THE EAGLES' defense keeps passing tests, but the tests keep getting harder.
This week, the Birds stack their streak of not having allowed more than 21 points in a game, eight games in a row, up against the NFL's second-ranked offense, in the visiting Detroit Lions. The Eagles were lucky enough to also get to play the No. 1-ranked offense back on Sept. 29 at Denver, in a 52-20 loss that has to rank as the low point of the season thus far. Since then, coordinator Bill Davis' group has cut its average points per game allowed by 11.1, from 34.5 to 23.4. But that span has not included an offense as potent as the Lions'.
The focal point, after quarterback Matthew Stafford, obviously will be Detroit's 6-5, 236-pound wideout, Calvin Johnson, the NFL's most dominant receiver. Johnson has 72 catches for 1,299 yards and a dozen touchdowns in 11 games. But one reason the Lions don't get blitzed much is that they are more than just Johnson - they have several pass-game weapons that opponents must keep track of. There are running backs Reggie Bush (45 catches, 448 yards) and Joique Bell (34 catches, 378 yards), plus tight end Brandon Pettigrew (38 for 370) and wideout Kris Durham (35 catches, 471 yards).
"We haven't seen a bunch of [throwing to running backs] probably since San Diego and [Danny] Woodhead" in Week 2, Eagles middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans said yesterday. Woodhead caught eight passes for 37 yards in the Chargers' 33-30 victory over the Eagles. "Definitely, we're more conscious of it [this week]. They throw a lot of short passes - they don't run the ball as much, so it's like a run play to them."
"Reggie Bush is like a receiver playing running back," safety Nate Allen said. He noted that Bush, like Brian Westbrook in his prime for the Eagles, can line up wide and create a mismatch. "It's sometimes impossible to blitz 'em, because you've got to have coverage, and they have five wides."
You can probably give up more than a few short catches to Bush and Bell and still beat the Lions. Megatron is the guy with the dozen touchdowns, though, the main reason why the Lions' red-zone offense is so lethal. (Along with backup tight end Joseph Fauria, who has just 11 catches but six of them for TDs.)
We don't know how the Eagles will defense Johnson. They are fortunate to have starting corners with decent size, in Bradley Fletcher (6-foot, 200) and Cary Williams (6-1, 190). Neither Fletcher nor Williams has been known to shy away from physical play, especially with officials seemingly allowing a little more bumping and hand-checking this year, from receivers and defensive backs.
"When I'm playing at the top of my game, I don't fear anyone," Williams said yesterday, when asked about the Johnson challenge. "I want those guys to work hard for everything they get. As far as me being physical, I plan on doing that, doing the things that have made me successful thus far in the season. I don't change up anything just because it's Calvin Johnson out there."
The Eagles have been called for defensive pass interference a dozen times, the NFL's highest total, not including one instance that was declined. Williams has taken three of those, all in Week 2. Fletcher has four.
"I think they're letting a lot of things go," Williams said, continuing a conversation that began in the wake of the Arizona Cardinals' unhappiness with the officiating in their loss to the Eagles last Sunday. "It's not necessarily the most nitpicky things [getting called] anymore, although the situation with Tyrann Mathieu with us [defensive hold negated a Patrick Peterson interception] was kind of ticky-tacky. If I was a [Cards] defender, I would be kind of upset about that . . . some refs will come to you and let you know what's OK and not OK."
Since the Eagles' secondary has been penalized a lot, is there a mindset that sometimes flags are part of the cost of doing business, that you have to be aggressive, regardless?
"I think that's the attitude of us as a defense, period," Williams said. "We're going to go out there and we're going to play physical. I think football is a physical game. When we can go out there and disrupt the timing between a wide receiver and his quarterback, it's huge. It's huge in our confidence, and in our success as a defense, as well."
The Eagles have been getting better pass-rush pressure the past few weeks. Against Arizona, when they sacked Carson Palmer five times, their nickel setup, with a four-man front, was particularly effective. Earlier in the season, the Eagles blitzed a lot to bring pressure, and didn't often get there.
Williams and defensive lineman Cedric Thornton noted yesterday that though Stafford has a quick release, he has been known to throw interceptions - 14 of them this season, along with 27 touchdowns, including four picks game before last, a loss to Tampa.
"Every time I look at him, I just see Brett Favre," Williams said. "I grew up a fan of watching what Brett did, how fearless he was in situations when it was time to throw the football . . . He wasn't afraid to make a mistake. He'd get right back out there and throw a touchdown. I think Matthew Stafford is along the same lines."
The Eagles hosted the Lions last season as well, the game that sent the 2012 Birds into a death spiral. They blew a 10-point lead in the final 5 minutes and lost in overtime. Stafford, held to 91 yards passing, no third-down conversions and a 28.1 passer rating through three quarters, threw for 220 yards in the fourth quarter and the overtime, when the Eagles changed their coverages. The coaching staff that did that is long gone, though, as is most of that defense.
"He's a great quarterback when you don't have pressure on him, but like any quarterback, when you rattle him up, he has to make quicker decisions," Thornton said. "Hopefully, we'll be there to get the interception, or he'll have to scramble out and we'll get a sack . . . It's going to be a messy game, so hopefully, he'll have to run more than pass."
That last point has to be covered - the forecast high for Sunday is 35, with sleet and snow in the morning giving way to rain in the afternoon. This matchup between the No. 2 and No. 3 offenses in the NFL might not be all that high-flying.
"I just play the game," Eagles quarterback Nick Foles said when the forecast was mentioned yesterday. "The ball is going to feel different . . . they're playing in the same conditions . . . you can't worry about that, you can't make excuses for the weather. It's fun playing games with different weather; it's not always going to be sunny and 80 degrees . . . you've just got to go out there and have fun, play like you're a kid again. Just enjoy it."