Les Bowen: Eagles' Cole faces more difficult test this week vs. Saints

THE LIST OF things the Carolina Panthers weren't prepared to do in last Sunday's opener - along with taking care of that slippery ball, and tackling DeSean Jackson - included figuring out the game of "Where's Waldo?" that new Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott was playing with Trent Cole.

"You game plan and you scheme to the strengths of your tools, of your players," said McDermott, who knows he will have to do some things differently this week against the deadly three-step drops of Drew Brees and his New Orleans Saints. "People try and find him and isolate on him. I don't want teams to be able to pick their spots and know where Trent was going to be."

Eagles' Trent Cole pressures Carolina QB Jake Delhomme as teammate Chris Clemons deflects pass.

Most egregiously, the Panthers failed to account for Cole when the right defensive end blitzed from the middle-linebacker position, early in the second quarter. Thanks to some stunting up front, Cole swooped in on Jake Delhomme unblocked and forced a fumble that Victor Abiamiri recovered for the Birds' first touchdown. The play seemed to completely turn around the flow of the game.

Under the late Jim Johnson, the Eagles often used a random blitzer, lined up in an unusual spot, called the "joker." He tended to be a reserve, not the line's top guy.

"Interchangeable parts. I guess that's a corporate America word, but that's what it comes down to. Our players have to be interchangeable," McDermott said.

Cole, a Pro Bowl performer in 2007, slipped from 12 1/2 sacks to nine last season, at least partly because of the extra attention he got from offensive lines.

"They can stick everybody on me; I'm still going to find a way," Cole said yesterday. Of course, McDermott is trying to keep that from happening.

This week, Cole said, against a much more potent arsenal and a more mobile quarterback, "we're going to have to get there quick as we can. Games like this, that's one thing d-ends hate. We're going to have to get the pressure on him, get him down" and get the Saints into extra-long-yardage situations that negate the three-step drop. "Get him back there lookin' instead of poppin'. We've got to try to take that [quick] route away from him."

The other starting d-end, Abiamiri, said a rusher has to make a quick decision.

"If you can beat your guy, you beat your guy. If not, you have to get your hands up," he said.

You can expect the Birds to play a lot of press coverage - they like to do that anyway, rookie free safety Macho Harris noted yesterday, and it seems especially apt for a team that depends on quick passes and timing.

"It's a timing-oriented offense," McDermott said. "We have to affect the timing of the passing game, and yet we can't overlook the quality of the running game . . . We have to stop the run first; going down there in 2006 [a pair of 27-24 losses, in the regular season and the playoffs] we didn't do a good job of that. It all starts with their running game, and it all starts up front."

Asked what makes Brees especially tough to defend, McDermott said: "He has great feet in the pocket, and he does a tremendous job of keeping his eyes down the field to find receivers. So we have to find a way to affect that and then have tight coverage at the same time."

This will be a tougher test for the two starters who won their jobs at the end of protracted preseason battles, Harris and middle linebacker Omar Gaither. You have to think Brees, who threw six touchdown passes last week against the Lions, is diligently preparing ways to confound a rookie safety.

"If it happens, it happens," said Harris, who said he was not obsessing over that possibility. Harris said he feels he will be "a whole lot more comfortable" than he was in the opener.

"Now that I know I can get the job done, I'm ready to really fly around now," he said.

You would think press coverage by the corners would leave Harris more isolated. He said he prefers the corners to play that way.

"This is an aggressive defense," Harris said. He added that press coverage "makes things precise" - Harris can tell more quickly whether a receiver is looking to block the corner or run a route: "I'll get that read right away."

Gaither also talked about the corners pressing.

"Obviously, it's tough to get pressure against a guy like Drew Brees who throws on timing and gets the ball out fast, but in a way, I think that can work in our favor," Gaither said. "We've got guys covering out there on the edges who can play tight coverage, and you can trust those guys."

Gaither and the linebackers have to contend with an old antagonist, former Giants tight end Jeremy Shockey. McDermott said that the way Shockey was used in the opener reminded him of Shockey's days in New York, when Saints head coach Sean Payton was the Giants' offensive coordinator.

Gaither said it would be a mistake to assume McDermott emptied his bag of tricks in the opener.

"It's going to be interesting all year, I think," Gaither said. "It's not one of those things where you've been here a while, you can kind of relax. I think you have to stay in the playbook."

Said McDermott: "The defense in Week 1 will not be good enough to beat the crowd that we will face this week. We have to be a changed defense, a defense that has improved from Week 1 to Week 2."

For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.