PHILADELPHIA -- On Monday morning, the Philadelphia Eagles' day off, defensive end Jevon Kearse showed up at the team's training facility with only one thing on his mind. He was seeking out Tommy Brasher, the team's defensive line coach, to lobby for a more integral role in the game plan for Sunday's NFC championship game, volunteering to shadow Atlanta's gifted quarterback, Michael Vick.
Kearse did not want to reveal too much about the outcome of that meeting when speaking with the media this week -- secrecy, after all, is a hallmark of the NFL -- but his huge smile and hearty chuckle gave plenty away.
The Eagles will use defensive end Jevon Kearse to keep an eye on Atlanta's elusive quarterback Michael Vick.
(Miles Kennedy - AP)
While the Eagles will not use a spy to follow Vick on every play, when they do, that player frequently will be Kearse, who has quickness and a pass-rushing ability to go with his size (6 feet 4, 265 pounds). Philadelphia signed the three-time Pro Bowler to an eight-year, $66 million contract on the first day of free agency last year with precisely this game in mind, believing Kearse's impact on its defense would help end the team's three-year habit of losing in the NFC title game.
The Eagles once again will be a single afternoon away from their first trip to the Super Bowl since 1981, and Kearse figures to be at the center of the effort to contain Vick, who is considered by many to be the best pure runner in football and whose unpredictable quarterbacking style makes him the league's biggest wild card. Kearse expects to line up at right and left defensive end, and he plans to both pressure Vick, 24, on the pass rush and prevent him from getting to the outside and taking off on the highlight-reel runs that are his specialty.
"He's the kind of player that if you break down and try to do anything, he'll make you look so silly," Kearse said. "He'll leave you right there looking so silly. In a lot of situations, we're hoping to try to run through and make him pick a side, and hopefully the rest of our defense will be in pursuit to do whatever to contain him or stop him.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to match up speed with speed. I'm not saying in any way that I'm faster than Vick, but I think I can do some pretty good things as far as not letting him get outside and helping [to keep] our defensive backs from covering [him] all day."
Kearse, 28, lived up to his nickname, "The Freak," during his five seasons with the Tennessee Titans because of his rare combination of speed and strength. He led Philadelphia this season with 7.5 sacks despite being double-teamed in most games. Some in the NFL believed Kearse had become overrated in recent years -- he produced 36 sacks in his first three seasons but just 19 in three seasons since -- but the Eagles made him their primary defensive target after a 14-3 loss to Carolina in the NFC championship game last January. Coach Andy Reid has repeatedly praised Kearse's ability to harass a quarterback and alter his rhythm.
Kearse was a persistent nuisance to Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper -- another willing and able runner -- last Sunday, but Vick's rushing skills surpass anything seen before at his position. He is also a left-handed passer, using a side of the field on rollouts and bootlegs that most quarterbacks do not, so Kearse, a natural left end, likely will be positioned more on the right side to put him in closer striking distance. He is relishing the opportunity to blitz Vick, as well as shadow him when the Eagles think he will run.
"I prefer to do both of them," Kearse said. "I prefer to be a pass rusher if that's what we need, or if we need a spy, I'm ready to do that."
The Eagles can ill-afford to allow Vick to get comfortable, and they are intent on pounding him whenever possible. They took a similar approach to Minnesota wide receiver Randy Moss, and he ended up having no impact on the game. Vick will have the ball in his hands on every offensive play and does not shy away from contact, creating ample opportunities to punish him.
"With a guy like Mike, as many times as you can put a hat [helmet] on him, put a hat on him," Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins said, "to make it known and clear that if you do run the ball, there is a chance you will be hit. I'm not saying that there's going to be anything done outside the lines, but you have to make sure that it's an emphasis: If you run the ball and you do get some yards, we are looking to tackle with this defense."
Much like Washington's Gregg Williams, Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Johnson espouses aggressive packages, and the Falcons expect him to concoct some creative measures to address their three-pronged running attack. Vick is aided by the combination of bulldozing running back T.J. Duckett and the slithery Warrick Dunn, who can turn the slightest cranny into a huge gain. The Falcons ran for 327 yards against St. Louis last week, giving Johnson much to ponder in preparation for Sunday.
"I'm partial; I think [Johnson] is the best in the game at what he does," Reid said. "He does such a great job of studying offenses, particularly protections and the schemes. He has anticipation, skills and instincts. A lot of that is from work study and a lot of it he just has. He does a heck of a job."
If this defense is at all vulnerable, it is against the run. The Eagles routinely conceded more than 150 yards per game early in the season -- Pittsburgh rushed for 252 yards against them in November -- but middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who returned to the Pro Bowl after being released by the Redskins before the season, was adamant those problems are behind them. "We still won't have a problem [stopping the run]," Trotter repeated Wednesday. "We still won't have a problem."
Trotter, who was credited with seven tackles, a half-sack, an interception and two pass defenses against Minnesota, realizes what type of effort it will take for this defense -- which is not particularly large up front -- to stop Atlanta on the ground.
"I've definitely got to have probably my greatest game ever, and I look forward to doing that," Trotter said. "You're definitely going to see myself making a lot more plays than I did last week because they do run the ball. The middle linebacker is supposed to make a lot of plays when a team runs the ball on you. I'm looking forward to do that."
Trotter was a part of the Eagles team that lost in the NFC championship game to St. Louis in 2002 (29-24), then watched on television the last two years as they fell to Tampa Bay (27-10) and then Carolina. Another loss in the title game would crush Philadelphia's rabid fan base and mark the franchise as the Buffalo Bills of the conference championship game, and Trotter has no intention of losing to an underdog team in the biggest game of the season yet again.
"Yes, I was shocked [to see the Eagles lose in 2003 and 2004]," Trotter said, "and I believe that I could have made a difference. To what extent, I'm not sure, but I believe I could have made a difference. I was definitely shocked. Without a doubt, [the Eagles] were the better team both of those years. I don't think it was their time. That's why I believe this is the time. For some crazy reason I can't explain, I just believe that this is our year."