Eagles defense passes first test

Cullen Jenkins sacks Rams quarterback Sam Bradford in the fourth quarter.
Cullen Jenkins sacks Rams quarterback Sam Bradford in the fourth quarter. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: September 12, 2011

ST. LOUIS - The Eagles gave up 154 rushing yards to the Rams, and if you want to lose sleep over that, be my guest. Juan Castillo won't.

While he wasn't happy that Steven Jackson was able to slice through his unit for a 47-yard touchdown run on the Rams' first play from scrimmage, and while he wasn't happy that the Rams piled up 90 rushing yards on their first two possessions, the Eagles' new defensive coordinator knows that not many teams are going to be able to beat the Eagles and their high-octane offense strictly by running the football.

"That first one [Jackson's touchdown] was rough," Castillo admitted after his unit held the Rams to one touchdown and 335 net yards in an impressive, 31-13, season-opening victory. "But the NFL is about throwing the football. That's how people score points.

"From being an offensive [coach], I know that if everybody's in their gap, most of the time, unless somebody is just really whooping your butt, you're going to be able to take care of the run."

The NFL is about throwing the football, and Castillo's defense is about preventing that. After giving up a franchise-record 31 touchdown passes last year, the Eagles went out and bought the best pass rushers and cornerbacks money could buy.

Yesterday, that money appeared to be very well spent. They made Rams quarterback Sam Bradford's life miserable, sacking him four times (and backup A.J. Feeley once) and holding last season's NFC Rookie of the Year to 17 completions in 30 attempts and a puny 6.3 yards per attempt. And no touchdowns, which is an accomplishment the Eagles only managed twice last season.

"The pass rush was good and we did a good job with some of the coverages [as far as] making the quarterback hold it," Castillo said.

With defensive-line coach Jim Washburn regularly rotating his eight defensive linemen, the Eagles wore down the Rams' offensive line and put consistent pressure on Bradford.

"Awesome. Unbelievable. It's unbelievable," defensive end Darryl Tapp, who had one of his unit's five sacks and a forced fumble, said of the four-at-a-time line rotation. "Midway through the first quarter, I was realizing their offensive line was already getting winded. They're out there the whole time, and we got out there for four plays and then the next group comes in."

"We gave up a lot of long drives early on," said defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins. "Being able to stay fresh was big. The rotation really helps."

Tapp's forced fumble was big. It came late in the first quarter with the game tied. Bradford stumbled over the feet of one of his offensive linemen as he was pulling away from center. As Bradford tried to get up, Tapp got penetration into the backfield and knocked the ball away. Linemate Juqua Parker picked up the loose ball and returned it 56 yards for a touchdown.

"They were playing fast," Castillo said. "We said going in, let's play the way we practice - fast. And that's what we did. But it's one game."

"We're not hoping to get to the quarterback," said Jenkins, who had his first sack as an Eagle. "We're expecting to. There's still some things we need to work on against the run. But it was a pretty good start against the pass."

Jenkins gave the Eagles something they didn't get a lot of last season, an inside push that prevented Bradford from being able to step up in the pocket and avoid pressure from the edge rushers.

"The guys inside, they were pushing that pocket back," said defensive end Jason Babin, who had two of the Eagles' five sacks. "When a quarterback can't step up, it's hard to throw. And when they can't move up, we're coming from the outside with our ears pinned back."

Even on those rare occasions when Bradford did have a little time to throw, he was staring down the coverage barrel of the league's best cornerback trio - Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

Asomugha was flagged for a 41-yard pass-interference penalty that set up a Josh Brown field goal late in the third quarter, and he got beat on a double move in press coverage by wide receiver Brandon Gibson for a 31-yard completion. But aside from that, the Eagles' secondary shut down Bradford and his receivers.

"We haven't had a chance to play together for very long," Asomugha said. "But it's getting better each day. Obviously, we're not where we're going to be in December and January. But it's good to go through a full game together."

Referring to the fact that the Eagles failed to come up with an interception, Asomugha said, "The hope is, when teams have to throw the ball, we can get into move coverages and play the ball and get more turnovers. Hopefully, as the year progresses, we'll be able to do that once we get those leads."

DID YOU NOTICE?:

 -- Rookie kick returner Dion Lewis' two ill-advised returns in the first half. Return men don't like touchbacks, and with the spot of the kickoffs moved to the 35-yard line, there's going to be a lot more balls booted into the end zone this season. Still, Lewis made a mistake bringing out the opening kickoff from 7 yards deep and a second-quarterback kickoff from 6 yards deep. Was stopped at the 11 on the first and the 13 on the second.

-- Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha got sealed off by rookie tight end Lance Kendricks, which created a cutback lane for the Steven Jackson on his 47-yard, first-quarter touchdown run.

-- Defensive-line coach Jim Washburn regularly rotated his two defensive-line foursomes. Ends Jason Babin and Trent Cole and tackles Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson were rotated with ends Darryl Tapp and Juqua Parker and tackles Antonio Dixon and Trevor Laws.

-- The Eagles often stayed in their base defense even when the Rams went to three-receiver sets so that they would be better able to deal with the run.

-- Safety Jarrad Page made a nice stop on wide receiver Brandon Gibson in the second quarter, preventing Gibson from getting a first down on a third-and-7 completion. Gibson picked up 6 yards and the Rams had to punt. Page also broke up a second-and-goal pass to tight end Lance Kendricks at the St. Louis 6-yard line. Page stepped in front of Kendricks and almost intercepted the pass.

-- Michael Vick has had some amazing runs in his career, and his 17-yarder at the end of the third quarter ranks right up there with them. He used an uncanny spin move to escape unblocked cornerback Bradley Fletcher in the backfield and nearly went to the ground twice.

Send email to pdomo@aol.com.

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

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