INDIANAPOLIS - When the Eagles' current run of six playoff trips in seven seasons started in 2000, it was easy to identify the reason.
Defense didn't win the Eagles a Super Bowl championship, but it sure won them a lot of games.
Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's squads ranked among the top four in the NFL in fewest points allowed four times in five seasons from 2000 through 2004. The only year they weren't in the top four was 2003, when they ranked a respectable seventh.
Things, of course, have changed in recent seasons. The Eagles' defense was not dominant last season (15th in points allowed, tied for eighth in sacks, and tied for 13th in takeaways), and it was downright awful the year before (27th in points allowed, tied for 18th in takeaways, and 26th in sacks). Johnson naturally wants to restore the Eagles' reputation for having one of the best defenses in the league, but he knows he has a team in transition.
All 11 players who ended last season as starters figure to be back in 2007, but it's highly unlikely that all 11 are going to be starters again. Johnson knows that, too. In fact, he's hoping that at least one of his seldom-used reserves becomes an impact player next season.
"We'll be a better team next year if [Brodrick] Bunkley comes through for us," Johnson said. "We're anticipating him coming through for us next year."
Bunkley, of course, was the Eagles' No. 1 draft pick in 2006, the 14th overall selection. As the team's highest pick since it took defensive tackle Corey Simon sixth overall in the 2000 draft, Bunkley was expected to be at least a contributing player during his rookie season. Instead, he rarely stepped on the field.
"He's a typical rookie in the sense that you say, 'If he gets better, we'll get better,' " Johnson said. "He's going to compete for a starting job [with fellow tackle Darwin Walker]. I see that."
Johnson knows that improvements need to be made in more places than just at defensive tackle, however.
"I think it's a situation that the linebackers also have to be playmakers more than they have been," the defensive coordinator said. "I felt like at the end of last year we kind of came back a little. We put Omar [Gaither] in there, and he showed he was a bit of a playmaker."
During a stretch in which the Eagles lost five of six games and allowed an average of 23.7 points per game, they forced just six turnovers. But they closed the regular season with five straight wins while allowing an average of 17.8 points per game. During that end-of-season run, the Eagles forced 12 turnovers, including two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns.
"You're looking for guys who can make plays in crucial situations," Johnson said. "The reason we had success at the end of the year was because all of a sudden we were making plays. We were intercepting passes and getting some touchdowns. We're looking for guys in this draft and free agency who can do those things as playmakers."
Gaither figures to be back in the starting lineup at weak-side linebacker, and the hope remains that an improved Jeremiah Trotter returns at middle linebacker.
"I think his season was kind of the same as our season," Johnson said. "He started out all right, and he kind of went through a slump. I think the biggest thing with Trott is he's getting up in age , and I think his off-season will be important for him. He has to make sure he maintains his weight, and that's one thing he's really working on."
As for strong-side linebacker, Dhani Jones is still the starter as of right now, but it wouldn't be shocking if he were replaced by Chris Gocong, last year's third-round draft pick, who spent the 2006 season on injured reserve. It's also possible that the Eagles bring in a free-agent linebacker to replace Jones.
"At linebacker, we're a little bit in transition, so we'll see how that's going to go," Johnson said. "I think our secondary is going to be fine, but we'll have to see how our safety situation is going to be. We like Chris as a football player, but we have to see if he can make that transition after missing a year and whether he's going to be a linebacker or defensive end."
Veteran Brian Dawkins will be back for another season as the starter at free safety, and Sean Considine will likely remain as the strong safety. The Eagles want Considine to work at adding bulk and maintaining it through the season.
"I think people forget that we were three points away from being in the [NFC] championship game, so sometimes it's just a little bit here and there," Johnson said.