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Paul Domowitch: Reinforcements energize Eagles defensive coordinator McDermott

IF YOU WENT on a 7-day cruise and the first 6 days were a blast, but then on the seventh day the boat sank, chances are the unfortunate events of Day 7 would color your memory of the entire trip.

Sean McDermott will have several new players battling for spots when minicamp opens this Friday. (Bradley C Bower/AP file photo)
Sean McDermott will have several new players battling for spots when minicamp opens this Friday. (Bradley C Bower/AP file photo)Read more

IF YOU WENT on a 7-day cruise and the first 6 days were a blast, but then on the seventh day the boat sank, chances are the unfortunate events of Day 7 would color your memory of the entire trip.

Which brings us to the play of the Eagles' defense last season. Because of the way Sean McDermott's unit was abused by the Dallas Cowboys in those two ugly, season-ending losses down at Casa de Jerry Jones, there is a tendency to believe the whole season played out as miserably as those two games.

In actuality, until Tony Romo and Co. exploited every one of their weaknesses for all the world to see, they hadn't played that badly.

Despite having a half-dozen starters and key role players miss a total of 44 games to injury and, in the case of nickel corner Joselio Hanson, suspension, they went into that final regular-season game ranked seventh in the league in total defense, eighth against the run, first in third-down efficiency, seventh in sacks per attempt and second in takeaways, and had held opposing quarterbacks to a 75.9 passer rating in the first 15 games.

"I was proud of the way the players battled," McDermott said earlier this week. "Facing the adversity that we did, the players stayed together and battled week in and week out. At the end of the day, we just ran out of steam.

"But if you look at the defense as a whole, we were a top-10 defense most of the year. [We were] seventh or eighth going into that last week of the season there until the Dallas game knocked us out. But I thought what we were able to do defensively up to that point was fairly impressive, in terms of getting the ball back to the offense with respect to takeaways and third-down defense."

A couple of the more respected players on that defense, though, suggested in separate interviews earlier this month that there was more to that January collapse than just running out of steam. Safety Quintin Mikell told Reuben Frank, of the Burlington County Times, that some players "were more concerned with their own individual accomplishments than going out and playing as a unit," and second-guessed the coaches and the game plan when things didn't go well.

In an interview with WIP's Ike Reese and Howard Eskin, cornerback Sheldon Brown also acknowledged that some players questioned McDermott's decisions.

"We never had that situation since I'd been here," said Brown, who was traded to Cleveland earlier this month along with linebacker Chris Gocong. "First and foremost, you have to believe in the plan, or you lose before you even go out there."

McDermott, 36, who was handed the unenviable task of replacing legendary Jim Johnson last July as Johnson was losing his battle to cancer, shrugged off the comments by Mikell and Brown.

"I don't know that was necessarily the case," he said. "What I'm focused on right now is what we did well last year as a defense. We've got a number of players in this locker room who have been busting their tails to continue building the foundation we started to build last year. Right now, I'm focused on the 2010 season. We've got a bunch of new faces and new energy and a fresh feel."

Head coach Andy Reid and general manager Howie Roseman clearly have been focused on getting McDermott some reinforcements. They signed free-agent defensive back Marlin Jackson, and traded for defensive end Darryl Tapp and linebackers Ernie Sims and Alex Hall. Then, in the recently completed draft, they used a whopping nine of their 13 selections on defensive players, including end Brandon Graham, trading up 11 spots in the first round to get him.

McDermott is hopeful that with the addition of Graham as a left-side pass-rushing complement to Pro Bowl right end Trent Cole, the Eagles won't have to be as dependent on the blitz to get pressure on quarterbacks.

"It would be nice if we're able to get pressure from just rushing four and not [have to] rely on the blitz as we had to last year to some extent," McDermott said. "When you can get pressure from your front four, that alleviates a lot of your problems."

The Eagles blitzed 257 times last season, which was only 13 more times than in 2008 under Johnson. But the blitz wasn't nearly as effective. They allowed a league-high 15 touchdown passes against the blitz last season, compared with 10 the year before. Opposing quarterbacks had a 79.7 passer rating against the Eagles' blitz last season, compared with 62.1 in '08.

"We had our highs and lows with our blitz package last year," McDermott said. "Part of the blitz package is the coverage that goes along with it. It's important that we stay sharp in what we're doing in the back end as well as the front end."

While McDermott is hopeful the Eagles will be able to get more consistent pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush, he said he still intends to be aggressive.

"I come from an aggressive upbringing footballwise being around coach Johnson," he said. "That focus and that philosophy is not going to change. But, at the same time, if you look back to the year we went to the Super Bowl, we had [Derrick] Burgess on one side and Jevon [Kearse] on the other. Not that that was our best defense over the years. But it's nice when you can get pressure from your front. It takes a lot of pressure off the back end and also the playcaller as well."

If getting consistent pressure on the quarterback from his front four is at the top of McDermott's things-to-do list heading into this weekend's first spring minicamp, covering tight ends better is probably a close second. In 17 games against the Eagles last season, opposing tight ends had a disturbing 102 receptions for 1,079 yards and 10 touchdowns.

That's the primary reason the Eagles traded for Sims before the draft. That's also the reason they plucked the two fastest linebackers in the draft - fourth-rounder Keenan Clayton, of Oklahoma (4.59 in the 40), and seventh-rounder Jamar Chaney, of Mississippi State (4.58).

Neither Sims nor Clayton is very big - Sims is just 6-foot and 225 pounds, Clayton is 6-1 and 229 - but they have the speed to cover in space.

"The league's become a passing league," McDermott said. "If you could have one or the other [speed or size], I think you'd agree you'd rather have speed in the league right now.

"[Covering the tight end] has been an area of concern in prior years, and last year was no different. It's an area we've worked hard schemewise to make sure we're better at this season. Also personnelwise. I feel good about where we stand with the overall speed of the defense. Covering tight ends should be an area we should be better at just from the speed standpoint alone."

McDermott's defense also will get a major boost with the return of middle linebacker Stewart Bradley. Bradley, who tore his ACL less than 2 weeks after McDermott replaced Johnson last summer, sat out the entire season. But he has been cleared to participate in this weekend's minicamp.

"We're talking about a young man that has incredible tangibles and leadership qualities," McDermott said. "He was getting ready to step into a big-time leadership role last year. Just off the field, it was a big loss. We're happy to have him back. He's worked his tail off to get back and be in a position where he can contribute again and play." *

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