Andrew Perna. 23rd September, 2008 - 9:54 pm
Over the last decade the Philadelphia Eagles have switched identities often. At the turn of the millennium they were known for their stifling defense and serviceable offense as they lacked a playmaker alongside Donovan McNabb.
Then Terrell Owens came to town and they rode a huge offensive wave all the way to Super Bowl XXXIX, and appeared primed to scare defenses for many years to come.
Owens has been in Dallas for three years now, while Brian Westbrook has emerged as the kind of dynamic player Philadelphia needs to put points on the board with relative ease.
Through the first three games of the season the Eagles are in the top-ten in both points scored (4th, 30.0) and points allowed (7th, 16.7), but it?s highly unlikely that they?ll maintain their elite position in both categories all season long.
Here are Philadelphia?s ranks in each of the last six seasons:
Season: Offense, Defense, Record
2007: 17th, 9th, (8-8)
2006: 6th, 15th, (10-6)
2005: 18th, 27th, (6-10)
2004: 8th, 10th, (13-3)
2003: 11th, 7th, (12-4)
2002: 4th, 2nd, (12-4)
That 2002 team ranked in the top-five in both scoring and defense, a rarity in today?s NFL, thanks to under-the-radar performances from guys like Duce Staley, Todd Pinkston and James Thrash on offense and Hugh Douglas, Darwin Walker and Bobby Taylor on defense.
As you can see by the numbers, Philadelphia has yet to truly excel in either facet of the game in the post-T.O. Era. However, they look talented and cohesive enough to rank among the NFL?s best in 2008.
With thirteen games left in the season, which side of the ball will matter most for the Eagles?
Thanks to strong performances from their wide receivers, including the now infamous DeSean Jackson, Philadelphia?s offense looks pretty darn good. Only the Broncos, Chargers and Cowboys have scored more points through Week Three, but with McNabb and Westbrook dinged up heading into a tough three-game stretch, Andy Reid may not be able to count on getting thirty points a game when facing the Bears, Redskins and 49ers.
McNabb was unbelievable in Week One against the Rams, posting 361 yards and three touchdowns, and despite increasing his completion percentage against both the Cowboys and Steelers, his statistics have decreased slightly.
Heading into Sunday?s battle with his hometown Bears, McNabb is 70-for-105 with 838 yards, five touchdowns and one interception on the season.
Westbrook already has five touchdowns, amazing considering that he left this past weekend?s game against Pittsburgh early on, but his yards from scrimmage aren?t on pace to be anywhere near where they were when he led the league last season.
He has just 207 total yards, fewer than rookie receiver Jackson, who has caught seventeen passes for 256 yards through his first three games in the NFL. It?ll be tough for Westbrook to get going soon, with what the team has diagnosed as an ankle strain. He?s listed as day-to-day, but barring a change for the worse later in the week, you can fully expect to see him on the field in Chicago.
Opposing defenses will key in on stopping Westbrook knowing that he?s got a bum wheel, and although McNabb returned after missing a few plays with an injury this past Sunday, a few hard hits could easily worsen the quarterback?s wounded chest.
Considering the status of the team?s two offensive playmakers, all signs point to the defense being the dominant unit for the Eagles this season, or at least for the next few weeks while both McNabb and Westbrook attempt to inch closer to one-hundred percent.
Philadelphia has been tremendous against the run this season, no small task considering that they have faced Steven Jackson, Marion Barber and Willie Parker. They are allowing just 45.7 rush yards per game, nearly twenty yards fewer than their closest competitor (Pittsburgh, 64.3).
Almost surprisingly, they rank 15th in pass defense, allowing 196.3 yards per game through the air. That number is high because of what Tony Romo accomplished in Week Two, he posted 312 yards and three touchdowns, in the Eagles? only loss of the season.
That?s surprising because Philadelphia has arguably the best trio of cornerbacks in all of football. Shelden Brown, Asante Samuel and Lito Sheppard have three Pro Bowl appearances and 54 career interceptions between them.
Samuel, the team?s high-priced free agent acquisition, has done his part so far, posting a league-leading six passes defended and a pair of interceptions.
The pass defense will improve, but what will keep the Eagles in most games is their ability to pressure the opposing quarterback with an extraordinary amount of blitzes. Veteran safety Brian Dawkins, who has already forced two fumbles this season, will help with that.
Jim Johnson, who is in his tenth season as the team?s defensive coordinator, is one of the best at what he does.
From 2000-07, the Eagles ranked tops in sacks (342), second in forced fumbles (139), fourth in points allowed (17.6 per game) and fifth in opposing quarterback rating (75.5). This season Philadelphia is tied for first in sacks (13) with the defending champion New York Giants.
What?s even more impressive is that no member of the team has more than 2.5 sacks to his credit, with nine different Eagles posting at least a sack through their first three games.
That answers the question. It?s nice to have a great offense, but just like you?ve heard thousands of times before ? the best offense is a good defense.
If the Eagles are going to come out of the NFC East this winter, whether it be as the division champion or as a Wild Card winner, it?ll likely be because of their stifling defense.
Andrew Perna is a Senior Writer for RealGM. Please feel free to contact him via e-mail with comments or questions on this piece: Andrew.Perna@RealGM.com.