The 2008 Philadelphia Eagles are defined by their defense, a unit that has played its best football late in the season.
Like any great defense, this unit is diversified in its attack. The whole is better than the parts and can frustrate an offense in a variety of ways. In our Anatomy of a Play, we focus on three strengths: stopping the run, reading routes, and pressuring the quarterback (48 sacks).
Stopping the Run
Three fundamentals of any good run defense, from Pop Warner to the NFL, are tackling, leverage and discipline. Each fundamental hinges on the other, and if you have 11 defenders who've mastered them, running on the defense will be tough.
The Eagles showed all three in their Week 14 win over the Giants, when they held the league's top rushing attack to just 88 yards.
On the play we chose, outside linebacker Chris Gocong darted across the line of scrimmage and attacked the inside shoulder of fullback Madison Hedgecock, forcing Brandon Jacobs to run laterally rather than straight ahead. When Jacobs redirected in the backfield, the defense won.
When it comes to reading and understanding route combinations, the Eagles are one of the league's best. As an individual, cornerback Asante Samuel is the very best. Philadelphia gave him big money in the offseason to be a difference-maker in its secondary, and he has not disappointed.
Samuel's approach is to play 7-8 yards off the receiver and read both the receiver's route and the quarterback. You'll also see Champ Bailey do this. The difference is, Bailey often gets beat deep, but Samuel rarely does.
Samuel has the unique ability to feel the subtleties in a receiver's route without staring at him. When the quarterback throws the ball, Samuel can often beat the receiver to the ball without creating a pass-interference penalty.
He showed this in Week 8 against the Falcons when he jumped a 15-yard in-breaking route by Roddy White and intercepted Matt Ryan. It takes talent and guts to play with this kind of technique because a good double move by the receiver and a savvy pump and/or eye fake by the quarterback can get you torched. Samuel's rare talent allows him to pull it off.
Anatomy of a Play
Pressuring the Quarterback
Pressure has been the Eagles' trademark under defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, but this season was perhaps their best. They ranked third in the league in sacks and showed the ability to harass a quarterback with scheme and by winning individual matchups.
There were eight defenders on the line of scrimmage in position to attack immediately. That created doubt and hesitation in Pittsburgh's pass protection. Who was coming? How many were coming? It was impossible to block them all, so the Steelers chose the most dangerous seven, leaving Sheldon Brown as the unblocked player off the edge.
At the snap, three of the eight defenders dropped into coverage and Brown came unblocked. When Roethlisberger was forced to move, Brian Dawkins attacked and forced a fumble.
The Eagles were fortunate to sneak into the playoffs and now they're in the NFC Championship Game. If defense does indeed win championships, Philadelphia has as good a chance as anyone to raise the Lombardi Trophy.