Defense must take step forward for Eagles to remain a contender

After watching the Eagles light up the scoreboard behind a high-powered aerial attack last season, the optimism brewing in Philadelphia has focused extensively on Andy Reid's offense.

If the Eagles are to live up to lofty expectations, however, a reconstructed defense directed by second-year coordinator Sean McDermott will be the reason.

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McDermott took over the defense days before Jim Johnson succumbed to cancer and on the eve of training camp last season. Although McDermott had successfully mentored two position groups (linebackers and defensive backs) during his 10-year apprenticeship under the defensive mastermind, the last-minute appointment prevented him from putting his own imprint on the team's scheme.

Under Johnson, the Eagles relied on an aggressive, blitz-heavy system to become one of the most dominant defenses over the past decade. The unit perennially ranked among the leaders in sacks, points allowed and turnovers. That supremacy helped the Eagles capture five division crowns, and make five appearances in the NFC title game.

Given the overwhelming success enjoyed under Johnson, the pressure is on McDermott to maintain the high level of play.

In looking back at his first season at the helm, McDermott's troops earned high marks for their ability to create disruption. The Eagles ranked third in sacks (44), and amassed 25 interceptions, which ranked fourth in the league. The team finished 12th in total defense, and ranked ninth against the run.

While those numbers would be acceptable in most places, the unit's disappointing play during the final two games put a different perspective on things.

The Eagles surrendered 58 points and a whopping 900 yards in back-to-back contests against the Cowboys, and were surprisingly bounced out of the playoffs during the wild-card round.

With the defense seemingly exposed, McDermott has reshuffled the personnel to fit his vision for the unit.

The Eagles have placed a premium on adding speed and versatility to support their pressure packages.

Although the defensive line accounted for 36 of the team's 44 sacks, the Eagles hope to add more explosiveness and diversity up front.

In the draft, the Eagles took Brandon Graham with their first selection to give them a relentless rusher to feature opposite Pro Bowler Trent Cole. The former Michigan standout had 10.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss during his final season, and the coaching staff is counting on him to provide a disruptive presence from the backside. With Cole commanding double-team attention on most downs, Graham could emerge with double-digit sacks as a rookie.

The Eagles also added a pair of hybrid rushers (Darryl Tapp and Alex Hall) via trade to provide McDermott with the pieces needed to mix in some of the 3-4 looks that he flirted with last season.

Tapp, who has 18 sacks in his four-year career, gives the team another undersized rusher to use off the edge on a rotational basis. He possesses exceptional first-step quickness, and could be an intriguing piece in an exotic pressure package.

Hall, who was acquired from the Cleveland Browns, gives the Eagles another rangy athlete. While he is a bit of an unknown quantity, he has shown flashes of potential when given playing time. In his two career starts, Hall has contributed two sacks and been disruptive off the edge. If McDermott can tap into Hall's potential, the Eagles will have a deep line, capable of wearing down opponents with their energy and effort.

In addition to wearing down opponents with a standard four-man rush, McDermott will utilize a host of five- and six-man blitzes.

The return of Stewart Bradley will undoubtedly help with the execution of the Eagles' high-pressure plan. Although the fourth-year pro missed all of last season with an ACL injury, he was one of their most-effective players in 2008, and has the ability to emerge as a difference-maker.

Another player poised to make an impact is Ernie Sims. The linebacker was acquired in a deal with the Lions, and gives the team a dynamic option on the weak side. Sims possesses the speed and quickness to be an exceptional "run-and-chase" player in McDermott's scheme. If he can quickly grasp the nuances of the complex blitz packages, he can become another player capable of forcing turnovers.

With McDermott in position to turn up the heat with more aggressive play from his front seven, the Eagles will put the onus on their secondary to hold up in coverage. While Asante Samuel has proven that he can deliver, the prospect of using several young players in the back-end could force McDermott to call off the dogs.

Nate Allen, who was the Eagles' second-round pick, will find himself squarely in the crosshairs as a potential rookie starter at free safety. The former South Florida star must show up on deep throws to prevent teams from taking advantage of the frequent one-on-one matchups created by the blitz. Allen displayed superior range, athleticism and ball skills in recording 10 interceptions in college. That said, he must assimilate quickly, and avoid allowing crafty veteran quarterbacks to fool him with their eyes. Allen's development will be essential to the Eagles' success.

While questions will persist about the ability of Ellis Hobbs, Joselio Hanson and Macho Harris to cover effectively in base and sub-packages, the combination of the team's pressure and deep coverage could mask their deficiencies.

The talk in Philadelphia might focus on the high-powered offense, but with more weapons and another year for McDermott to put his stamp on the defense, the Eagles are poised to soar again in the NFC East.

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