JIM JOHNSON has been at the helm of some very good defenses during his decade in Philadelphia. Where his latest unit ranks is for other people to debate, not Johnson. He's just glad his unit is getting an opportunity to test its postseason mettle.
"As well as this defense is playing right now, it would've been a shame [if the Eagles didn't make the playoffs]," Johnson said. "I can't remember feeling this good [about a defense going into the playoffs]. The biggest thing I see right now is consistency and not giving up a lot of big plays, a lot of big runs. And the [pass] coverage has been one of the best we've had, really."
A unit that began the season with so many question marks - Is the pass rush going to be good enough? Are these young linebackers really ready to play? Is cornerback Asante Samuel going to be worth the obscene money the Eagles gave him? Does Brian Dawkins have anything left? Is Quintin Mikell good enough to be an every-down safety? - has gelled into one of the league's best defenses.
Just three teams are ranked in the top five in the league in total defense, pass defense, run defense, points allowed and third-down efficiency: the Steelers, the Ravens and, yes, the Eagles.
The Eagles are third in total defense, third against the pass, fourth against the run, fourth in points allowed and second in third-down percentage. This is the first Johnson-coached defense to accomplish that feat. Johnson's 2002 unit finished in the top 10 in all five categories, but not in the top five.
"We've seen the best. We've played some of the best receivers, tight ends, running backs and quarterbacks in the NFL and have played well," said Mikell. "Now we have that confidence. Hopefully, we can continue to play at the high level we're playing at and not get complacent."
Since the Eagles' 36-31 loss to the Giants in Week 10, when they gave up a season-high 401 yards, including 219 on the ground, the defense has been running on all cylinders.
In the last seven games, they have held opposing ball carriers to 3.11 yards per carry and opposing quarterbacks to a puny 5.58 yards per attempt. They've allowed more than 14 points in a game just twice (36 to the Ravens, 20 to the Cardinals). They've allowed opponents to convert just 28.3 percent of their third-down chances. Just two teams have managed more than 15 first downs (the Bengals with 19, the Redskins with 17) against them.
"I felt like we always had the talent," Mikell said. "But early on, it wasn't clicking on all cylinders. We'd have 10 guys doing the right thing on a play and one guy would make a mistake. Now, everyone's on the same page. Everyone understands each other now and knows where everybody's going to be at the right time. We have great chemistry."
Along the way, Johnson has made some personnel adjustments that have helped take his defense to this level. He moved Joselio Hanson into the nickel package as the slot corner, bumped Sheldon Brown to the outside and put pouting, distracted Lito Sheppard on the bench. He increased Victor Abiamiri's reps at left end in his base defense and at tackle in the nickel.
He benched weakside linebacker Omar Gaither and replaced him with faster, more athletic Akeem Jordan. He increased pass-rush specialist Chris Clemons' reps. He started replacing Samuel with rookie safety Quintin Demps on first down against two tight end alignments to better defend the run. He started using Mikell and Jordan to cover tight ends.
"I had a lot of confidence in Jordan," Johnson said. "I felt he had good instincts and cover ability. Clemons, the more repetitions he got and the more comfortable he got with our defense, the better he got.
"Hanson, I kind of knew what he could do. We really like him inside. He's got good quickness to cover a slot receiver. It's the hardest thing to do, covering a slot receiver inside. Because they got half of that field to work with. But he's done a good job. He got his chance and has taken advantage of it."
The Eagles have allowed just 274.3 yards per game this season, which is the best of any Johnson-coached defense. Some other best-of-the-Johnson-era numbers: yards allowed per play (4.41), first downs allowed per game (15.5), rushing yards (92.2 per game), yards per carry (3.51) and opposing completion percentage (54.1). The only Johnson defense to allow fewer passing yards (182.1 per game) than this one was the '01 group led by an in-his-prime Dawkins and Pro Bowl cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor (179.0).
This clearly is the best run defense Johnson has ever had. They've given up more than 122 rushing yards just three times this season, the last occasion being the Week 10 Giants' game.
Their run defense will get its biggest test of the season Sunday when it faces league rushing champion Adrian Peterson. They held him to 70 yards on 20 carries in a 23-16 win last season.
Johnson credited his ends for much of the improvement in the run defense the last seven games. They've held opponents to 77.8 rushing yards per game the last seven games compared to 103.4 in the first nine. Opponents' yards-per-carry average has dropped from 3.78 in the first nine to 3.11 in the last seven.
"Our ends have gotten better as far as setting the edge," Johnson said. "We've played more aggressive at the end spot. Our tackles have been good all year, but our ends have been more physical at the point of attack. And our linebackers are doing a much better job of getting around the football and filling the gaps."
The ends started playing the run better about the same time Johnson started using the bigger, more physical Abiamiri, who missed the first five games of the season recovering from a fractured wrist, at the left end spot ahead of undersized Juqua Parker.
But Abiamiri sprained his foot in the Eagles' Week 16 loss to the Redskins and won't play this week, which means Parker, Clemons and Darren Howard, who all will get snaps at left end, must step it up against Peterson.
"I wish we had [Abiamiri] back this week," Johnson admitted. "But I don't think that's going to happen. That was a tough one, because he was doing a good job inside and outside."
Johnson clearly is having loads of fun with his talented unit. With the addition of Samuel, he's had his secondary playing more man coverage than ever before. He's moving people around. He's using four defensive ends in nickel. He's blitzing from every angle. Last week, he often went with a nickel alignment in which only two players had hands on the ground.
"He's having a blast," Mikell said. "It's almost like playing a video game and he's saying, 'I can put this guy here, this guy there.' Everyone's making plays. Everyone's got speed and power. He's in a very enviable position to be able to do that.
"And I've been saying this forever, but he's a genius when it comes to these blitzes and coverages. Some of the stuff he comes up with, it's amazing." *