Much has been made about the so-called "blueprint" the Philadelphia Eagles have provided future opponents of the New England Patriots.
Maybe a little too much.
To be certain, the Eagles' strategy on both sides of the ball did plenty to disrupt the Patriots and nearly resulted in one of the greatest upsets in NFL history. To be certain, the teams left on the Pats' schedule and those they could face in the postseason have a great deal to ponder in reviewing all that the Eagles did to make for a long and unnerving night for Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and everyone else in Patriot Nation.
But of those clubs, which are capable of generating the same relentless blitz pressure that the Eagles did on Brady, while playing man-to-man coverage, and control the ball by mainly attacking the middle of the field through the air as A.J. Feeley did so effectively?
The Baltimore Ravens, who face the Patriots in Week 13 on Monday Night Football, have some talented linebackers who can blitz well, but their banged-up and inconsistent secondary could easily be overwhelmed by one of the most talented groups of receivers in the league. And while Feeley might not be the most accomplished quarterback around, it might be a reach to expect Kyle Boller to duplicate that performance.
Of the other scheduled opponents -- Pittsburgh, the Jets, Miami, and the Giants -- only the Steelers, with the NFL's top-rated defense overall, seem equipped to put together something that resembles what the Eagles did defensively. And with Ben Roethlisberger and his talented receivers, their passing game could have success keeping the chains moving.
Of the Patriots' potential playoff foes, San Diego probably has a chance to make the Eagle approach work. The Colts aren't a blitzing team and their best pass-rusher, Dwight Freeney, is lost for the season. But they did fairly well with their own scheme in nearly knocking off New England in October.
Now, if you want to talk possible Super Bowl opposition, Dallas or Green Bay would appear to have the necessary ingredients to cook up the sort of defensive and offensive game plans that Philadelphia implemented. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.
The most intriguing strategy the Eagles employed came from the mind of their highly creative defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson. Johnson's primary mission was to apply as much heat as possible on Brady, who mostly enjoyed an airtight pocket through 10 games. With the Patriots' insistence on limiting Brady's protection by using four- and five-receiver sets, Johnson unleashed a wide variety of blitzes. Sometimes he sent two linebackers, sometimes all three. Safety Brian Dawkins and nickel back Joselio Hanson also got into the pass-rushing act, and Johnson even incorporated some zone-blitzing into the mix.
Brady was sacked three times and hit on four other occasions. Although he threw for 380 yards and a touchdown, he did not always throw with his usual precision.
The key component to Johnson's scheme was having linebacker Chris Gocong fill a position called "joker," which at various times had him rush from the outside as a defensive end (his position in college), blitz up the middle, and drop into coverage. It was Gocong who did the most to often keep Brady off-balance and prevent him from being his dominant self -- at least by Brady's off-the-charts standards.
"A couple of times, we affected his passing arm," Gocong told reporters. "But I would like to have gotten to him a couple more times."
The Eagles wisely devoted most of their pass-coverage attention to Randy Moss, whom cornerback Lito Sheppard closely guarded underneath with help over the top from safety J.R. Reed. Although Wes Welker wound up with a career-high 13 receptions for 149 yards, the Eagles were satisfied that Moss did minimal damage with only five catches for 43 yards.
But final score notwithstanding, their greatest satisfaction was that, on multiple occasions, they forced Brady out of his comfort zone.
"I think the blueprint is that you can't allow him to sit back and throw the ball," Eagles linebacker Takeo Spikes said. "If it's a seven-on-seven drill, you'll never win. ... We played it how it was supposed to be played."
It remains to be seen whether other teams can ... and whether the outcome will be any different.
Monday night takes
- It's never a good thing when field conditions become a bigger story than the game, but that's exactly what happened at Heinz Field. The bottom line in the Steelers-Dolphins "Slog Bowl" is that an NFL game scheduled in prime time wound up on the wrong end of a stretch of eight football games (including four high school championships and a University of Pittsburgh game on Nov. 24) played over 13 days. The field took a beating that Steeler officials thought they could remedy by putting rolling two-and-a-half acres of new sod over the existing turf. Then, rain provided another beating that the new turf couldn't handle. Sure, there's some entertainment value in watching professional athletes slip, slide, and splash around like kids on a playground (and with most of the numbered yard lines washed away, that's Heinz Field resembled). But I continually found myself wondering, "Is this really an NFL game?"
- That's back-to-back mediocre performances by the Steelers against two bad teams. I'm willing to give them a pass for what happened against Miami because of the atrocious conditions. However, I don't think it would be a good idea for the Steelers to assume they would have blown away the Dolphins on a better field. I think it would be a better idea for them to look at ways to elevate their performance down the stretch, or they could very well end up squandering a chance to win the AFC North.
- John Beck showed pretty good poise for a rookie quarterback facing the league's top-rated defense. Although he was sacked four times and hurried on a few throws, he generally held up well against the Steelers' blitz-happy scheme. His movement in the pocket was impressive and he displayed decent accuracy in completing 13 of 22 passes for 133 yards, with no interceptions. It was notable that Beck worked without the help of an effective running game and had poor field position for most of the game. He still has a long way to go before convincing the Dolphins not to use what will likely be the top overall pick of the 2008 draft on a quarterback, but he is headed in the right direction.
- Even with considerable help from a sloppy turf, the Dolphins' defense merits credit for keeping Willie Parker in check. Despite poor footing, Miami's pass rush sacked Roethlisberger five times and Joey Porter, determined to show his former team that he still has plenty left in his tank, made an impressive leap for an interception.
- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers face an interesting dilemma as they prepare for a crucial NFC South game at New Orleans. Jeff Garcia, their starting quarterback and primary reason for being in first place in their division, suffered a back bruise against Washington in Week 12. He could end up playing against the Saints, but there is a risk he could do further damage to his back and be lost for a long stretch. Bruce Gradkowski is another option, although he performed poorly after Garcia was injured. Another possibility is Luke McCown, who performed extremely well during the preseason. But that was the preseason ... and a long time ago. Jon Gruden assured reporters in Tampa that he will have a "plan" for the quarterback spot against New Orleans, although nothing will make him feel more comfortable than a healthy Garcia under center.
- This is the kind of mentality that is going to help the Cleveland Browns reach the playoffs, if not win their division. "If we can build on this and just lay one brick per week, we'll have a nice house at the end of the year," Joe Jurevicius said after the Browns' 27-17 victory over Houston. That sound, level-headed approach starts with Romeo Crennel, but he also has players such as Jurevicius who help spread it throughout the locker room. Even Braylon Edwards has come around to fully buying into the team-oriented approach that Crennel saw work so well when he was defensive coordinator for the Patriots.
- I've given up on expecting Eli Manning to emerge as a top-level NFL quarterback. I don't think he'll be as awful as he was against Minnesota in most games. But the fact he could have such a mind-boggling clunker at a stage when his game should be fully developed is more than a little alarming. Throwing four interceptions, and having three returned for touchdowns, suggests an inability to forget a bad play and move onto the next. It suggests that he allows himself to be rattled, to lose his focus and concentration. It suggests that being consistently good might very well be the best that he can deliver. Great just doesn't seem as if it is in the cards for this Manning.
- The Bills had no choice but to bench J.P. Losman after his horrendous showing at Jacksonville. They gave him ample opportunity to show he could be their franchise quarterback. In a game crucial to the Bills' playoff hopes, he responded by showing that he offers little more now than it did at the start of his career -- a strong arm and a poor grasp of just about everything else it takes to play quarterback in the NFL. Losman's greatest fault is a disturbing knack for making a bad situation, such as being flushed out of the pocket, worse. He never seems to have an escape plan, and when something does work, it usually seems to happen by accident. Although he is a rookie, Trent Edwards shows much greater composure and awareness. He doesn't have Losman's arm strength, but he throws the ball well and his superior game management should give the Bills a chance to, at the very least, salvage what is left of their season.