FOR MUCH OF this season, the Super Bowl conversation has centered around the Eagles' offense. There were early red-zone woes, the usual angst over timeouts and time management, questions about the built and rebuilt offensive line, concerns about head injuries to Brian Westbrook and DeSean Jackson, worries over Brent Celek's busted thumb and Shady McCoy's peculiar way of holding the ball while running.
But that offense has scored more than 30 points six times this season and in all but two of their 13 games, the Eagles have eclipsed 22. In their last two victories, the Eagles have scored 79 points. In short, Donovan McNabb and Andy Reid have slipped well down on the list of reasons why this team might not reach its Super Bowl goal.
The concern now is the defense, especially after it surrendered 512 yards in last Sunday's hairy, 45-38 victory over the Giants.
"That game turned into a track meet," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was saying yesterday. "I don't think anybody in that defensive room, including myself, is satisfied with the way we played the other night."
How could they be? Poor tackling, players trying to do too much and doing too little instead. McDermott's high-risk, aggressive defense - which had looked so good in nearly shutting out the Falcons the week before - looked overmatched against a New York team that has struggled to score points since starting the season 5-0.
The Eagles were saved by their prolific offensive last Sunday, and by a Giants defense that continued its tendency to surrender big plays. Bill Sheridan, their first-year defensive coordinator, has been under great scrutiny in New York, to the point that head coach Tom Coughlin was asked this week if there was any thought of replacing him.
"None," he said.
Later Coughlin was asked if he "let [Sheridan] know your support for him."
"For sure," said the Giants coach. "I let him know my support for him and I also let him know that it has to be better.
We've got to do a better job. We are here for one reason. The inconsistency part of it is disturbing, let's face it. Six big-play passes and three big-play runs, you are not going to beat anybody like that."
No such speculation exists here, and for good reason. McDermott is in his 11th season with the Eagles, all under the tutelage of the late Jim Johnson.
"You can't tell he's a first-year coordinator," Eagles linebacker Akeem Jordan said. "That's what some people forget about, that he is. It's crazy because he is a first-year coordinator. But no one looks at him that way. Until you brought it up to me, I had forgotten that."
"He's been around here so long, he knows the system in and out," Sheldon Brown said. "We don't look at him as a rookie."
Even after the team surrendered more than 500 yards of offense?
"Those games happened with Jim, too," said the Eagles' veteran cornerback.
When they did, Johnson's, um, intensity, dominated practice the following week. McDermott keeps it more professorial, returning to basic drills on technique and execution. This week he brought out tackling pads not used since preseason practice.
"But you can tell when a coach is mad regardless of whether they're screaming or not," safety Sean Jones said. "His voice - you could tell that he was a little disappointed that 500 yards was put up on us."
"I remain myself, No. 1," McDermott said. "No. 2, it's important that they understand that this was one game and we came, a week ago, within one play of shutting a team out.
"There are highs and lows in a season. I think back to the [first] Dallas game last year where that was also a track meet. We go back to being who we are and we go back to working on fundamentals and the fundamentals that need to show up in the game."
They will be tested again this week. After surprising the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night, the San Francisco 49ers have a puncher's chance at the playoffs. Frank Gore is a a punishing running back. With 11 touchdowns already this season, Vernon Davis is the kind of playmaking tight end that has given this defense fits in the past, especially when there are other weapons like Gore to defend.
McDermott is well aware. He's also aware that this team's Achilles, as it stands now, is the defense that he is in charge of. It has made big plays for sure, and he's had to mix and match, with the number of big injuries to significant personnel the team has suffered. But McDermott is the first to emphasize that it's a bottom-line game, and the bottom line is that the Eagles have surrendered at least 20 points in five of the last six games, and Sunday night's fiasco negated any perceived progress made in a 34-7 victory over Atlanta 2 weeks ago.
They're still looking for an identity, too. Then again, so was Arizona's defense this time last year, and look how that turned out. Three weeks remain, three games against three formidable teams. It's McDermott's chance to claim an identity, to show how much he learned from the late, great old man, to prove he's no rookie.
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