Silver Lining Offensive Failings Hide Birds' Drastic Defensive Upgrading

Posted: November 21, 1986

For the last month, the Eagles have had one of the more dominating defenses in the NFL. Sometimes that gets buried beneath all of the offensive rubble, but it is a fact.

And although there appears to be no conventional wisdom yet on how to attack the Eagles, there is a trend worth watching: Teams - even teams with great running backs - have been throwing the ball a lot on first down, especially lately.

"I've been surprised," said Mike Reichenbach, the Eagles' middle linebacker. "Teams have pulled out of their running game faster and gone to the air faster than I thought they would. I don't know. I'm anxious to see what happens this week."

This week, that trend will get a severe test in Seattle, when the Eagles play the Seahawks at the Kingdome (Sunday, 4 p.m., Channel 10). Seattle has Curt Warner, the AFC's leading rusher. Under normal circumstances, he would figure to see a lot of the ball against the Eagles. But that is not the way things have been developing as the weeks have gone on and the Eagles' defense has improved.

First, a word on the improvement: It has been stunning. The first three weeks were a joke, with people running into each other and receivers left uncovered. But since then, the whole thing has come together. Here are three examples:

Total Yards Allowed: season NFL rank - 11th; last eight weeks - sixth; last four weeks - second.

Rushing Yards Allowed: season NFL rank - 22nd; last eight weeks - 11th; last four weeks - 6th.

Passing Yards Allowed: season NFL rank - fourth; last eight weeks - fifth; last four weeks - third.

Points Allowed: season NFL rank - 14th; last eight weeks - seventh; last four weeks - fifth.

The last month has seen about as good a defensive effort as one could hope for, and certainly a good enough effort to win. The run defense has improved weekly. And the pass defense also has improved, despite the fact that teams are throwing at the Eagles more than ever.

Throw out the first three weeks, and the Eagles have played better overall defense than any losing team in the NFL. That probably tells you more about the lack of offensive productivity than anything.

All of which leads to another observation. The defense has done all of this great stuff in the last few weeks, but Eagles coach Buddy Ryan has gone out of his way to point out the negatives. He talks about how they haven't come up big at the end of games, which is true (except last week). And he talks about how they need more turnovers, which also is true (the Eagles are 19th in the NFL in takeaways, with 22).

But Ryan is accentuating the negatives, and there is a reason. He gleefully talks about "keeping the pressure on 'em." He's a head coach now, and he will do anything to avoid driving a wedge between the defense and an offense that is coming along oh-so-slowly.

"Apparently, that's what (the Eagles) had in the past," Ryan said. "You win as a team and you lose as a team. You hear that all the time, and that's what I want to hear."

"We don't want to get caught up in saying that we played good, but the offense didn't play good," linebacker Garry Cobb said. "What happens is, when that kind of thing sets in, you gradually don't play as well. We're just concentrating on the fact that we can play better."

"The guys on this team realize what it's all about," free safety Terry Hoage said. "There's no finger-pointing, and that's important. It keeps morale up, and keeps you focused on what you're supposed to do each game and not on dissension in the ranks. That's important. Everybody says it, but it's true."

But back to this passing trend. It has been subtle, but noticeable. The yardstick is first-down plays while the games are close (neither team winning by more than 13 points). Let's go to the play-by-play sheets:

* Washington has George Rogers and Kelvin Bryant in the backfield. But on opening day, the Redskins threw more than they ran on first down while it was still a game.

* The Los Angeles Rams have the NFL's best back right now, Eric Dickerson. But while the game was still close, they threw more than they ran.

* Atlanta has Gerald Riggs, another excellent back. While that one was close, the Falcons were evenly split between passses and runs on first down.

* Dallas has Tony Dorsett and Herschel Walker, two great running backs. But the Cowboys threw more than they ran.

* St. Louis has a fine back in Stump Mitchell, and had quarterback problems the day it played the Eagles (an ineffective Neil Lomax was eventually replaced by Cliff Stoudt). Despite that, the Cardinals threw more than they ran on first down.

* Detroit, last week, was the really crazy one. The Lions had a backup quarterback in the game, Joe Ferguson. And they had one of the NFL's better fullbacks, James Jones. But they went pass-crazy. They threw 17 times on first down, and ran only six.

In all, that is six teams that seemed to go away from their strength against the Eagles' defense, including three out of the last five. It is something that happened when Ryan was in Chicago, too.

"I think that we play so many fronts, it's hard to get 'em all blocked," Ryan said. ". . . I think that's probably it."

Whatever the reason, it is happening. The reason that it surprises Reichenbach stems from his view of offensive coordinators.

"I think all offensive coordinators are hardheaded," he said. "They feel like you can't stop what they want to do. They don't want to be taken out of their game plan. They want to dominate."

But they seem to change up against the Eagles. Ryan talks about the formation as a reason; Reichenbach talks about the Eagles' relative

inexperience.

"I think teams might try and hit us with the pass because they feel our coverage is so complicated," Reichenbach said. "They feel like if they do a lot of motions and stuff, they might be able to screw us up. We know what we're doing, but if they do something different, with that split second to think, they figure they might get a big play out of it."

Occasionally, they have gotten a big pass play. Actually, they seem to be getting about one per week. When the offense gets moving, that won't be a problem. Until then, every defensive mistake is magnified.

This week, Reichenbach is guessing that the Seahawks will come out running. They have Steve Largent at wide receiver, but QB Dave Kreig hasn't been great lately. And they have Warner. And Seattle coach Chuck Knox always has been a running kind of guy.

"Our goal is to put in five good showings," Reichenbach said. "We need to get a lot more turnovers, make more big plays. We need to take something into next year. We need to build some confidence."

Bird Seed: QB Randall Cunningham's rushing yardage last week against Detroit has been adjusted downward by 3 yards, to 110 yards on 14 carries. The last Eagles QB to rush for more than 100 yards was Jack Concannon (129 yards) on Dec. 4, 1966.

It is looking more and more as if Anthony Toney will start in place of Michael Haddix at fullback this week. Haddix didn't practice again yesterday . . . One more thing about the 64 sacks allowed by the Eagles this year: besides being seven short of breaking the NFL record, they already have broken the club record (60 in 1984).

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