Eagles offense needs to chip in vs. Cardinals

Donovan McNabb will be smiling if running game produces.
Donovan McNabb will be smiling if running game produces.
Posted: January 16, 2009

IF THE EAGLES' offense can play at the level the defense has established down the stretch and in these playoffs, the Birds ought to be headed to the Super Bowl following Sunday's NFC championship matchup in Arizona.

The postseason victories over Minnesota and the New York Giants have been mostly about Jim Johnson's defense, with the offense stepping up for key plays here and there. Against a very potent Cardinals team, at their home, where Arizona is 7-2, Andy Reid might need more from his offense than we have seen thus far.

People keep trying to peg where this defense ranks among the units Johnson has fielded over the last decade. The thing is, the team's overall success colors those perceptions. The Eagles put four defensive players on the NFC Pro Bowl roster in 2004, the year they went to the Super Bowl, with a team that dominated its conference all season. But that team was really about offense. The defense was along for the ride, something that turned out to be a much bigger factor in the Super Bowl loss to New England than the much-discussed touchdown drive that took too much time. (This year's Eagles defense allowed 51 fewer first downs than the last Super Bowl team, and gave up 726 fewer yards, even though it has two fewer Pro Bowlers. Go figure.)

"We're going to find out Sunday" how good this defensive group really is, Johnson said yesterday. "I don't think people realize how good [Cards QB] Kurt Warner is and how much better this team is right now [than when it lost the Eagles on Thanksgiving]. This is going to be a tough game for us."

This season's Eagles have not been so much about offense, particularly not down the stretch and in the playoffs. The trick Sunday will be getting what can be gotten from gimpy Brian Westbrook and hoping that's enough to occupy the Cards' defense, so that plays are there to be made for DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant, Kevin Curtis and the tight ends.

"Our running game? It's not very good right now. We have to get better," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said yesterday.

One of the balancing acts a team goes through, when it's aiming for a championship, is hitting the cycles right, so the defense and the offense sync up. When one unit's great and the other is rebuilding, you aren't going to win the Super Bowl. In fact, you could argue that the early Reid teams, from 2000 and 2001, might have had the best defenses of the Reid Era, until this season - but Donovan McNabb was a neophyte, the receivers were subpar, Westbrook hadn't arrived yet, and Duce Staley was rehabbing a serious Lisfranc injury. The offense was not ready to win a Super Bowl. By the time it was, defensive stalwarts such as Troy Vincent and Carlos Emmons had moved on, and Hugh Douglas was at the end of his career.

Johnson said he was not losing any sleep over whether this dominating defense was going to be wasted by a struggling offense.

"When Donovan is on, he's as good as there is," Johnson said. "And he's been on."

Westbrook made pretty much the same point about McNabb this week.

"I think he is playing good enough that we've basically outdone a lot of people's thoughts, and [done] things that they didn't think we'd be able to achieve," Westbrook said. "He's been playing good enough for us to win. He's been carrying this team. We haven't had much of a running game these last two games, so he's been definitely carrying this team with the help, of course, of the offensive line and the receivers and tight ends, but he's been doing a great job."

This week, McNabb faces a defense that ranked 19th in the league in the regular season, but has been aggressive and fierce in playoff victories over Atlanta and Carolina. Against the Falcons, the Cards were at home, as they will be for the title game, and their defense did an amazing job of timing the silent snap count against rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, beating the Falcons off the ball, in a loud University of Phoenix Stadium.

The Eagles have practiced with amplified crowd noise before just about every game this season, and they functioned reasonably smoothly in hostile stadiums in their two playoff wins.

"We don't know if the roof is going to be open or closed right now, and we really don't care," Mornhinweg said. "I think Jamaal [Jackson, the center] does a good job, and I think Donovan changes it up pretty well, and so we've been pretty good that way. I think we're one of the top offenses with lack of penalties . . . Now, all that doesn't matter for this game; we have to get it done in this game."

This is more of an impression than a scientific fact, but the defenses that have given the Eagles the most trouble this season tend to have been more big and strong and physically dominant, rather than quick and smallish, like the Cards.

"They've done an excellent job of creating turnovers and creating havoc for the opponent's offense," Mornhinweg said of the Cardinals. "Much of that is quickness and speed."

McNabb seemed to think the fulcrum of Arizona's defense is up front, with his offseason training buddy, Bertrand Berry, at right defensive end, Bryan Robinson and Darnell Dockett at the defensive tackles, and Antonio Smith at left defensive end.

"You know, you're seeing their front four playing well. Everyone's talked about the turnovers and the interceptions that they got last week [against Carolina], the way that their secondary played [the week before] against Atlanta. But the thing that I see is I see their front four really playing well," McNabb said.

"Starting with the first game against Atlanta, being able to shut down [running back Michael] Turner and hold him to only [42] rushing yards, where a lot of people thought that wasn't possible. Then you go into Carolina, where they had almost two guys go over 1,000 yards [DeAngelo Williams with 1,515 and Jonathan Stewart with 836] . . . to shut them down. I see their front four, really their front seven, really clogging up running lanes and just forcing teams to go into the pass and, like [against] Carolina, being able to get their hands on the ball and create some turnovers as well."

Though the Eagles are favored in this game, they are the first Reid-era team to make it to the NFC title game off something less than an 11-win regular season. It has been probably the strangest voyage of the five trips to this point the Birds have made in the past 8 years. Somebody asked McNabb if this would be his most memorable NFC Championship Game.

"Maybe I'll be able to answer that if we go out and do our job and win this game," he said. *

For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com

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