Phil Sheridan: Getting physical: December will be a test for the Eagles

Quarterback Michael Vick gets pressure from the Chicago Bears. He has complained about getting hit late by defenders, saying it has begun to wear on him.
Quarterback Michael Vick gets pressure from the Chicago Bears. He has complained about getting hit late by defenders, saying it has begun to wear on him.
Posted: December 12, 2010

It is December, when the weather turns cold and football is all about stout defense and power running games and grinding it out in the elements.

Right?

That is the common wisdom, but these are uncommon times in the NFL. As the Eagles prepare for the fascinating final quarter of a fascinating 2010 season, it is worth taking note of just how uncommon.

Normally, you'd be very concerned about the absence of cornerback Asante Samuel for Sunday night's game against the Dallas Cowboys. Normally, you'd look at the Eagles' defensive problems - too many TD passes allowed, no red-zone presence at all - and you'd think this team had no chance to win out and secure the NFC East title.

Normally.

Those very words - "NFC East" - conjure up images of Bill Parcells' old-school teams and Emmitt Smith and the Hogs and the great Eagles defenses under Buddy Ryan and Bud Carson and Jim Johnson. Well, forget about it, at least this year.

This is the season of No Defense Necessary, of video-game action and ridiculous scoring. Defense has been marginalized by rule changes affecting pass interference, head coaching trends (defensive coaches need not apply) and the fine-crazed league office.

New England head coach Bill Belichick, once Parcells' defensive coordinator, has the second-worst defense in the NFL in terms of yards allowed. That might seem shocking, except that the Patriots' record is 10-2. If nothing else tells you we're through the Looking Glass here, that ought to do it.

The Patriots won three Super Bowls with a defense-oriented team. They were offense-driven in 2007, when they went 18-0 before losing in the Super Bowl. But even that team had a defense. The current Patriots are in the middle of the pack as far as points allowed, but they are still giving up nearly a touchdown more per game than the 2001 team that won Belichick's first Super Bowl.

The Jets have an actual defense-oriented coach and team in Rex Ryan. They just gave up 45 points to Belichick's Patriots last week. That game took place in December, in Foxborough, with game-time temps in the 20s and a wind chill in the teens.

All of this is vital when Eagles fans and, ultimately, Andy Reid are judging defensive coordinator Sean McDermott. He is coaching a young defense, just like Belichick. He is coaching alongside an offensive system that neglects the running game and ball control in favor of a hit-or-miss, big-play philosophy. And he is coaching in a league that, for this season at least, is skewed crazily in favor of offense and scoring.

Johnson may have done a better job under these conditions, but there's no doubt he would have had something unfriendly to say about these offense-friendly conditions.

So it stands to reason that the Eagles, who lead the league in yardage, are poised perfectly to take advantage of this. With Michael Vick at the controls of Reid's pass-first (and second and third) offense, the Eagles are averaging 34 points per game. In Dan Marino's best season, the all-offense, no-defense Miami Dolphins averaged about 32. Dan Fouts, playing in the Air Coryell system, averaged just under 30 in his most productive year. Kurt Warner in 1999, running the Greatest Show on Turf: about 33 points per game.

So the Eagles are in perfect position, right?

Well, yes and no. It is a very good year to have a spectacular offense and a work-in-progress defense. But things are a little more complicated than that.

In my memory, physical contact has never been as big an issue as it is for the Eagles' key offensive players. Vick has openly complained about getting hit late, saying it has begun to wear on him. DeSean Jackson was knocked out on a vicious hit earlier in the season and has been visibly avoiding contact whenever possible since then. Even Jeremy Maclin, who is having a fine season, appears cautious when the ball is in his hands.

These Eagles are practically inviting teams to be more physical with them. It has been proven the most effective way to slow both Vick and Jackson down. As the season wears on and the games mean more and the ground becomes colder and harder, it will become more difficult to avoid punishing hits.

"This is what it's about," Vick said Friday. "Playing in December, a tough stretch, you find out a lot about yourself."

In the good old days of the NFC East, that meant manning up on defense and pounding away with the run game. Those days are long gone. The common wisdom says Reid's teams finish strong without changing their pass-happy approach.

Of course, it is an uncommon year for the Eagles, too. So we'll find out a lot about Vick, about Jackson and about surviving December without a strong defense to fall back on.


Follow columnist Phil Sheridan on Twitter: @SheridanScribe. Read his blog at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/philabuster or his recent columns at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.

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