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We'll find out in a rush about Eagles' chances

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 27, 2002


ST. LOUIS -- As game plans go, this one is fairly simple.

The Eagles will come in low, under the radar. Also, they will come around the left flank, and the right one. They will come in disguise. They will come from the rafters, from the sideline, from tunnels beneath the field. They will come regardless of down, regardless of distance, regardless of score.

They will attack. They will swarm. They will hunt in packs. They will arrive in waves.

Then, after the national anthem concludes, they will really start blitzing.

Somewhere along the way, they will try to introduce themselves to Kurt Warner as much as possible.

Also, to America.

You do not know these guys. Furthermore, you do not know if you should bother to know them. They are the Eagles defense, a particularly vicious horde of predators, and today, you will find out everything you need to know about them.

Are they as dominant a defense as they have appeared lately? Or are they guilty of merely beating up the weak? Are they the immovable object needed to stop St. Louis' irresistible force? Or are they merely the final speed bump between the Rams and the Super Bowl.

Today, we find out.

Oh, the numbers are impressive enough. The Eagles were seventh in the NFL this season on defense. They have allowed one touchdown in their past four playoff games. This postseason, they have sent a quarterback to the sideline and a coach to another sideline.

Still, there seems to be an eyebrow raised when you talk about the Eagles defense. Yes, they were the scourge of the NFC East. Then again, the Eagles have the only quarterback in the NFC East. They ran roughshod over the Bucs and the Bears. Then again, have you seen the offenses of the Bucs and the Bears? You couldn't get a decent unit if you merged the teams.

Ah, but now come the Rams, a real offense with real speed playing for real stakes. If the Eagles defense wants credibility, this is how to get it. Shut down the Rams, and the world will be impressed.

For the Eagles, this is their shot of winning today's NFC Championship Game. They have to keep the Rams from blowing up. They have to keep the score close enough to make those two or three impossible plays of Donovan McNabb enough to win.

It is an interesting contrast because, in some ways, the Eagles defense is the flip side of the Rams offense. They both play like a garage band where each member flails on his instrument as loud as possible. They both attack, taking rather than waiting, devouring rather than nibbling.

The Eagles blitz like no one else in the NFL has blitzed for a while now. If you burn most teams as they blitz, they will back off. Not the Eagles. Burn them, and it just seems to make them angry. And they will up the volume.

It is the full-throttle attack of the Eagles defense that makes it a joy to watch. Anyone can blitz, from any angle, in any situation. The Bucs were baffled by the Eagles defense. So, too, were the Bears. It was as if neither team had seen a blitz all season.

Who are these guys? Oh, you've heard of Hugh Douglas, because he seems to be fined twice a month by the NFL for quarterback abuse, but who are the rest of them? Who are Brandon Whiting and Paul Grasmanis and Carlos Emmons and the rest?

Why, they're the guys who are lying on top of the quarterback, that's who.

Talk about your no-names. This is Clint Eastwood on top of the horse in the desert. If Bill Stanfill talked to old Dolphin teammate Jake Scott, he'd have this to say about the Eagles: "Now, those guys are no-names." There is a rumor, in fact, that the Eagles have a defensive end who doesn't even have a name. They just call him No. 94.

Who are they? They are safety Brian Dawkins, the best-kept secret in the NFL. They are linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, the best darned Jeremiah since the bullfrog. They are a pair of great corners in Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent. They are Mike Caldwell, one of the best cover linebackers in the NFL. They are a group led by a coach named Jim Johnson, whose business card should read "No, not that one."

Ah, but are the Eagles enough to take the Rams?

We'll see.

For the Eagles, there are matchup problems. With the Rams, there always are. Vincent, for one, has been injured all week. Can he match up with Torry Holt? Can the undersized Douglas get past Orlando Pace? Who covers Marshall Faulk in the slot?

Philadelphia would answer all of these questions with a single word: Charge.

It's a simple battle plan for the Eagles: Leave Warner spread-eagled.

Warner has been injured as of late. His back aches, and his thumb hurts, and his ribs are sore. For the Eagles to stand a chance in this, they have to harass him from the opening gun. They have to throw off his rhythm, because otherwise, Warner's quick decision making and accurate throwing will pick Philadelphia apart on quick slants.

If the Eagles can push Warner around some, if they can knock him down often enough, Philadelphia has a puncher's chance in this game.

Make it a game, Eagles, and you make yourself a name.

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