When Jim Johnson gathers the Eagles' defense for a film review of the next quarterback they're preparing to face, it's not difficult to imagine the players salivating when that quarterback happens to be a fresh-faced rookie.
Johnson's record against rookie quarterbacks since he became the Eagles' defensive coordinator is 8-3, which suggests that his blitzing schemes typically rattle them.
But as the Eagles took the measure of Atlanta's Matt Ryan during preparations for Sunday's game against the Falcons at Lincoln Financial Field, they got the feeling that the rookie from Exton, Chester County, who starred at Penn Charter and Boston College, is not your standard first-year quarterback.
"He's playing like a veteran right now," Johnson said yesterday. "It's pretty rare. Every game, he's improved."
Johnson was the linebackers coach for Seattle in 1998, the year Peyton Manning broke into the NFL with the Colts. He said Ryan is more advanced than Manning at this stage of their careers.
"You could tell Peyton was going to be a good quarterback, but I don't think he had the year this guy's having right now," Johnson said. "This guy's winning football games. Peyton was good, but this guy here is as advanced as I've seen, as far as a rookie that I have been associated with."
Ryan, the third overall pick in the April draft, has helped the Falcons to a surprising 4-2 record with his poise, arm, size and vision. Manning was 1-5 after six games.
But aside from Ryan's dealing with the pressure of taking over an offense that once belonged to Michael Vick, he has some advantages Manning didn't have, though Manning was working with Marshall Faulk. Most important among them for Ryan are a running game that ranks second in the NFL and a physical offensive line that has held opponents to seven sacks.
Ryan's situation is more like that of Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season with Pittsburgh in 2004 than Manning's. An effective running game can be a quarterback's best friend: It sets up play-action passes, and it often leaves the quarterback in third-and-short situations, in which there are obviously more options.
"He's done a great job, make no mistake about it," cornerback Sheldon Brown said of Ryan. "The running game has helped him a lot. When you can run the ball, it kind of keeps the defense off balance. We have to make them play a game where they can't run the football, where they have to catch it, and then we can do some things to get after him."
The Falcons rank ninth in the NFL in total offense, but it's the balance between the run and pass that is striking. They are averaging 163 yards on the ground and 187 in the air. They have run for 47 first downs, passed for 52.
"I'm not saying he [Ryan] hasn't been tested," Brown said. "But when you have a running game, it's a lot easier to play quarterback. A lot of quarterbacks, especially the ones drafted in the first round, they go to teams that don't have a running game, and they're forced to throw the ball 40 times a game, and that's tough. [The Falcons] have been right there where they can control the ball, control the clock."
Johnson shrugged off the success of his defenses against rookie quarterbacks. But he did say he attempts to design plays specifically to keep young quarterbacks off balance.
"I just think about attacking their offensive team, knowing that we are going to try to do certain things against a young quarterback, like we do a lot of different quarterbacks who don't have experience," he said.
Ryan's last game was his best, as he completed 22 of 30 passes for 301 yards and a TD in a 22-20 win over the Bears on Oct. 12.
"I think this guy, just like they did with Peyton, they threw him into the fire right away," Johnson said. "I'm sure Peyton got better as [his rookie] year went by, too, because of experience. You never know how fast a guy is going to come along. This guy has come along at a good pace, no question about it."