Jim Johnson, the Eagles' defensive coordinator, asks a lot of his linebackers. For the most part, he has gotten the answers he's wanted in the form of tackles for losses (23), quarterback hurries (nine), fumble recoveries (four), and passes knocked down (13).
"Solid," Johnson said yesterday when asked to assess the play of his linebackers. "I'm happy with them."
Yet, there is one statistic that doesn't please Johnson, and that's their number of interceptions: zero.
"No interceptions, and we want to get that," he said. "But they've been very steady."
The Eagles will play their 14th game of the season Monday night when they go against the Cleveland Browns at Lincoln Financial Field and not one of the four linebackers they have fielded has experienced the feeling of picking off a pass.
Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley dropped a ball thrown by Joe Flacco in the first half of the loss to Baltimore three weeks ago, and, who knows, if he had caught it and the Eagles had converted it into a touchdown, Donovan McNabb might not have been benched at halftime.
The fact the Eagles' linebackers have no interceptions is not an indictment of their play. Their primary role is to plug gaps on the run, pressure the quarterback on third down or when blitzes are called, and cover short pass routes by running backs. But nothing gets a linebacker, and a defense, as charged up as returning an interception for a touchdown.
Why the Eagles' linebackers have yet to come up with an interception might be a question that's unanswerable.
"We've come close," Chris Gocong said. "Stew [Bradley] pretty much had one but it got knocked out against Baltimore. It's like last year when we weren't getting fumbles, and now we're forcing fumbles. I don't know. We've gotten our share of PBs [pass breakups]. I don't know, but I think it'll come."
Since late last season, no position on the Eagles has been overhauled as dramatically as linebacker. The final month of last season began with Gocong and Takeo Spikes on the outside and Omar Gaither in the middle. After the since-departed Spikes suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, Gaither moved into Spikes' position on the weak side and Bradley got a look at middle linebacker, where he has been since the start of this season.
Three weeks ago, Gaither lost his starting job to Akeem Jordan, whom Johnson likes for his instincts and coverage ability. The result is a bigger, more-physical threesome that's still a work in progress because the most experienced among them is Gocong, who is in his second full season.
A big test for the linebackers came last week against the Giants, who plowed through them for 219 yards on the ground in the first meeting. After the first game, the Eagles talked about failing to control the gaps and unanticipated running schemes by the Giants. Left unspoken was the fact the Giants had simply manhandled them.
"I think the first time around they just kicked our butts," Gocong said. "It was one-on-one and they just out-did us physically. I know it's a cliché, but we went in with a chip on our shoulder this time. We were going to stop the run no matter what, and that's what we did."
Andy Reid singled out Gocong for his play against the Giants, saying he did a good job funneling the Giants' runners toward the middle.
Gocong, Bradley and Jordan will start their fourth game together against Cleveland, hoping their play against the Giants will carry through the final three games as the Eagles scramble to make the playoffs.
When the Eagles won their final five games in 2006 to win the NFC East, the defense had a lot to say about the surge. Neither Gocong, Bradley nor Jordan were around to play a role in that team's strong finish, but they're well aware of the current circumstance.
"We're in the hunt," Bradley said. "We can control our own fate and that's all we can ask for."
Added Gocong, "It's definitely do or die for us. Really, for us, it's the playoffs."