Donnellon: 'Veterans' of Eagles defense pick each other up
THEY REPLACED injured perennial Pro Bowler Asante Samuel with Trevard Lindley for three games and survived.
They stuck King Dunlap in there when Winston Justice couldn't go against Dallas and survived that, too.
Brandon Graham out? Find and sign Derrick Burgess. Stewart Bradley hurt again? Send in the lightly regarded rookie Jamar Chaney and see what happens.
Defensive coordinators are often measured through schemes and execution, but a big part of their success, at least in most years, relies on deception. How do you hide vulnerability after your two veteran corners, Samuel and Ellis Hobbs, get hurt in the same game? How does your defense work if you have to replace a 6-4, 258-pound veteran signal calling linebacker, Bradley, with the 6-foot, 242 pound Chaney - a player who wasn't picked last spring until late in the seventh round?
"That's certainly a piece of that puzzle," Sean McDermott, the Eagles defensive coordinator, was saying yesterday. "When you wake up Monday morning and you talk to [head athletic trainer] Rick [Burkholder] and coach [Andy] Reid, you want to know who's available. And you start to shape the game plan from there."
Complicating matters is that McDermott's game plan changes significantly from week to week, regardless of who is in there. On the Monday before the Dallas game, for example, he inserted a series of high-risk, high-reward plays he dubbed "the gambler package."
"Every week, it's different schemes," said Quintin Mikell, Eagles safety. "It's actually fun. But it does get challenging at times. Because there's so many things that go in every week you tend to focus on that mentally."
That's a direct result of working under the late Jim Johnson. Johnson's M.O. was confusing offenses into counterproductive play calls through deception and masking. Where McDermott deviates, said Mikell, is involving more bodies to do that, especially this season.
It's not just various packages. It's various personnel for each package, each play inside of those packages even. That's a lot on young players like Lindley who, while trying to adjust to the blue-cold shock of game speed, also must digest something that may not have been practiced since the summer.
"It's tough because you don't want to lose guys and just think you can plug anyone in there," Mikell said. "But we do work around instances where we change up things when we lose certain guys. And sometimes it does work. But like when we lost Stew in Detroit, that hurt us."
More than it did when they lost Bradley in the second quarter last Sunday against Dallas. That's because the game against the Lions came in Week 2 while the Dallas game was played in Week 14.
"For the most part, we have a better understanding now as to where we need to be in the defense," Mikell said. "And when Sean puts together a scheme either to protect our injuries or to create pressure, it's easier now than it was earlier on because we have a better understanding of what we need to be doing.
"Basically, we had a bunch of young guys and a bunch of new guys," Mikell of the Detroit game. "Now we're all veterans in this defense."
That defense is ranked seventh in the NFC and 12th overall in the NFL heading into Sunday's game against the Giants. Nothing exceptional for sure, but given the assortment of injuries at key positions, not the disaster of 2009 either.
"I think the complexion of this defense was different coming into this year than we'd seen in the 10 or 11 years we'd been here," said McDermott. "We knew we were going to get contributions from these young players. It was just a matter of when. We've got five or six players just on defense who are on the IR. So, just through attrition alone, players have had to step up. And they've done a great job."
Not to get too far ahead, but it's a little reminiscent of the Giants during their Super Bowl season, when they used eight rookies, gelled over the season's final few weeks, then hit the playoffs healthy and deep. Or the Cardinals of two seasons ago, when a young and porous defense solidified just enough over the final month to help them reach the Super Bowl.
No one is suggesting the Eagles have that type of mojo, or talent. Not yet anyway. Then again, Lindley looked like a different player from his first Sunday to his second, and Chaney's success in place of Bradley last Sunday was shocking to everyone.
Well, almost everyone.
"That's the funny thing about this team," Mikell said. "Someone always seems to step up. Since I've been here, it's almost always been that way. They put you in a position to succeed. And then it's up to you."
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