and Donovan
McNabb's and Winston Justice's and Greg Lewis' and even L.J. Smith's.
But they won't find Jim Johnson's.
If assistant coaches were selected to the Pro Bowl based on performance the same way that players are, the Eagles' 66-year-old defensive coordinator would be a shoo-in for a trip to Hawaii this season.
The man whom many thought had lost his mojo has his young defense playing well again after a 2-year downturn. The Eagles head into their final two games ranked ninth in the league in
total defense and 10th in points allowed. They've held four opponents to no offensive touchdowns and four others to just one. Their points allowed average (19.1) is the defense's lowest since the '04 Super Bowl year (16.2).
"I like the way this bunch is playing," Johnson said. "They're playing aggressively and they look like they're having fun out there too.''
On Sunday in Dallas, they held a Cowboys offense that 6 weeks earlier had gashed them for 434 yards and 38 points to just 240 yards and a pair of field goals.
Intercepted Tony Romo three times. Held their dangerous running back tandem of Marion Barber and Julius Jones to 2.6 yards per carry.
"This still is a very young
[defensive] football team,'' said Johnson, who has five starters with fewer than 20 starts and two more with fewer than 40. "Especially in that defensive line and at linebacker. The thing I like about those guys is they like to play.
"[Middle linebacker] Omar [Gaither] just loves to play. And [weakside linebacker] Takeo [Spikes], the two of them have a great camaraderie. And [strongside linebacker] Chris Gocong is getting better every week.
"And between Trent [Cole] and those tackles [Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson] and J.T. [Juqua Thomas] - I know he's not real young, but he plays young - I like our front seven. We just have to keep that secondary healthy and I think we'll be a solid defense.''
Easier said than done. Cornerback Lito Sheppard has missed
14 of the last 38 games with an
assortment of injuries, including four this season with a knee sprain. Strong safety Sean Considine went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in Game 8. Free safety Brian Dawkins missed five games with a neck injury.
But with the exception of that first Cowboy game and those ugly final 2 minutes of the Chicago game, Johnson's defense has played very well this season. Held the Packers' Brett Favre to a puny 4.90 yards per attempt. Held the Vikings' dangerous rookie, Adrian Peterson, to 70 yards on 20 carries. Held the Patriots' Randy Moss to five catches and 43 yards and Tom Brady to just one passing TD. Held the Cowboys' Terrell Owens to just two harmless receptions Sunday.
"You're always looking to see what you have to take away,'' Johnson said. "When you go against superstars like the T.O.s and the Mosses, you have to start there. Then you've got to say, 'How are we going to pressure? What are we going to do different? How are we going to drop and move our people around?'
"Every game plan is a little bit different. But we try to mix and match and do some different things every week.''
Against the Patriots, the
Eagles constantly doubled Moss and bloodied his nose every chance they got. Against the Cowboys on Sunday, Johnson had Sheppard, who was coming off two poor performances, shadow Owens.
"It was nice to see the way Lito challenged T.O.,'' Johnson said. "He did a great job. It was nice to see us make plays on the ball in the air and get some turnovers. Playing against a good offense and holding a team like that in check, it was satisfying.''
The lack of turnovers has been Johnson's greatest disappointment about his defense. Even with the three interceptions of Romo, the Eagles have just 18 takeaways. The fewest they've ever had under Johnson was 26 in 2003.
"It's probably been the most frustrating thing defensively,''
he admitted. "Especially the interceptions [just 10]. It's always been a big part of us. We've always been that kind of team.
"We've come close. We've dropped a lot. Playmakers make them. 'Dawk' always has been a playmaker. And Lito has been, too. And those guys haven't really been healthy all year. That's been a little bit of a part of it. Dawkins sometimes has had five or six interceptions and Lito six or seven. Without those guys, we've missed [a lot of takeaways].''
Johnson's secondary will get a lot of organizational attention in the offseason. Dawkins turned 34 in October, and while the
Eagles want him back, there are concerns about his ability to stay healthy.
"It's just a matter of him making sure in the offseason that he takes care of all his ailments,'' Johnson said. "He loves to play the game. Hopefully, we'll have him for another year or 2. I don't know. That's going to be up to him. But when he's healthy, he's still a very good player. I think he still has a lot of gas left in his tank, I really do.''
Considine already has had two major shoulder injuries in his first 3 years in the league and can't be counted on for next
"Yeah, that worries me a little bit,'' Johnson said of Considine's shoulder. "I understand this operation was much better than the one before. So we'll have to kind of see how that goes. But you're always concerned about that.''
Cornerback also is a concern. As he proved Sunday against Owens, Sheppard is one of the league's better corners when he's healthy. But Johnson can't count on him staying healthy for 16 games. Sheldon Brown gets the most out of his ability, but
really doesn't have the athleticism you'd like an NFL starting corner to have. A move to safety possibly could be in the cards for him if the Eagles can locate another playmaking corner in the draft or free agency to team with Sheppard.
This much is certain: Johnson definitely will be back to coach the Eagles' defense next season. He and his wife Vicky have a vacation home in Southern California that they will one day retire to.
But retirement is the last thing on his mind right now. Too many game plans still to prepare. Too many superstars still to stop.
"I'm not ready to go anywhere yet,'' he said. *
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