The team's biggest defensive problem last season was its pass rush, or the lack of one. The Eagles, who finished second in sacks in '04 with 47, plummeted to 26th last year with only 29, the team's fewest in 30 years.
But Johnson is optimistic that situation is going to improve in 2006 with the signing of free-agent end Darren Howard and the selection of defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Howard, who had 11 sacks with the Saints two years ago before being slowed last season by a knee injury, gives the Eagles a proven edge rusher on the right side who can take the pressure off left end Jevon Kearse. Bunkley is a strong, quick, one-gap tackle who Johnson thinks will give his defense the inside push it didn't have last year.
"You can never have enough good pass rushers," Johnson said. "I know everybody wants to stop the run, but we have to get pressure (on the quarterback). That's always been the nature of our game. We've always been able to get good pressure on the quarterback. We've always been up there in the top five in sacks. We want to get back to that."
The Eagles' inability to get pressure on the quarterback last season made a secondary that sent three players to the Pro Bowl a year earlier look very ordinary. Johnson loves to blitz, but the Eagles' blitz execution was poor last season, which often left their corners hung out to dry.
Injuries up front also hurt the Eagles' pass rush. Johnson likes to use four-man rotations at both end and tackle to keep players fresh, but that was difficult last year.
"We eventually just wore down and lost some good rotation guys," he said. "We want to get back to playing with nine or 10 defensive linemen."
Johnson thinks the biggest benefactor of the addition of Howard and Bunkley will be Kearse, who has yet to live up to expectations in his two seasons with the Eagles.
"Jevon is a double-digit sack guy," Johnson said. "I will be surprised next year if he isn't that. We're going to plan to do some more things with him. He got doubled or chipped on almost every play last year. It was really tough on the guy. He can play better, like all these guys can. But I'm still very, very high on him. I'm not down on Jevon at all."
Another player that impressed Johnson in the recent mini-camp was linebacker Matt McCoy. "There is no question he's a much different player out there. He's a lot more confident. He struggled last year, no question and I think he will admit that, but this year he knows everything, is playing with a lot of confidence and again, he has to take it to the field. He has some toughness and he's going to have plenty of opportunity to earn that starting spot," said Johnson. Of course, if he does win a starting job, it's going to cut into the playing time of Shawn Barber. "One of the reasons we brought Shawn in was first of all, because he knows the system, he is a good football player, but also as our nickel linebacker. We felt we didn't want [LB Jeremiah] Trotter on the field sometimes as much as 65-70 plays a game. That was one of the reasons, in the off-season, we said, ‘hey, we had lost [Falcons LB] Ike Reese a year ago and Ike played up to 20 plays a game.' That was one of the things we wanted to do," explained Johnson about Barber's role with the team. "We knew Shawn could play that nickel LB, but also he could compete for that WILL LB. It was a good pickup for us because we don't have to teach him the whole system right away, he knows it a bit and he can play that middle LB in a nickel situation."
Here are a few other comments from Jim Johnson on the Eagles defense:
On whether this defensive system is difficult for LBs to pick up: "Yeah, it seems like it. It takes a while, but I think in a lot of systems it takes time, like the QB position on offense. They have to make so many checks and adjustments. It's harder for a LB than it is sometimes for a safety because he has to make so many adjustments. You know, sometimes if you have an inexperienced LB, you have to cut things back a bit. Most of the time, we have been very fortunate, having guys who have been around for a while. But [McCoy] struggled a little bit. He was a young guy coming out of college, too. So, it seems like the 2nd or 3rd year they pick it up fast, play better and play fast."
On whether defensive tackle is one of the easier positions to learn: "Yeah, probably the best chance for guys is at defensive tackle. [Colts DT] Corey Simon fit in, as well as [DT] Mike Patterson. There are not as many adjustments. You can probably make a mistake inside there and not hurt you. Where as OLB in coverage, sometimes a DE in containment, it's a little tougher. There is no question that at DT you still have to have some guys with intelligence. But it is an easier position to play."
On whether it is a lot to ask of rookie Chris Gocong to learn the OLB position: "Yeah, there is going to be some pressure on him to see how fast he can learn. We are going to have a little bit of patience. He's been here a day and a half. I know his head is spinning. There is no question about it. You can see the way he is playing. He made a few nice plays yesterday. We know he has some athletic ability and we will just see how fast he picks it up. He's an intelligent guy and we knew that coming in. We knew he has a fast motor and he is going to get plenty of opportunity. Some guys come along quicker than other guys."
On whether there is a cut off point for Gocong to learn the LB position: "Yeah, I am not sure what that point will be. I think we have to have a little bit of patience. We know it's going to take some time. He is one of those guys who might not start right away; maybe he will help on special teams. We are still going to work him at DE and nickel. We are still going to do that because we know he can rush the passer. I am not sure whether the cut off point will be this year."
On whether Gocong's weight will be an issue if he is going to play both DE and LB: "I think he is at that size where he is in between an outside strong LB that weighs 255, to a DE that can weigh up to 265. If he was going to play defensive end tomorrow, he would be fine at 265. He's probably at 264 now. He might need to loose 5 pounds to play SAM. I don't think he's as big of a concern as other guys who need to loose 20 pounds or gain 20 pounds."
On whether it is fair to expect DE Jerome McDougle to be the same player he was before he was shot: "So far, right now, he is made a tremendous improvement. To me, he is one of the bright spots at minicamp. He looks like the McDougle we talked about. He looks quick. He's a very smart football player. He has had one of the best; I know it's just 3 days, mini-camp so far. He looks like a different person. If we get him on the field, it's a big improvement for us. He is playing like we thought he would play."
On whether he will do anything different, in terms of scheming, than the defense did last year: "Well, I don't think that was the problem. You always have to change every year and we are going to change some things. I can sit up here and make excuses, but I don't want to do that. We are always going to change, but it all comes down to our front. If you look at our front, we have good depth. You have [DE] Darren Howard, we get McDougle back, [DE] Trent Cole. We have some good rushers and we have some good DTs. It starts there and we are going to see what we do blitz wise, but we know that teams know we blitz quite a bit and they do some things. But we have to counter act that, that's all."
On whether he has a sense of how much better the pass rush will be this year than last year: "We have seen Howard play and we know he's a good pass rusher. That is an upgrade right there. We think that [DE] Jevon [Kearse] is a guy who will still get double digit sacks. He should and he knows that. I think he has the ability to do that. We have McDougle coming back and we have Juqua Thomas and Trent Cole. So, I see some good athletes. I see a lot of good quickness. We are just talking, but they have to prove that on the field. But right now, we have enough good bodies out there; we look good in terms of depth. So there is no reason we should expect that we won't get back to pressuring the quarterback."
On whether the problems on defense last year started with the D-line: "Well, I think any game starts with the offensive and defensive line, but that was not the only thing. We were one of the worst teams in terms of penalties last year. We gave up a lot of interference calls. We are usually at the top, but we were at the bottom of the league. There are a lot of things that went into it. We never gave up so many big plays that we gave up last year. A lot of them were big penalty plays too. We got off the track a bit, but I am confident we will get back on it. I really do."
On whether Jevon Kearse has learned any new tricks that will help him get to the quarterback more: "Yeah, and I think he wants to. It's my job and [defensive line coach] Pete Jenkins' job to get him moving around a bit more and give him more opportunities. Last year we brought in Trent Cole. He was a rookie and we didn't want to flip him as much, but we have to move Jevon around more. He's too good of a football player not to take advantage of his ability."
On whether FS Brian Dawkins still means the same to the defense as he has in the past: "He looks like a 25 year old player to me. I see no difference in the way he plays. I really don't. I know guys slow down, but the way he plays and competes, he just doesn't seem like he slowed down. So, I don't think about his age. I don't know how old he is now. When I think about it, he looks like a 20 year old to me."
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