Philly knows Panthers will attack its weakness and hopes to keep making big plays.
By JOANNE KORTH
Published January 17, 2004
Stop the run.
Every defensive game plan starts with the same goal: Ground an opponent's ground game. Therein lies the key to success, to making an offense one-dimensional, predictable.
Then there's Philly.
The Eagles are the ultimate bend-but-don't-break defense, giving up huge chunks of yardage to the running game but somehow coming up with big plays at crucial times.
In short yardage.
In the red zone.
On the goal line.
"We make plays to keep people out of the end zone," linebacker Mark Simoneau said. "It's got to be an attitude."
The Eagles will face one of the league's most deliberate ground games against the Panthers in Sunday's NFC Championship Game. The goal will be to stop the run. But Philly will settle for stopping the run when it matters most.
Philly allowed seven 100-yard rushers during the regular season but was 6-1 in those games.
Last weekend in a divisional playoff game, the Eagles were on the ropes in the first half. The Packers' Ahman Green had 85 yards on 12 carries on his way to a Green Bay playoff record 156 yards. But the biggest yard was the one he didn't get.
The Packers led 14-3 late in the half and, with no reason to doubt their running game, elected to go for it on fourth and goal inside the 1. Green came up short after tripping over an offensive lineman who was pushed into the backfield by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Corey Simon.
"We get tremendous penetration by the front guys," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "We do a nice job of letting that end line be a 12th man back there and playing tight and aggressive."
Still, the Eagles are aware of their weakness and expect the Panthers to test their leaky run defense.
"It's a copycat league," linebacker Ike Reese said. "If you see something on film that's been successful for a team against your opponent, quite naturally you're going to try to implement that into your game plan to a certain degree."
Implementing a running game requires no extra work for the Panthers, whose ground attack was among the best in the league with Stephen Davis, who rushed for a career-best 1,444 yards.
The success has continued in the playoffs. In a wild-card victory against Dallas, Davis rushed for 104 yards, averaging 4.0. Last weekend against the Rams, the Panthers rushed for 216 yards despite losing Davis early in the second half to a quadriceps strain. Backup DeShaun Foster ran for 95 yards on 21 carries.
Davis, who ran for 115 yards in a 25-16 loss to the Eagles on Nov.30, practiced for the first time this week Friday, but coach John Fox closed the workout to the media and said Davis' status would be a game-time decision.
Davis and Foster have slightly different styles - Davis pounds, Foster slashes - but the Eagles expect Carolina to establish its running game with either back.
"That's been their M.O. all season," Simon said. "That's not just for us. They've done that with every team that they've played. They've gone out and tried to establish a running game. Stephen Davis has done a tremendous job. If he's not playing, DeShaun Foster is still a very good running back who can go out there and hurt you."
Though a 100-yard rusher typically is considered a key to victory, the Eagles defense is doing its best to debunk that theory. What it has not done is solve the problem.
"It's been different things at different times," Simoneau said. "It's a guy not being in the right gap one time, or letting the ball get outside the contain another time. It's a guy missing a tackle. We've given up too many big runs this year and that's been the biggest problem, giving up big chunks of yardage. We've got to continue to work on that."
The defense has been patchwork. In the secondary, safety Brian Dawkins and corner Bobby Taylor missed several games with foot injuries before returning late in the season. Four defensive linemen were lost and linebacker Carlos Emmons, who recorded a career-high 123 tackles, fractured a fibula in Week 16.
But no matter who is on the field, or how many yards they have given up, players respond to a sense of urgency. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's scheme relies on blitzes and aggressive calls, such as the blitz that led to Dawkins' game-turning interception of Packers quarterback Brett Favre in overtime.
"This team is a bunch of fighters," Simoneau said. "No matter what situation we get in, we know that we will find a way to win the game. That is just the attitude this team's taken all year."