EAGLES DEFENSIVE coordinator Jim Johnson was asked the other day if he minded that his team hasn't managed a sack in its last two games, victories over the Cardinals and Giants. The Eagles began the Arizona game leading the league, with 39 sacks.
"The thing I measure so much is how we're doing on third down," Johnson said. "I've said that before. We might not get there [to the quarterback], but we're getting people off the field. That's all I really care about. I like to have the sacks, for field position for the offense, but mainly it's getting people in third-and-long or second-and-long, and then getting off the field on third down. As long as we're doing that, the sacks will come. We can't worry about that."
On both sides of the ball, third down has been a big part of the Eagles' turnaround these past two games, a turnaround they hope to continue in tonight's matchup with the Cleveland Browns. Last week, the Birds converted 12 of 18 third downs, including an amazing nine of 11 in the second half, while holding the Giants to 3-for-11, and stopping New York on three fourth-down attempts. Against Arizona, the Eagles were 10-for-15, the Cardinals 3-for-10.
The team that controls third down controls the clock. And the team that controls the clock - well, here's how center Jamaal Jackson put it: "[Before Arizona] we hadn't been doing very well on third down. That was something that was stressed during practice the [previous] weeks . . . Keep our offense on the field and the defense off the field. The team that controls the clock pretty much wins the game."
Left guard Todd Herremans said: "When we weren't getting 'em, we were making assignment errors and whatnot. Now we are picking 'em up. Guys are getting to the second level; we're playing pretty sound football."
Defensive end Trent Cole said one reason the defense is sackless lately is that both Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner and Giants quarterback Eli Manning were determined not to take sacks, throwing the ball away under pressure.
"I've seen guys be right there at the quarterback, and the quarterback just refuse to get sacked - he's going to throw the ball just to throw the ball. If he's going to throw an interception, [he's willing to do that]. That's what it seems like," Cole said.
Cole's chances of returning to the Pro Bowl might be affected by his underwhelming total of seven sacks this season; with three games left, he's unlikely to match last season's 12 1/2 figure, which got him to Hawaii. Cole said that isn't a consideration.
"Third down off [the field]. That's all we want," he said. "People know what kind of team we have, as far as Pro Bowl votes.''
Defensive end Juqua Parker said that if the defense continues to get pressure, it will get sacks, just like a baseball hitter making good contact is going to get hits.
"All we've got to do is keep focus and keep playing hard," said Parker, who has five sacks. "That's the way the game goes sometimes. As long as you keep applying pressure," the goal of disrupting the offense is being met.
The Eagles entered this past weekend third in the NFL in third-down defense, behind only Baltimore and Tennessee.
The Eagles' offense, most fans recall, was having a terrible time on third-and-short for much of the season. The nadir was three third-and-1s Nov. 23 against Baltimore, on which the Eagles threw each time, converting none. Before that, the team lost a Sept. 28 game at Chicago it otherwise dominated because it couldn't convert third-and-short, finishing 2-for-13 overall on third-down conversions. Winning that game would sure have made the wild-card playoff picture look different going into tonight; fans could have watched Atlanta struggle past Tampa Bay in overtime yesterday with a tad more clinical detachment.
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said it's great to have finally solved the riddle of third-and-short, but he said he doesn't believe success the last two games will mean much against the Browns, who have a good third-and-short defense.
"It's game to game," Mornhinweg said. "Past history means very little to the next upcoming game. I believe that we are 7-for-7 the last seven, so that's a good thing. We have to continue to do that."
Fullback Dan Klecko said the third-down turnaround has been based on "focusing on the little things . . . I think it was just all of us getting on the same page, putting it all together. It was just a matter of time. Short yardage is tough. A lot of people think, 'It's just a yard,' but they don't realize how hard that yard is to get, especially when everybody is expecting the run."
Klecko agreed with Mornhinweg that "it's a clean slate every time - every time you've got to prove you can get that third-and-1 or fourth-and-1."
Quarterback Donovan McNabb said it's been important that the Eagles have kept the third downs manageable lately.
"It's important that you pick up yards on first and second down to set it up for third-and-short," McNabb said. "Third-and-2 or third-and-3, where you're able to run the ball or set it up for a big passing play. First and second down are very important." *
For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.