Secondary Issue To beat Philadelphia, you've got to find a way to beat its vaunted pass defense

January 21, 2002

Two hours before his teammates were due to check into their
hotel on the eve of last Saturday's NFC wild-card playoff
against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Philadelphia Eagles strong
safety Damon Moore was killing time. Passing an open
conference-room door at the hotel, Moore was surprised to hear
the whirring and clicking of a video machine. Poking his head
inside, he found cornerback Troy Vincent, shoes off, lost in the
footage rolling before him. Moore attempted small talk, until
Vincent began ticking off numerous habits of Bucs wideout
Keyshawn Johnson. Stunned, Moore settled in for 90 minutes of
study.

"He'd already been there for an hour, so how could I not stay?"
Moore recalled minutes after the Eagles' emphatic 31-9 victory
sent them into this Saturday's divisional playoff against the
Chicago Bears. "The things he told me--how Keyshawn likes to run
a curl route here or a fly route there--made all the difference.
That's the way it is with our secondary, our defense. Troy works
hard, so we do the same."

Still, even after a regular season in which it gave up the
second-fewest points in the league, Philadelphia wasn't expected
to be so dominant, given the game's high stakes. Hours before
the Bucs flew to Philly last Friday, the St. Petersburg Times
reported that Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy, under fire throughout
a 9-7 year, would be dismissed and replaced by Bill Parcells if
his team did not advance at least to the NFC Championship Game.
Several players expressed outrage at owner Malcolm Glazer's
failure to offer the slightest vote of confidence to the classy
Dungy and vowed that they would be playing for their coach's job.

If so, they didn't do Dungy any favors. Tampa Bay's two-pronged
running attack of Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn gained only 61
yards on 23 carries against a banged-up front four that was
thought to be vulnerable against the run. While Eagles
quarterback Donovan McNabb was, by turns, efficient and
electrifying (16 of 25, 194 yards, two touchdowns, plus four
rushes for 57 yards), his counterpart, Brad Johnson, threw four
interceptions. Two were picked off by Moore, and one each by
Vincent and free safety Brian Dawkins, both Pro Bowl selections.
When, with 2:08 left, Moore returned his second interception 59
yards for the Eagles' final score, Tampa Bay's season ended for
the second straight year with a wild-card loss in Philly.

An angry, sobbing Keyshawn Johnson lashed out. "We've got a
bunch of guys who are all bark and no bite. We can't have that
s--- anymore," he said. "If Dungy's the coach next year, he'd
better get some f------ players in here who are going to play
for him and not just run their mouths. Because the guy
[Parcells, Johnson's former coach with the New York Jets]
they're talking about coming in, he ain't going to put up with
this s---. Period." Late on Monday, Tampa Bay fired Dungy.

A lot of Keyshawn's frustration came from being held to three
catches by a secondary that is among the NFL's finest. Dawkins,
Vincent and cornerback Bobby Taylor have been together for six
seasons and, along with three-year vet Moore, are major
contributors in defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's blitz-heavy
schemes. It's a system that relies heavily on Dawkins, whose
ferocious hits belie his 5'10", 190-pound frame and whose
superior cover skills are obscured by his frequent blitzing.
"He's the best safety I've ever been around," says Jim Johnson,
an NFL assistant since 1986. "He lets me do things I otherwise
couldn't do."

Despite his burgeoning reputation Dawkins sees room for
improvement. "I missed three interceptions in our first four
games--it was terrible," he says. The most embarrassing miss
came on Sept. 30 against the Dallas Cowboys, when he allowed a
sure interception to slip through his hands and bounce off his
helmet, into the waiting arms of cornerback Al Harris. "We
watched it over and over in the film room," says Dawkins, who
finished the regular season with two interceptions, "and the
guys couldn't stop laughing."

The obvious camaraderie among members of the secondary is
inspired by Vincent, a three-time Pro Bowl selection and
videotape junkie, who offers, among other things, advice for
tweaking coverage schemes, financial tips and spiritual guidance
to the team's many fellow Christians. "Troy told me early this
week that one way to beat Tampa Bay's defensive backs was to
sell them hard on the outside routes, then get inside quickly
and release," said Eagles wideout James Thrash, whose 21-yard
catch over the middle midway through the third quarter set up a
25-yard scoring run by Correll Buckhalter that put Philadelphia
up 24-9. "He always shares stuff like that."

Dawkins's acrobatic interception of a Brad Johnson duck late in
the game was impressive, but Vincent provided the game's two
signature plays. The first came with 11 seconds to go in the
first half, when Keyshawn Johnson found a soft spot in the
Philadelphia zone, broke a tackle and appeared to be on his way
to scoring a touchdown that would have cut the Eagles' lead to
17-13. Instead, Vincent made the stop at the 12, and Tampa Bay
settled for a field goal. The second play was a product of
Vincent's pregame study. Recognizing Jacquez Green's post-corner
route, he made an over-the-shoulder interception in the end zone
with 4:02 left in the third quarter, snuffing Tampa Bay's last
meaningful scoring threat.

"It's easy to be average," a weary Vincent said late on Saturday
in his Yardley, Pa., home. "Anybody can do just enough. It's the
guys who go in early, leave late and dedicate themselves to one
another who make a difference in this game."

With that, he let go a hard-earned yawn and excused himself. It
was time for bed. He had more work to do in the morning.

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Two-timer Moore thwarted a Bucs drive with this interception, then returned another for six points.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)