Sean McDermont had a difficult choice to make last week as the Eagles' defensive coordinator game-planned for the San Francisco 49ers. Should he focus on the Niners' dangerous running back, Frank Gore, or should he focus on their freak-of-nature tight end, Vernon Davis?
Considering that the Niners had averaged almost 40 pass attempts in their previous four games, and considering that the athletic Davis had an NFL-high 11 touchdown catches and led all NFC tight ends in receiving yards, the choice seemed pretty clear to McDermott.
"We knew we had to take away Vernon Davis in the passing game," McDermott said. "I thought we did a pretty good job of that."
An Eagle defense that has had trouble shutting down tight ends much of the season, held Davis to just three catches for 43 yards in a 27-13 playoff-clinching win.
They did it by deep-sixing their base defense most of the game and going mainly with their nickel package, which features an extra defensive back - nickel corner Joselio Hanson - and just two linebackers.
The risk with a nickel is that you are more susceptible to the run. Not surprisingly, Gore had a pretty good day, rushing for 107 yards on 16 carries. But McDermott felt they could survive a few gashes here and there from Gore as long as they were able put a muzzle on Davis and the Niners' passing game.
"We just said we're going to put our fast guys out there and cover this guy [Davis]," Hanson said. "I mean he runs a 4.4 . So he's as fast as us. It was a smart move by Sean just to put me out there the whole game."
The Eagles' problems against tight ends have been well-chronicled. In the previous 10 games, they had given up 70 catches for 776 yards and eight touchdowns to opposing tight ends. But by getting consistent pressure on quarterback Alex Smith and covering Davis with mostly corners and safeties rather than linebackers, they took away Smith's go-to guy and held him to a puny 4.78 yards per attempt.
McDermott's defense also intercepted Smith three times and forced a fumble by the Niners' other tight end, Delanie Walker. Through 14 games, the Eagles have 36 takeaways, including 23 interceptions, which is their most since 1999, when they had 28.
"They want to throw the football out of that two-tight end set," McDermott said. "Teams have had trouble all year matching up with Vernon Davis with a linebacker. I wasn't going to put us in that position. Hanson went out there and did a good job."
Will Witherspoon and Akeem Jordan got most of the reps at linebacker in the Eagles' nickel package on first and second downs. Tracy White subbed for Jordan on passing downs. White recorded the first interception of his 7-year career late in the second quarter when he picked off a pass intended for Gore.
"We had to get pressure on No. 11 [Smith] so he couldn't get the ball to 85 [Davis]," White said.
"We treated [Davis] like a wide receiver instead of a tight end."
Two of the Eagles' three interceptions came on passes to Davis. Strong safety Quintin Mikell picked off a deep pass down the middle for the tight end on the Niners' second possession.
In the second quarter, Asante Samuel notched his eighth interception of the season when he came off his own man and jumped in front of a pass for Davis.
"I just jumped the route," Samuel said. "I know their go-to guy is [Davis]. So I just jumped it on him."
Because the Eagles played so much nickel yesterday, middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter wasn't on the field very much. But he didn't care. He was thrilled that his teammates were able to shut down Davis.
"I can probably say that this is one week that we game-planned a guy and actually took him out of the game," Trotter said.
"There have been other weeks where we have game-planned a guy and they were still able to get it done. Especially a tight end making catches on us. I'm really proud of the defense, and the fact that we were able to take him out of the game."
Did you notice
** DeSean Jackson's 19-yard first-quarter touchdown catch wasn't just his first red-zone touchdown catch of the season, it was his first red-zone reception period.
** Andy Reid won his third replay challenge of the season (out of nine challenges) on the Eagles' first possession.
** Juqua Parker dropped into coverage on Quintin Mikell's first-quarter interception and was trying to cover Vernon Davis on a seam route.
** Michael Vick was on the field for the Eagles' first offensive play of the game. He lined up in backfield alongside Donovan McNabb and went in motion to the right. McNabb threw a 6-yard screen pass to the left to Leonard Weaver.
** Nickel corner Joselio Hanson's effective blitzing. He forced an incompletion on a third-and-9 blitz late in the first quarter. Did the same on a second-and-9 blitz in the second quarter on the play before Asante Samuel's interception.
** Chris Gocong, who is usually the Eagles' starting strongside linebacker, didn't play at all on defense yesterday. The Eagles spent much of the game in their two-linebacker nickel package. But even when they went with three linebackers, rookie Moise Fokou played the SAM rather than Gocong.
** To Andy Reid for going for it on fourth-and-1 at his own 29 late in the first quarter. Just because Bill Belichick tried it earlier this season doesn't mean it's a smart move. It's nice that he wanted to show faith in his offense. But Leonard Weaver got stuffed for no gain. And if they were playing against a more competent quarterback than Alex Smith, it could've come back to bite them.
** To Leonard Weaver for losing his cool and jawing with Ahmad Brooks as the final seconds of the first half were winding down, instead of lining up so that Donovan McNabb could spike the ball and run another play. Instead of getting another shot at the end zone, the Eagles had to settle for a David Akers field goal.
** To the classy fans who spent much of the fourth quarter heaving snowballs at players, cheerleaders and other fans. Nothing like providing fuel for all those people around the country who think Philadelphia sports fans are obnoxious drunks. Can't wait to hear the talk-show apologists justify this.
By the numbers
** DeSean Jackson became just the third Eagle to register 1,000 receiving yards in a season in the Andy Reid era. With 140 yards yesterday, Jackson has 1,087 with two games left. The other two Reid Eagles to crack 1,000 – Terrell Owens and Kevin Curtis.
** With 48 yards Sunday, LeSean McCoy broke the Eagles' rookie record for rushing yards, passing Correll Buckhalter (586). McCoy has 606.
** Rocca's third-quarter touchback was just his third in 64 attempts this season.
** Todd Herremans' holding penalty in the third quarter was just the fifth of the season by Eagles offensive linemen, and only the third in the last eight games.
** Jackson's 59-yard reception in the third quarter was his 10th catch of 40-plus yards this season.
** For just the second time this season, the Eagles didn't allow a sack. The only other game they didn't give up one was Week 3 against the Chiefs.
** For the ninth time in 14 games, the Eagles scored on their first possession. They've scored 51 points on their first possession this season.
** The Eagles have outscored their opponents in the first half, 253-135.
** The Eagles are 10-0 this season when they've scored 24 or more points. They're also 10-0 when they've led at the half.
** For the second time this season, the Eagles held an opponent without a third-down conversion. The Niners were 0-for-11 on third down, although they were 3-for-4 on fourth down. The Bucs were 0-for-11 on third down against the Eagles in Week 5.
** In his last five starts, DeSean Jackson has had 46 passes thrown in his direction and caught 30 for 557 yards and four touchdowns.
** Donovan McNabb's 72.2 passer rating was his third-lowest of the season. He had a 61.4 rating in the loss to the Cowboys and a 66.3 rating in the loss to the Raiders.
** The Eagles have lost just seven fumbles this season. The fewest ever by an Andy Reid-coached team was 10 in 2001 and '08.
** The Eagles, who had 33 rushing attempts, have had 24 or more rushing attempts in 8 of their last nine games.
** Trent Cole had two sacks to run his season total to 11 1/2. He also had two hurries. In the last five games, he has four sacks and 14 hurries.