The Eagles have a much bigger problem to address as they prepare for the 2008 season, and if there is one statistic from last year's mediocre 8-8 campaign that would be a cause for alarm, it's the 19 turnovers Jim Johnson's defense forced, the lowest takeaway total in the entire league.
The good news is that significant steps have already been taken to remedy the situation. The Eagles landed the top prize of the free agent crop when they signed cornerback Asante Samuel to a six-year deal, and adding such a ball-hawking playmaker (he had 16 interceptions in the last two seasons) to an already established secondary should be good for at least a few more turnovers.
But the thing that could help the defense the most and should get them more takeaways is an improved pass-rush. By applying pressure on the opposing quarterback, it gives him less time to throw, resulting in more off target passes and bad decisions (a.k.a., interceptions). If a team's signal caller is repeatedly taking hits and getting sacked, he is going to have to worry more about not fumbling the ball and staying on his feet, rather than waiting for the next receiver in his progression to get open. Just look at the success the Super Bowl Champion Giants had in the playoffs for an example of the benefits a terrorizing defensive line can bring.
While the Giants also led the league in sacks during the regular season, they weren't the only club to show how far a dominant pass-rush can take a team. The Patriots, their opponents in the Super Bowl and the only team with a 16-0 record since 1972, finished second in sacks with 47 on the year. The Cowboys had the third most sacks in the league (46) and they finished with a record of 13-3 and clinched home field advantage throughout the playoffs as division champions.
Whether or not Johnson is trying to mimic New York's strategy is hard to say, but either way, he might not be far off from achieving similar results.
The Eagles hope Trent Cole and the rest of their defensive line can mimic the success of other teams
Trent Cole (Getty Images/Al Bello)
Now take into consideration the pieces that the team has added since the end of last season.
The Eagles signed end Chris Clemons as a free agent after he registered eight sacks with the Raiders in 2007 to provide extra speed and depth on the outside of the line. While he may not be an every-down player, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Clemons will be a nice change of pace for Parker on passing downs and should fit in well with Johnson's defensive scheme.
The team also used their first pick of this year's draft to bolster their defensive front by selecting former Notre Dame tackle Trevor Laws in the middle of the second round. Although Laws is somewhat undersized, he is an intelligent player with a non-stop motor that will tire opposing linemen out during a game.
Even though he is technically not a new addition to the team this year, second-year end Victor Abiamiri, another Notre Dame product, could also be a factor on the Eagles defensive line in 2008. While he barely saw game action as a rookie, the 6-foot-4, 267-pound Abiamiri has shown improvement during the off-season and even ran with the first team defense at times during the team's post-draft mini-camp.
With a deeper and improved front line and one of the best defensive backfields in the NFL, thanks to the fact that Lito Sheppard is still in Philadelphia, the Eagles defense has a chance to be something special this season. If they manage to turnover a new leaf when it comes to forcing turnovers, expect the Eagles to be major players in the tough NFC East division.
Andrew Pluta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org