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Birds' defense offers reasons for hope

Young linebackers Omar Gaither and Chris Gocong are among those who have succeeded this season.

When the Eagles' season comes to a merciful conclusion and the damage is assessed, the inspectors will find a few nicks and dents here and there in the defense but nothing unsightly.

They'll also realize that Jim Johnson, suspected of losing his touch the last two seasons, has regained his stature as one of the game's top defensive coordinators.

Of course, this won't appease Eagles fans, who must deal with an empty playoff calendar in January. But with two games remaining, including Sunday's contest against the Saints in New Orleans, this is about next season. And judging by its play and its youth, the Eagles' defense appears to be built for future success.

Remember when the season began with a fair amount of angst about the defense? There were two new starting linebackers in Chris Gocong, a 2006 draft pick who didn't play last season, and 10-year veteran Takeo Spikes, who came in a trade with Buffalo. Omar Gaither, the third linebacker, began the season with five career starts.

Although Johnson sees more upside to them, Gaither and Gocong have developed into solid young linebackers. It was telling that the Eagles didn't try to patch up the loss of Spikes by signing a veteran. Spikes, who has a torn rotator cuff, was scheduled to have surgery today.

"The linebacking crew was kind of questioned, and it might be questioned again, but I think we'll be all right," Gocong said yesterday. "I feel I've been solid. I want to make more big plays that I know I can. So we'll see if I can make that jump."

Another concern was defensive tackle. It was wondered whether the Eagles' two first-round draft picks - Brodrick Bunkley and Mike Patterson - would show their worth against the run.

They have done so. Last season, the Eagles allowed 136.4 yards a game on the ground. This season, they have shaved it to 94.6, largely because Bunkley matured after a wasted rookie season and Patterson got better.

"I think so," Johnson said when asked if the preseason questions had been answered. "Bunkley has been everything we thought he was going to be. There's no question Mike Patterson is going to be a sound football player. Omar has come around. He's a steady middle linebacker, and Chris Gocong continues to get better and more productive. So, yeah, I'm happy with them right now."

After two seasons in which Johnson's defense sprung more leaks than usual, the Eagles have held eight opponents to one or fewer touchdowns. Last week, they held the high-powered Dallas Cowboys to two field goals, and they limited New England's Tom Brady to one touchdown throw last month.

They have allowed 19.1 points a game, the best performance since the Super Bowl team of '04 allowed 16.2. The Eagles rank ninth in the NFL in total defense and second in red-zone defense.

There have been major stumbles - allowing the Chicago Bears to steal a 19-16 win by moving 97 yards in the final two minutes, and showing little resistance in the first game against Dallas, a 38-17 blowout. Moreover, the Birds have only 18 takeaways. Only Miami, with 17, has fewer.

Johnson has never had an Eagles defense come up with fewer than 26 takeaways, which the unit had in 2003. And the pass rush has been so-so.

Still, there's reason to believe this is an evolving defense because seven starters have fewer than three years of experience as starters.

"We feel like we have one of the best coaches in the league and one of the best schemes, and even though we didn't play great at times, overall we played good," safety Quintin Mikell said. "So we're building for next year."

The defense would likely have been more opportunistic had safety Brian Dawkins and cornerback Lito Sheppard not missed significant playing time with injuries.

"Those guys have been our leaders as far as interceptions, and so it's good to have them back," Johnson said. "We've got some other playmakers, too, but there's no question they were a factor in that."

Johnson said Dawkins has a lot left, but he is 34. Sheppard has missed significant time with injuries the last three years. So it seems likely the Eagles will bring in a young defensive back to groom.

"I think it's going to be important for us to stay healthy in the secondary," Johnson said. "I think we've got to make sure next year we have Dawkins healthy and Lito healthy. The off-season is important for them. We'll evaluate things after the season."