Last season, the line was the unit's Achilles' heel, unable to get enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks, who sat back in the pocket and picked apart the Eagles' back seven. The Eagles plummeted from second to 27th in points allowed, 12th to 21st in passing yards allowed, third to 26th in touchdown passes allowed and second to 26th in sacks. Their 29 sacks were the fewest by an Eagle defense in almost a quarter-century.
But the additions of free agent end Darren Howard and first-round tackle Brodrick Bunkley, along with the return to health of end Jerome McDougle, who missed all of last season recovering from a gunshot wound, have dramatically improved the outlook for the front four.
The Eagles were constantly in the face of the Cleveland Browns' quarterbacks in Thursday's 20-7 preseason win. Howard, who had 11 sacks two years ago for the New Orleans Saints, had one of the Eagles' four sacks. McDougle had another. Defensive linemen also accounted for the other two. And while Bunkley only played two series because of a contract holdout that kept him out of camp for two weeks, he leveled quarterback Derek Anderson on a stunt and forced an incompletion."The NFL has a tendency to evolve," Howard said. "The game changes every couple of years. It's proven right now that if you're a good team with two good defensive ends, you can do pretty well as a defense. It starts up front."
The Eagles are hoping the addition of Howard at right end will free up left end Jevon Kearse, who hasn't been able to notch more than 7 1/2 sacks in either of his first two seasons with the Eagles. Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson has made it clear he expects double-digit sacks out of Kearse, who was given a $16 million signing bonus in 2004.
Kearse still will see a lot of double-teams, but Johnson plans to move him around a lot more this season and let him take advantage of mismatches. Howard also will be moved inside to tackle on passing downs, allowing speedy second-year end Trent Cole, who had five sacks as a rookie, to come off the edge.
"We are the best defensive line in the league," Kearse proclaimed after the win over the Browns.
Kearse said he jumped for joy in March when he found out the Eagles had signed Howard.
"Someone called and told me and I said, `Stop kidding around,'" he said. "To get him and then Bunkley in the first round, I could not believe it. That's just what the doctor ordered."
The Eagles weren't able to get much inside pressure from their tackles last season. But the strong and fast Bunkley has the ability to change that. If he can flush quarterbacks out of the pocket, the Eagles think Kearse and Howard can put up sack numbers similar to the ones recorded by Giants defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora last year. Umenyiora led the NFC in sacks with 14 1/2 and Strahan had 11 1/2.
"Man, they can really get after the quarterback," middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter said of the Eagles' defensive line. "As linebackers, I don't think we've blitzed at all yet in the preseason. The front four has been getting after the quarterback and getting sacks."
What it means for the Colts: Expect the Colts to use plenty of two tight-end sets against the Eagles if their new offensive line stays shows up healthy and as productive as expected at the RCA Dome on November 26th. If the Eagles don't have to blitz their linebackers to get pressure on Manning, the three-wide set won't be as effective as Philadelphia will have plenty of players to drop into coverage. The Colts can drop Dallas Clark out into the slot to mix things up while still keeping the two tight-end formation in there. Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai's pass blocking skills are sure to be tested, and the Colts could rely on some draw plays and screen passes to try to use the defensive linemen's aggressiveness against them.