THESE ARE heady days for the Eagles' defense, third in the league all of a sudden, after dominating the Giants and the Browns.
But Sunday's date at the Redskins brings up less triumphant memories. Back on Oct. 5, Washington rolled into Lincoln Financial Field and ran all over the Birds, rushing for a humiliating 203 yards on 44 carries, while the home team was held to 58 yards on 18 rushes, Brian Westbrook suffering an early rib injury. The final score of the loss was 23-17, but the Eagles were pretty much pushed all over the field after grabbing a quick 14-0 lead.
In some respects, this rematch shapes up a little like the Giants game 2 weeks ago - a Jim Johnson NFC East revengefest.
"We owe them one. They had a good game on us last time. We didn't look too good," Eagles defensive end Trent Cole said yesterday.
Cole noted that some changes have occurred, both for the Eagles and the Redskins. Injuries along Washington's offensive line have dramatically affected that unit, especially the loss of left tackle Chris Samuels for the rest of the season with a torn right triceps. Johnson, the Birds' defensive coordinator, has given his unit a more physical look by going to Akeem Jordan at weakside linebacker, moving Brian Dawkins closer to the line of scrimmage, and making Joselio Hanson the nickel corner. Victor Abiamiri also is getting more time in the d-line rotation.
The Eagles now rank fifth in the NFL against the run, despite those early 200-yard stumbles against the Redskins and the Giants.
The 8-5-1 Eagles still need help to make the playoffs, but they are in better shape than the 7-7 'Skins, who have faded fast after a 6-2 start.
"Our backs are to the wall. We know we have something, so we're going to keep going," Cole said.
Johnson said yesterday: "I thought two things in the [Oct. 5] Redskins game were running and third down. We weren't very good in either one. When you look at what happened in the first half, we really were kind of hanging in there, up 14-6. We gave up a cheap field goal just before the half, and then it kind of turned around in the second half. We didn't play very well in the second half. We didn't do a very good job on third downs, so that hurt us."
The Redskins converted 11 of 19 third-down opportunities that day. During the Birds' current three-game winning streak, opponents have converted just nine of 33.
Johnson hinted at another similarity with the games against the Giants - the first meeting, the Eagles double-covered Plaxico Burress, and Brandon Jacobs ran wild on them. The second meeting, Burress was suspended and Jacobs ended up leaving the game with a knee injury, ending a much less effective day. In the earlier Washington meeting, Johnson paid Santana Moss quite a bit of attention, shutting out the explosive receiver at the expense of Clinton Portis running for 145 yards on 29 carries.
Moss is playing Sunday, but quarterback Jason Campbell, under fire behind his shuffled line, hasn't been finding him deep much lately. Portis' frustrations with Redskins coach Jim Zorn have been well-documented, although he ranks third in the league in rushing yards with 1,337. The last three games, perhaps limited by an earlier knee sprain, Portis has been held to 131 yards on 47 carries.
"There has to be a combination where we're [covering effectively] and still have enough people to stop the running game," Johnson said yesterday. "We did a good job as far as taking [Moss] away with double-coverage, but it still didn't help win the football game."
Eagles strongside linebacker Chris Gocong said: "I just think that the way Jim's calling the game, it'll be a little bit different, kind of like the Giants worked out. I think we have a good game plan and we really know what they're going to do, so we're feeling good about it."
The word on the Eagles' defense before 2 weeks ago at New York was that it wasn't up to the physicality of the new-look NFC East. Johnson referenced again yesterday how the Birds lost the physical battle against the Redskins in October.
"It hurts, it hurts your pride, but [what Johnson said about the first Washington game] that was the truth. Same thing, Giants Game 1," Gocong said. "You have to pick your game up."
Gocong said the key, as is so often the case, will be forcing Campbell into third-and-long situations.
When they get to those, they'll have to keep a better eye on Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, who burned them for eight catches and a career-high 109 receiving yards in the first meeting.
"It's going to be a challenge," Johnson said. "I think we face, the next 2 weeks, two of the better tight ends in the NFL [Cooley and Dallas tight end Jason Witten]. It's hard to say which is better and which runs better routes, because they're very special tight ends. It'll be a challenge, again, for our linebackers."
Gocong said: "We have improved [against tight ends], but I think this is going to be a big test. Cooley's a great tight end. He just finds the weakness in the defense, in the coverage. This'll be a big thing for us. We know the routes he's going to run, we know all that stuff, how he's a great player. I think recognizing his routes and just being physical on him is going to be the deciding factor for us." *