As the Terrell Owens saga lingered through training camp and the preseason, the Philadelphia Eagles' defense carried on as if there were no distraction. Even without several important players practicing, the unit appeared every bit as robust as last season, when it ranked tied for second in fewest points allowed per game (16.3).
"I don't look at stats too much, but I think [the players] do, and I think they want to be one of the better defenses in the NFL," said defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, whose group held opponents to single digits five times last season. "And sometimes you have to go by the rating as far as the stats. Our goal is still to be number one. Of all the things I'd most want in this league, it's fewest points allowed."
The Eagles were particularly stingy against the NFC East. The most points they allowed to a division rival was 21, and they won that game by 28 points. In the other five division games, the Eagles did not yield more than 17 points and three times surrendered seven or fewer.
The core of that punishing defense is back, including a secondary that sent three of its four starters to the Pro Bowl (safeties Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis and cornerback Lito Sheppard). The linebackers lost versatile Ike Reese to the Atlanta Falcons, but the Eagles have more depth at the position than most. Consider that middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who supplanted Mark Simoneau as the starter for good in Week 10, started nine games last season and still earned a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Competition also has been intense on the defensive line, especially at tackle with the holdout of starter Corey Simon -- since released -- and Jerome McDougle recovering from gunshot wounds to his stomach as the victim of an armed robbery.
Hollis Thomas and Darwin Walker, both of whom rotated as starters last season, have been sturdy replacements, so much so that the Eagles removed the franchise tag from Simon to allow him to seek employment elsewhere. The Eagles had offered Simon roughly $5 million in a one-year tender, but the 2003 Pro Bowl pick refused to sign.
Rookie Mike Patterson also impressed coaches during training camp in the preseason and may be the latest young player to flourish under Johnson. Last season, the Eagles released veteran cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor and watched as Sheppard made the Pro Bowl and Sheldon Brown finished third on the team in tackles.
"Hopefully, [opponents] leave the game saying we were in a physical game," Dawkins said. "Hopefully, they have bumps and bruises and saying that, whatever the outcome of that game was going to be, when we play Philadelphia, we know it is going to be a physical game, and they are going to claw, scratch, and bite to win a game."