After watching the Eagles hold three Pro Bowl runners well below their rushing averages, scouts are raving about the defense being played in Philadelphia. Although the Eagles have always been one of the better defenses against the pass, their dramatic improvement against the run has moved them into the ranks of the elite.
"Their defense is playing really well right now," said an NFC personnel director. "They are aggressive in all areas, and their ability to stop the run on early downs is allowing Jim Johnson to come after offenses in favorable situations."
The Eagles' fourth-ranked defense has only allowed 137 rushing yards in three games, and their 2.4 yards per carry leads the league. In fact, only 19 of the 58 rushing attempts against the Eagles this season have gone for three or more yards, and the team has not allowed a run over 20 yards.
While other top ranked defenses can produce numbers that are in that range, the fact that the Eagles accomplished those feats while facing a trio of Pro Bowl runners (Steven Jackson, Marion Barber III and Willie Parker) makes their statistical success more impressive. Led by unheralded interior tackles Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley, the Eagles have been stouter against the power running plays that routinely gave them problems in the past. The duo has been immovable at the point of attack, and their ability to command double teams inside has freed up linebackers, Stewart Bradley and Omar Gaither, to aggressively shoot gaps against the run.
"Their guys appear to have a great understanding of their roles," said an NFC personnel director. "They are playing well within the scheme and making the plays that they are supposed to make."
Although the Eagles have been getting outstanding early-season performances from their young front seven, defensive coordinator Jim Johnson also deserves a lot of credit for taking advantage of a more talented secondary to fortify the run defense. Free agent signee, Asante Samuel, teams with Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown to give the Eagles arguably the best set of corners in the NFC, and their outstanding cover skills have allowed Johnson to be more aggressive with his play calls on early downs. Using an assortment of man-and zone-blitzes, Johnson has been able to disrupt the timing and rhythm of opposing blocking schemes without being victimized by the big play.
"It's easier to heat people up when you have good cover guys," said an NFC personnel director. "You are willing to take more chances because you feel like you have the personnel to handle the receivers outside. With the receivers out of the equation, you can focus on confusing offensive linemen by using a handful of different pressures upfront. That's been the real key to their improvement against the run."
Regardless of their hot start defending the run, the Eagles will continue to be tested on the ground as they face three tough runners within their division (Clinton Portis,Brandon Jacobs and Barber), and a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber backs (Frank Gore and Michael Turner) later in the year.
With defending the run being the hallmark of a championship defense, the Eagles will get every opportunity to show they are up to the challenge.
• The Rams' decision to bench quarterback Marc Bulger is a misguided attempt by embattled head coach Scott Linehan to blame one guy for the team's offensive woes. While Bulger hasn't played like a two-time Pro Bowler this season, he is only partially responsible for an offense that ranks near the bottom of the league in every major offensive category. "It's more of an issue of protection than quarterback play," said an NFC personnel director. "He has been hit so much that you can't determine if his play has been detrimental to the team."
The Rams have allowed 11 sacks through three games and are coming off a season where they allowed sixth-most sacks in the league (48). While the offensive line was besieged by injuries last season, the unit has continued to struggle in pass protection this year, despite the return of several starters. Seven-time Pro Bowler Orlando Pace and Richie Incognito have not regained their pre-injury form, and free agent signee Jacob Bell has missed the past two games due to injury. Former first-round pick Alex Barron has continued to be plagued by penalties, so it's not surprising the Rams have struggled moving the ball consistently this season.
"They have numerous issues upfront," said an NFC scout. "Pace trying to find his game after missing last season with the injury, and Incognito has been more focused on fighting than developing as a player. Plus, Barron has continued to be maddeningly inconsistent at tackle. With all of the issues that they have, it's no wonder that Bulger has been unable to play up to his previous form."
Bulger, the quickest quarterback in NFL history to reach 1,000 completions, has struggled this season in Al Saunders' new offense. The quarterback has only completed 58.4 percent of his passes and has failed to pass for more than 200 yards in any game this season. The disappointing start comes on the heels of a 2007 in which Bulger completed a career-low 58.5 percent, and had 11 touchdowns with 15 interceptions. Those numbers are disturbing, but the fact that Bulger has been sacked 97 times in his last 31 starts is a problem. The number of sacks fails to accurate tally the number of shots the signal-caller has taken in the pocket. And the residual effect of taking a consistent pounding in the pocket has rendered the eight-year veteran skittish on his throws.
"He is a little shell-shocked in the pocket," said an NFC personnel director. "He has been hit so much that he appears to be a little hesitant when he throws."
That makes the decision to hand the ball to Trent Green even more perplexing. Green, a 15-year veteran with two Pro Bowl bids, has suffered numerous concussions throughout his career and appears to be in serious danger playing behind the Rams' shaky offensive line. Though Green's experience in Saunders' offense (he was the Chiefs' starting quarterback from 2001-06 while Saunders was the offensive coordinator) may lead him to make quicker decisions than his predecessor, it can't solve the protection woes that have plagued this offense the past two years.
Linehan threw Bulger under the bus in an attempt to save his job, but finding a way to repair the Rams' porous offensive line would've been the better solution.
• Despite being cleared of a series of alcohol-related charges, front office executives are taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to signing former first round pick Cedric Benson. "I don't think that he will sign right away," said an NFC personnel executive. "Teams will let the issues die down a little bit before they consider bringing him in."
The fourth overall pick from the 2005 NFL Draft was not indicted of boating while intoxicated, resisting arrest and driving while intoxicated by two grand juries on charges stemming from two separate incidents in Texas over the summer. The negativity surrounding both incidents eventually led the Bears to release Benson, and teams were reluctant to pick him up until his legal situation was resolved. With the issue resolved and no punishment pending from the league, Benson must convince a team that his talent is worth the risk associated with signing the enigmatic runner to a contract.
"His off-field issues were a concern," said an AFC scout. "But he hasn't been very productive on the field. Plus, he suffered a series of injuries, so his durability also comes into question."
Benson rushed for 1,593 yards on 420 attempts with 10 rushing touchdowns during his three-year stint with the Bears. Though those numbers aren't eye-popping for a first-round pick, but they are respectable enough to keep the "bust" label off the former University of Texas star at this point -- and intriguing enough to induce a running back-starved team to pull the trigger during the season. In fact, the Lions, Saints and Texans have reportedly expressed interest in Benson and more teams are likely to call now that his legal situation is resolved.
"I think somebody will take a bite of that apple," said an AFC personnel executive. "He's a former top pick, and he comes at a reasonable cost. If he is anything close to the player that he was in college, it could turn out to be a worthwhile gamble."
However, all personnel people aren't as high on his talent, and the off-field concerns make them hesitant to pull the trigger.
"If we were in a jam, I would consider it," said an AFC personnel director. "But he hasn't proven that he can be a good player in our league."
"He can be a pretty good back up," added an NFC personnel director. "But based on his off-field antics and locker room demeanor he appears to be a time bomb. I don't know if it would be worth the headache."