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Special Safeties


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Special Safeties

Posted: July 15th, 2023 | Author: Tommy Lawlor

The Eagles have had several outstanding defenses in the past 35 years. Those units have have great pass rushers, playmaking corners and stud linebackers. The overlooked position is usually safety. When you have the right duo manning the back end of the defense, it allows everyone else to be aggressive and the defense has a chance to be special.


The greatest Eagles defense of them all and one of the greatest in NFL history. Football Outsiders DVOA has them rated as the best defense of the last 35 years. Gang Green, as they were known, was a loaded unit. They were so good you only need first names.


What an amazing group of players. And they had a dynamic pair of safeties running the middle of the field. Andre Waters was the team’s leading tackler and was a force against the run. Wes Hopkins was the rangy playmaker at FS, but was also a lights out hitter. Together, they controlled the middle of the field and the back end of the defense. They made life brutally hard on opposing offenses.

Hopkins is an incredibly underrated player. He was a special FS in the 80’s and early 90’s. He only went to a single Pro Bowl, which is absolutely insane. Hopkins could blitz, play the run and make plays in the passing game. He had 30 INTs in his career. He only played four games in 1986 and 1987 combined or he would probably have the Eagles career record for INTs. He was good when he came back, but the injury robbed him of some of his athleticism.

Hopkins is probably most famous for the House of Pain game in 1991. He unleashed some brutal hits on Houston WRs. They were shots to the head and would get him thrown out and suspended today, but back then it was considered good defense. He broke the nose of Ernest Givens and knocked Drew Hill out of the game.

Football was a wild, violent game back then.

Waters was listed at 5-11, 200. Pound for pound, he might have been the toughest player in the league. Waters wasn’t scared of anyone or anything. Hopkins was the more explosive hitter, but Waters laid his share of big hits as well. He spent more time close to the line of scrimmage and was a key to the Eagles dominant run defense. From 1989 to 1992, the Eagles went 53 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher. And that was at a time when offenses were built around RBs. The front seven was key of course, but Waters was the X-factor. He led the team in tackles in that period. Waters was a rugged defender who intimidated some opponents because of his aggressive style of play.

Wes and Andre were a special duo and a big part of the reason I fell in love with the Eagles.


Football is not a sentimental game. The Eagles had a new pair of safeties in place for 1994, Mike Zordich and Greg Jackson. Both came to the Eagles in free agency and both turned out to be good players. The team started 7-2 in 1994, but then lost the final seven games of the year to finish 7-9. The defense was 4th in yards allowed and 11th in points allowed. They held four opponents to 8 points or less. They didn’t give up 30 points in a game until December, when injuries were an issue. Zordich and Jackson were a big part of the reason the defense played so well.

Zordich was the big guy at 6-1, 210. He was a solid hitter and good run defender. Zordich had his limitations in coverage, but was smart and made his share of plays. He picked off 4 passes, had 2 FF and a sack for the ’94 defense. Zordich was at his best in the box, where he could use his size and physicality.  Jackson was the traditional FS. You wanted him playing deep and attacking the ball. He picked off 6 passes and had 32 picks for his career.

Zordich and Jackson had good chemistry and worked well together. They started again in 1995 and the defense was once again 4th in yards allowed. There isn’t much talk about Zordich and Jackson, but they were key players on some good Eagles defenses.


The Eagles drafted Brian Dawkins in 1996. He became a star once Jim Johnson took over as DC in 1999. Johnson unleashed Dawk and used him creatively and aggressively. Zordich teamed with Dawk from 1996-1998. Tim Hauck was the SS in 1999 before giving way to Damon Moore.

The 2001 defense was outstanding. I’m not sure people appreciate how good it really was. They were 2nd in the league in points allowed and 7th in yards allowed. The 2001 Eagles did not allow more than 21 points in a regular season game. That is freakishly good.

Dawkins was the secret sauce. He finished 5th on the team in tackles. He had 2 INTs, 2 FF, 2 FR and 1.5 sacks. Dawk had an amazing 17 PDs. Some of those happened at the LOS, but plenty of them were downfield. Dawk had great range and ball skills. QBs thought they had an open receiver down the field and then #20 came flying over to make the play.

Moore wasn’t special in any way. He was just a solid player. He finished 3rd on the team in tackles and added 2 INTs, 2 FF and a sack. Moore is most famous for his play to seal the late season game with the Giants that gave the Eagles their first NFC East title in more than a decade.

I came close to having a heart attack as Ron Dixon ran down the sideline. Thank god Moore hustled and made the play. The Miracle that wasn’t.


The two best defenses of the Reid era were 2001 and 2008, with Dawk as the star of both groups. The 2008 unit finished 4th in points allowed and 3rd in yards allowed. Dawk’s running mate in ’08 was Quintin Mikell.

Mikell was one of the great success stories of the Reid era. He was a UDFA who made the team in 2003. He became a key STer and then was given a chance as a role player. Mikell was the starting SS from 2007-2010. He made one Pro Bowl and was 2nd team All-Pro twice. Mikell wasn’t special like Dawk, but he was versatile. He could play in the box and stuff the run. He was solid in man coverage. He also could play deep.

In 2008 Mikell was 2nd on the team in tackles. He had 3 INTs, 2 FFs and 2 sacks. He broke up 9 passes, showing his ability to make plays in the passing game.

Dawk did more blitzing in 2008. He only picked off one pass, but had 3 sacks and 11 TFLs. He was a force at the LOS. He also had a career high 6 FFs. There were a couple of highlight moments for Dawk that year. He had a key sack of Ben Roethlisberger to seal a win over the Steelers. Dawk saved his best for last, creating a pair of TDs in the legendary 44-6 romp over the Cowboys.




Dawk left in free agency after the 2008 season. Safety was unsettled for a while, but that changed when the Eagles signed Malcolm Jenkins in 2014. He brought stability, leadership and playmaking ability to the deep patrol. Rodney McLeod joined Jenkins in 2016 and gave the Eagles another special pair of safeties. They were key to the 2017 defense finishing 4th in points and yards allowed. They also won a big game vs the Pats at the end of the year, in case you forgot.

I have no idea why the Saints let Jenkins go. He was 26 years old, productive and a high character guy. What a terrible decision, but it worked out great for the Eagles. Jenkins became a key player and team leader for the Eagles. He was everything you want in a safey. He was smart and tough. He was versatile. He could line up in the slot or back deep. He could play the run. Jenkins was a perfect fit for the Eagles and the city of Philadelphia. He was a tough, emotional player that quickly became a fan favorite.

Jenkins was 2nd on the team in tackles in 2017. He had 2 INTs, a FF and a sack. McLeod was 5th on the team in tackles and had 3 INTs. Jim Schwartz liked interchangeable safeties. McLeod and Jenkins weren’t twins, but both could do it all. That gave Schwartz the freedom to be creative with his play-calls. Both players had key moments in the Super Bowl.

Cooks was done for the game.

That play came on 3rd down and prevented a TD.


The Eagles finished 8th in points allowed and 2nd in yards allowed last year. The pass rush was dominant. Safety CJ Gardner-Johnson proved to be a special playmaker. He picked off 6 passes to lead the league, despite missing four games due to injury.

Marcus Epps was the other starter. He wasn’t much of a playmaker, but did finish 3rd on the team in tackles.


The future is wide open at safety. It would be great if Reed Blankenship and Sydney Brown became the next duo to add to this list. They are young and talented. We’ll have to wait and see how they do.

It is clear, if you want to have a top defense, you need oustanding safety play.


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