Last season, as the Eagles were stumbling to a 1-4 start, the media refocused its attention -- and fans redirected their anger -- away from the offense, where the expectations can be unreasonable at times, and landed on the defense where the defensive coordinator was in his first year on the job after 15 years as an offensive assistant. Coach Andy Reid stood by Juan Castillo and the much-maligned Wide 9 concept and by the end of the season, everything finally came together -- the Eagles won four in a row and finished 8-8.
But .500 football won't cut it -- especially in Philly -- so after a so-so showing from the Eagles' defense against the Steelers in the preseason opener, the Birds will again be tested Monday night when they face Tom Brady and the Patriots.
And yes, we've heard it all before: there won't be any game-planning, it's just a meaningless game in August, it's an opportunity to get some guys work and avoid injuries, and so on and so forth. And we get that, but you don't have to have a step-by-step checklist for beating an opponent to come out in the preseason and execute your assignments and avoid mental mistakes. If the Eagles can do that, it'll mitigate a lot of the same concerns that plagued this group a year ago.
But with Brady under center, the defense will be challenged from the get-go.
“If you’re playing a team that won three games vs. Super Bowl runner-up, it’s definitely going to be a bigger measuring stick how well you did in that second preseason game if you’re playing [the Super Bowl team],” cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said according to CSNPhilly.com.
Asomugha will play after missing practice early last week following a violent collision with safety Nate Allen. “Even though it’s a preseason game, you don’t want to overblow it or overdo it," he continued, "but you still want to measure yourself. We’ll definitely take it seriously."
A week ago, the Eagles' first-team defense struggled to get off the field, allowing the Steelers to score on a 16-play, 52-yard opening drive and a subsequent 10-play, 70-yard drive. One culprit, at least according to Castillo: poor tackling.
“We’ve had seven or eight days of practice and I think we are going to be better,” he said. “I think it’s like everything else, and we haven’t played football. Just like I’m sure if you turn on tape [of other games], there’s people missing tackles in a lot of different places. Those are the things that will get better and get corrected.”
Unlike lack of depth or athleticism, tackling can be an easy fix. Harder to get a handle on: the nuances of sound football that separate 8-8 teams from division winners. And this isn't a pre-emptory indictment of the Eagles, just recognition of the fact that Brady can be clinical when he runs an offense. If nothing else, it'll provide a great measuring stick for the defense.
“They’re precise, and we have to be ready as a secondary,” Allen said. “You saw [last year] how great Tom Brady is. He’s a heck of a quarterback, and you need to be on the same page mentally. If not, he’ll pick you apart. Any kind of weakness in the defense, he’ll spot it right away.”
The "last year" Allen was referring to was Brady coming into the Linc and dismantling the defense like there were 11 cardboard cutouts dressed in Eagles' uniforms. The future Hall of Famer was 24 of 34 for 361 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-20 rout. Those totals included 125 yards to Deion Branch, another 115 to Wes Welker, as well as a TD pass to Rob Gronkowski.
"It was more balanced today," Brady said following that Nov. 27 game. "That's how it needs to be. You have to run it. You have to throw it to everybody. We did a good job maximizing all the guys."
Pats coach Bill Belichick added: "Tom did a good job really pressing the issue. He felt he had them on the run with some of the mismatches. Tom kept pressing it, guys got open and Tom did what he does best, finding the open guys."
For as complicated as football can be, it can also be boiled down to one word: execution. If a player can do his job, and his 10 teammates can do their jobs, more times than not, they'll win the play. Win enough plays over 60 minutes of football and you'll win the game. So no, there will be no "game plan" Monday night other than to, you know, play well.
“Tom Brady is one of the best QBs to play this game and the way he understands defenses and schemes is just unbelievable, but I feel like we’re on the same page right now,” safety Kurt Coleman said via CSNPhilly. “We’ve corrected a lot of errors we made, and I’m excited about this week. I’m excited to see where we are. This is really a great chance for us to get out there and let loose, fire on all cylinders, play as a team and communicate. …
“So we want to eliminate the mental errors, eliminate the physical errors, and just play ball. We really do have a great group of guys, and everybody’s excited about this game. It’s really our last tune-up for the regular season. When you go against the best, you want to show them what you got.”