|Sunday, September 9
Rams' defense keeps McNabb under control
By Len Pasquarelli
PHILADELPHIA -- With seven minutes remaining in the third quarter of Sunday's season opener against the St. Louis Rams, the giant Sony replay screen in the end zone at Veterans Stadium blinked to life with a lengthy video montage of some of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb's most breathtaking scrambles of last season.
Over a 45-second stretch, there was the celluloid likeness of McNabb bolting beyond the grasp of Washington Redskins defenders, skittering past would-be Tampa Bay tacklers, hurdling through a pair of Cowboys safeties, bursting into the end zone against Arizona.
For most of the day, however, that 2000 highlight reel was one of the few times Eagles fans witnessed McNabb on the run and beating opponents with his feet. And while the box score indicated that St. Louis secured its 20-17 overtime win courtesy of Jeff Wilkins' 26-yard field goal 7:56 into the extra session, it was the ability of an overhauled Rams defense to keep McNabb contained in the pocket that was most key to their victory.
Not a bad beginning for a maligned unit that surrendered 471 points a year agoa and was ranked statistically No. 23 in yards surrendered. As a result of its incredible shortcomings in 2000, the Rams' defense had nine new starters on Sunday afternoon.
"When we sit down to look at the film (on Monday) morning," said Rams cornerback Aeneas Williams, "we're going to realize how well we played. Yeah, we gave up two long drives to let them tie the game. But we stopped them at the end of regulation and on the first series of overtime. And outside of one or two plays, we didn't let McNabb beat us by making the big play outside the pocket. And, man, that was a huge factor."
For the day, McNabb completed 32 of 48 passes for 312 yards and two touchdowns. On the ground, he totaled 48 yards on nine carries.
But just once, on a third-and-17 play early in the fourth quarter when he dashed outside to the right and churned for 15 yards, did the elusive third-year veteran best the St. Louis defense with the kind of improvisational genius that made him the runner-up for league most valuable player honors last season. For nearly three quarters, until he hit a passing groove during which he completed 14 of 20 passes in rallying Philadelphia from a 17-3 deficit, McNabb looked terribly uncomfortable in being relegated to a pocket passer.
When a reporter suggested to Sean Moran that McNabb appeared to be McMortal much of the time, the Rams defensive end responded: "No, he was McNabbed."
Truth be told, the Rams began planning their strategy for containing McNabb on the first day of training camp. Early in a team drill, one of the St. Louis defensive lineman strayed from his rush lane, creating a yawning vacuum inside. Never one to miss an opportunity to reinforce the importance of lane discipline, defensive line coach Bill Kollar screamed: "McNabb would have been through that hole in a heartbeat!"
From that day forward, apparently, the lesson was well-learned.
From a technique standpoint, the Rams were content to "soft rush" McNabb all day long Sunday, using a package of bull-rushes to stand their ground and control their lanes. And given that McNabb got so little support from a surrounding cast that will remain suspect, at least until the wide receivers begin making some plays and tailback Duce Staley proves that he is fully recovered from last year's foot surgery, the blueprint was a solid one.
Kollar told his linemen before the game that, if they simply stayed in their lanes and kept McNabb contained, he didn't care if the unit registered even one sack. As it was, the defense had five sacks and a half-dozen more hurries. Unofficially, McNabb completed just five passes while out of the pocket.
Most times, McNabb uses his feet to buy time. On Sunday, he looked bankrupt for long stretches, particularly in the first half. "Credit those guys," he said, "with a very good game plan and for executing it well."
The Philadelphia offensive design still does not allow McNabb to throw the ball upfield very much, and 17 of his 32 completions were to running backs. James Thrash, signed as an unrestricted free agent this spring to be the Eagles' new "lead" receiver, had but one catch. Only second-year wideout Todd Pinkston, who had seven receptions for 99 yards and looked dramatically improved over his 2000 rookie campaign, regularly bailed out the harried McNabb.
Most of the time, McNabb conceded, operating from a space the size of a phone booth. And while he sometimes exited wearing his standard Superman cape, more often than not the St. Louis defense stymied him with its own brand of kryptonite.
"It's ironic, because defensive linemen play their entire career being told to get after the quarterback," Kollar said. "But we hammered home all week the importance of not being too aggressive (coming) after that guy. One lineman misses an assignment, and McNabb runs 60 yards, it's that simple. He didn't run for 60 today total did he?"
Indeed, the St. Louis line, with not a single starter returning from 2000 and with standout right end Grant Wistrom sidelined by an injury, demonstrated tremendous discipline in not surrendering its lanes. There were times it appeared the line would rush two or three yards into the Philadelphia backfield, then simply stop, with the players raising their arms to force McNabb to hold the ball a count longer than normal.
"If he beat us throwing it, so be it," said defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina. "But we didn't think they could beat us in the air. As long as we weren't letting McNabb run around all over the place, we felt we were OK."
Defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, Kollar and secondary coach Ron Meeks -- a trio that was imported to help stop the hemorrhaging of the porous St. Louis unit -- came up with a masterful game plan. Smith incorporated the "cover two" scheme he learned so well in his days with Tampa Bay, and the design fit well with the Eagles' weaknesses.
"This defense can hold its head high," said middle linebacker London Fletcher, one of just two holdover starters on the Rams' defense.
Indeed, it can, at least for this week.
In surrendering 17 points, St. Louis did better than in 15 of 16 games last season. Only in a 16-3 loss at Carolina did the Rams surrender fewer than 20 points in 2000. They gave up 334 yards on Sunday, but permitted more than that in half their games in 2000. Every coach in the league knows that if the explosive Rams just get modest improvement from their defense, they will again be Super Bowl contenders. On Sunday, coach Mike Martz thought the step forward was more like a quantum leap.
The nine new starters is believed to represent the biggest wholesale refurbishing from one season to the next since the 1970 merger.
"I thought the defense played exceptionally," Martz said. "I'm very pleased with them."
The defense was pretty pleased with itself, and even the Rams' offense went out of its way to commend the play of the defense. At halftime, quarterback Kurt Warner and tailback Marshall Faulk walked around the locker room, slapping hands with defensive teammates and encouraging them to extend their spirited play.
A year ago, with some internal finger-pointing, that likely wouldn't have happened. But Sunday's victory, on the road in a hostile stadium and against a quality opponent, might have been the first sign that the Rams won't have to win so many shootouts this year.
"It's a start," said Smith. "You put nine new starters on any unit and ask them to play a team like we played today, you don't know what to expect. We played one of the premier teams in the league, one of the premier players, and we held our own. There's a lot that we have to do better, but I'll take this one."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.