Forecast calls for heat

Spagnuolo, Johnson like to bring pressure

Steve Spagnuolo's aggressive defense helped the Giants win a Super Bowl last season. Steve Spagnuolo's aggressive defense helped the Giants win a Super Bowl last season. (Bill Kostroun/Associated Press)
By Rob Maaddi
Associated Press / January 9, 2009
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PHILADELPHIA - They'll send cornerbacks from one side and safeties up the middle, drop linemen into pass coverage and hope someone gets to the quarterback.

Defensive coordinators Jim Johnson and Steve Spagnuolo are known for their attacking styles and exotic schemes. Their goal is to create constant pressure, get sacks, and cause turnovers.

Neither coach lets up.

When the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants meet in an NFC divisional playoff Sunday, Donovan McNabb and Eli Manning should see plenty of guys coming at them from different angles.

Johnson and Spagnuolo, his former understudy, love the blitz. They'll do it any time, no matter the down or score.

"We expect him to bring the heat," McNabb said of Spagnuolo, who runs the Giants' defense. "And we will be prepared and go out and try to make some big plays."

Spagnuolo learned under Johnson during his eight seasons as an assistant in Philadelphia. He took the same aggressive approach to New York last season, added a few of his own wrinkles, and helped the Giants win a Super Bowl. In the process, "Spags" became a hot commodity for head coaching vacancies around the league.

Johnson joined the Eagles when coach Andy Reid arrived in 1999. His defenses have consistently ranked among the best in the NFL, a major reason Philadelphia has reached the playoffs seven times in the last nine years.

The veteran Johnson is proud to see Spagnuolo and some of his other pupils having success. Defensive coordinators Ron Rivera of the San Diego Chargers and Leslie Frazier of the Minnesota Vikings each served under Johnson in Philadelphia.

"I'm just glad I'm in the playoffs," Johnson joked. "No, I'm happy for those guys. It's kind of fun. It's kind of neat to have all those guys in the playoffs. They're all doing well."

Johnson preaches patience on defense, a trait Spagnuolo certainly inherited from his mentor. He doesn't abandon his game plan if something isn't working early, and sticks with the philosophy that has brought him so much success. He also avoids being predictable. Opponents are always mindful of Philadelphia's blitz, but they have a tough time figuring out who's coming from where.

"You can watch as much tape as you want and study all of that, but they do a good job of a lot of one-time blitzes," Giants center Shaun O'Hara said. "You have to be ready for anything and I'm sure we'll see something that they haven't done in the past few games."

For all their blitzing and pressuring, neither defense got to the QB much in the previous two meetings. McNabb, who was sacked 12 times by the Giants in September 2007, didn't go down once against them this season. Manning only got sacked one time. The teams split the two games, each winning on the road.

"I was surprised at how little they pressured the last time we played them," O'Hara said, referring to Philadelphia's 20-14 win Dec. 7. "I think we were expecting a little bit more. It's going to be two similar defenses, so we see some of the same blitzes from our defense that they run."

Despite their problems head to head, both defenses did quite well against other teams. The Eagles ranked third overall, while the Giants were fifth. Philly finished third with 48 sacks and New York had 42. The Eagles forced 29 turnovers and the Giants 22.

Sixteen different Eagles recorded at least one sack, including six by safeties and two by cornerbacks. The Giants got sacks from 13 players, but only one each by a safety and cornerback.

"They have talented players all over," Manning said of the Eagles' defense. "When they do blitz, they have a complex blitz package that they're using to get to the quarterback and making plays; not only getting sacks but causing fumbles."

Spagnuolo had an extra week to prepare for the Eagles (10-6-1) because the Giants (12-4) had a bye. Philadelphia, which sneaked into the playoffs after getting a lot of help the final week, beat Minnesota, 26-14, on the road to advance.

Given more time to get ready, Spagnuolo could have a few surprises for McNabb, Brian Westbrook, and the rest of the Eagles' offense.

"Any time you have two weeks before you play somebody, they're going to bring something new," Westbrook said. "We expect that from them. Spags does a great job of getting those guys ready.

"Their blitz packages are tough, they have good rushers off the edge, they have solid inside guys as well. Their front seven is going to be tough no matter what. Spags knows us very well. It's tough dealing with everything they bring to the table, their blitzes, and they also have two very good cornerbacks, too."

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