Eagles treat every loose ball as a fumble

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Asante Samuel, who ranks among the league leaders in interceptions, embodies the Eagles' focus on turnovers. (Ron Cortes / Staff Photographer)

It was a few months after the 2007 season, and defensive coordinator Jim Johnson had gathered his assistants for a brainstorming session at the NovaCare Complex.

The Eagles, coming off a disappointing 8-8 season, had performed respectably on defense, finishing 10th in yards allowed and ninth in points allowed. What bothered Johnson was their takeaway total.

With just 11 interceptions and eight fumble recoveries, the Eagles ranked last in the NFL with 19 takeaways. It was, by far, the lowest total during Johnson's decade as the defensive coordinator, and that had to bother a man who prided himself on relentless pressure.

"We had a couple years in a row where our takeaways had been really down," said Sean McDermott, the secondary coach then and the defensive coordinator now. "We sat around the table one day, and Jim had kind of wanted to brainstorm, and I just said, 'Why don't we treat every loose ball like it's a fumble?' I don't know where I got the idea from."

Wherever it came from, it was a winner in Johnson's mind. At the start of training camp last season, the defensive players were ordered to swarm to all loose footballs, including incomplete passes. It looked awkward.

"I remember when we first put it in, the guys hated it," safety Quintin Mikell said. "Pick the ball up and run? But you see after that point, last year we started getting more turnovers. And this year we really stressed it, and you see what's happening. I do think it comes from that."

It's so much a part of the routine that McDermott said he had watched the tape of last Sunday's win over San Francisco and had seen one of his linemen try to pick up an incomplete pass and run with it during the 49ers' first offensive series.

"That's kind of that muscle memory - Pavlov's dog-trained instinct," McDermott said.

It's obviously working. A year ago, the Eagles' takeaway total improved to 29. Going into today's game against the Denver Broncos, the total is 36, just one behind the league-leading New Orleans Saints.

The turnovers have led to 119 points, including four defensive touchdowns.

McDermott isn't so naive to think that his pounce-on-the-football practice technique is the sole reason for the increase, but rest assured that the philosophy will continue for the foreseeable future.

"I would say the number-one thing is we put a tremendous amount of pressure on the quarterback," McDermott said. "The second thing is we have in Asante [Samuel] a guy who has accounted for eight interceptions. He's more comfortable in this second year in the system."

Cornerback Sheldon Brown is also having a career takeaway year, with five interceptions and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.

So even in a season when the Eagles lost Johnson to cancer and safety Brian Dawkins to the Broncos, they have managed to improve in one of the most important defensive categories.

"In my opinion, takeaways and points allowed are the two most important stats for a defense," Mikell said. "You give your offense more possessions by getting them turnovers and you're going to win games."

The Eagles need only 18 points in their final two games to set the franchise record for scoring, and much of the talk in recent weeks has been about the team's explosive offense.

"Our defense is a bunch of no-name guys, and we don't get a lot of recognition," Mikell said. "The offense gets all the accolades, but I'd like to think we help with that a little bit. Even against the Giants, even though we played terrible, we scored some points on defense, and that helps."

Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is certainly appreciative.

"We're second in the league in scoring, but that's a team statistic," he said. "The high-scoring teams in this league normally get help from their defense with field position. It's huge."

 


 

Read The Inquirer's Eagles blog, "Birds' Eye View,"

by Bob Brookover and

Jeff McLane, at http://go.philly.com/sports

 

Blog response of the week

Subject: Michael Vick wins Ed Block Courage Award in a landslide vote from teammates.

Post by: snook65 at 11:24 a.m. Wednesday.

"Kudos to Mike. He can put his Super Bowl ring next to it. He's progressing in the right direction. My American Bulldog gave him 2 paws up after I showed him the article."


Contact staff writer Bob Brookover at 215-854-2577 or bbrookover@phillynews.com.