Rich Hofmann: Eagles defensive line's strength is in numbers

SOME PEOPLE SAY that the overriding symbol, or characteristic, of the Eagles' defense this last decade has been the blitz. There is truth there, for sure. There is something else, though, more subtle but maybe more telling. It is that the defensive front four comes at you in waves, eight players a game, mixed and matched, shuffled and reshuffled, changing sometimes like hockey lines.

There is no predicting from week to week, no less down to down. It really might be their most distinctive element, this multiplicity of forces. And in all of the talk about how last season played out for the Eagles - maddening until Thanksgiving, then a steamroller - and how the offense and quarterback Donovan McNabb finally found themselves, it should be mentioned somewhere that the Eagles had better pressure on opposing quarterbacks down the stretch and in the playoffs, too - a lot better.

"Everybody is into the game," Darren Howard was saying, trying to explain the phenomenon. "You never know when you're going into the game, so you have to be into it mentally. The other thing is, you're fresh and everybody knows it. When you have eight guys and you're not playing 60 or 70 snaps a game, you're fresh - not only that, but you're fresh for the next game, and when Week 15, 16 and 17 come around, you're pretty fresh compared to other defensive lines."

The team had 48 sacks last year, its highest total since 2002. Howard was the leader with 10, followed by Trent Cole with nine. Howard took some time to find himself after the Eagles acquired him in 2006. Play to play, we continue to try to find him - because Howard is an end, except when he's a tackle. He is perfectly suited for this mishmash - and now the results have shown.

"It's something I've done in the past," Howard said. "Obviously, last year, I played a lot more tackle than I ever have in my career. It was something I was asked to do and I just tried to get ready to play that spot. I was successful down there, had a few plays there. I played some end, too. We'll see how it goes this year. At the beginning of last year, we lost Vic [Abiamiri] and I was needed a little bit more at end. When he came back, I played more tackle. We'll just see how it goes. We'll try to keep people healthy."

Abiamiri, who has fought injuries since the Eagles drafted him in 2007, really began to come on at the end of last year. So did Chris Clemons. They were both a significant part of the late-season push.

For the year, the Eagles had either a sack or a hurry on about 24 percent of opposing passing plays. In the three postseason games, it was 27 percent. In the NFC Championship Game against Arizona, it was 30 percent. But in the end, it still wasn't enough. In the end, Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner shredded the Eagles.

Which brings us back to the blitz. It has become an enduring question: Is that the only way the Eagles can get a dominating pass rush, by risking too often with blitzes? Best as I could tell, in that championship game, Warner was 13-for-15 for 171 yards and four touchdowns on plays when the Eagles did not blitz and 8-for-13 for 108 yards when they did blitz. True, he was very good. Also true, the four-man rush didn't get there.

It was one game, and the other quarterback was excellent. For the season, the Eagles did a fine job balancing risk and reward. If you compare opposing quarterbacks' yards per attempt for the season (the best measurement of a passing game) to their yards per attempt against the Eagles, you see the quarterback beat his average in only five of 19 games - and, really, it was only two: the Cowboys' Tony Romo in that September shootout at Texas Stadium, and Warner at the end.

The Eagles do not have a huge-wattage star on the line, opting for lots (and lots) of good players instead. It is something we will always watch and weigh - and maybe even more now, with defensive coordinator Jim Johnson likely remaining absent as he battles cancer.

For his part, not surprisingly, Howard likes the way they're doing it.

"It's not broken," he said. "What we've been doing the last few years has been working - we keep fresh guys in there, we give the offensive line different looks every time we go out there . . .

"We're going to keep doing it. It just pushes guys to make sure that when you're out there, you get your share of plays and try to get something done . . .

"This is a whole new thing. For us, every game, to have eight guys playing in the game - a significant amount of snaps - you don't see that too often in the NFL. This is something that we've made happen over here."

It is something we will all continue to watch - as we try to figure out who is playing where, and when, and how often. Because it always changes with this Eagles defense. *

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