Commentary

Revived Eagles' blitz sounds gong for Big Ben

A few days after surrendering 41 points in a loss at Dallas, Philadelphia's defense found its stride in a brutal pounding of Pittsburgh, Jeffri Chadiha writes.

Originally Published: September 21, 2008
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

Philadelphia EaglesHoward Smith/US PresswireSeven different Eagles were credited with contributing to the team's nine sacks of Steelers quarterbacks Sunday. The Eagles sacked Ben Roethlisberger (above) eight times. Including the playoffs, Pittsburgh has allowed 49 sacks in its past 13 games.
PHILADELPHIA -- Philadelphia Eagles safety Brian Dawkins had one bit of advice for his teammate, quarterback Donovan McNabb, midway through Sunday's 15-6 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers: Don't get passive.

Dawkins knew McNabb might try to play it safe since the Eagles were caught in a close defensive struggle, that an offensive turnover might ruin Philadelphia's hopes for victory. But Dawkins also knew how well the Eagles' defense was playing.

"I told Donovan, 'We got your back,'" Dawkins said after the game. "So put the ball in there and make it happen."

Dawkins wasn't just trying to encourage a quarterback who was playing with a painful chest injury. Dawkins' confidence had plenty do with the dominance the Eagles displayed in toppling a Pittsburgh team that looked nothing like the physical Steelers we're used to seeing. For those who didn't catch this contest, it would be an understatement to say Philadelphia pushed Pittsburgh around Sunday. The Eagles delivered the kind of jaw-dropping beatdown that had to make other people around the NFL take notice.

The numbers alone -- nine sacks, three turnovers and a safety -- don't do it justice. This was one of those contests that defensive players don't get to enjoy that often.

"It's a feeling you really can't explain," Dawkins said. "It's one of those situations where you know whatever happens, they're not getting into the end zone. That's how we felt tonight."

The Eagles couldn't have asked for a more timely performance from their defense. First off, they were plagued by two significant injuries in the first half of this game. McNabb hurt his chest after being leveled by three Steelers tacklers on a failed flea-flicker and Pro Bowl running back Brian Westbrook left the game with a sprained right ankle. When the Eagles returned to the locker room for halftime, they had no idea if either player would be available in the second half (although McNabb eventually returned midway through the third quarter).

Just as critical for the Eagles was their ability to rebound from a 41-37 loss to Dallas on Monday night. The Cowboys dominated the Eagles with so many big plays in the passing game that Dawkins caught plenty of media criticism for both his age (34) and his declining skills. But on Sunday, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson didn't worry about game-changing pass plays interfering with his game plan. He threw blitz package after blitz package at the Steelers all game long and delighted in the way that strategy rattled Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

The difference between this week and last week is that [Dallas] used a lot of max protection and we eventually got away from blitzing. This week we looked at the film and [Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson] decided that he was still going to blitz regardless of whether [Pittsburgh] max protected or not. We just had to go out and win those battles.

-- Eagles DB Sheldon Brown on the difference in his unit's performance at Dallas in Week 2 and against the Steelers on Sunday

The Eagles actually sacked Roethlisberger six times in the second quarter alone and hurried -- or hit -- him on countless other plays. Roethlisberger hurt his throwing hand on the last sack and was replaced by Byron Leftwich when the Steelers got the ball with 2:20 remaining.

"I do not think we were picking up the blitz very well as a unit," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said.

"They kept bringing a lot of guys up front. We had too many guys coming in free and even if we had a one-on-one matchup, we were not winning them. It really seemed to confuse us a little. I think today was a good, old-fashioned butt kicking."

"The difference between this week and last week is that [Dallas] used a lot of max protection and we eventually got away from blitzing," Eagles cornerback Sheldon Brown said. "This week we looked at the film and Jim decided that he was still going to blitz regardless of whether they max protected or not. We just had to go out and win those battles."

The Eagles won so many battles that it's hard to imagine them playing better than they did Sunday. Granted, they were going against a rebuilt Steelers offensive line that hadn't really been tested in its first two games. But the Eagles got contributions from all levels of their defense. If it wasn't the secondary taking the ball away -- cornerback Asante Samuel had an interception and Dawkins had a fumble recovery -- it was the front seven swarming to the football as if they were fighting through practice dummies.

The Eagles attacked with such alarming efficiency you wonder why the Steelers didn't change their strategy. They didn't try to keep the Eagles off-balance with screens or draw plays. Pittsburgh's reluctance to stick with the run was just as stunning.

The Steelers ran the ball just 19 times, after calling 70 rushing plays in their first two contests.

"I was surprised they didn't run it more," Eagles defensive end Trent Cole said. "I thought they'd try to smash it down our throats."

The only sensible explanation for Pittsburgh's offensive game plan is that the Steelers were concerned with the Eagles' success this season in stopping the run. Thanks to Sunday's effort, Philadelphia now leads the NFL in rushing defense with an average of 45.7 yards allowed per game. Those are the kinds of numbers that make it easy to think the Eagles will be tougher to deal with as this season progresses. If they can continue to stuff the run and harass opposing quarterbacks, the likelihood is the Eagles will be major players in the postseason.

Of course, they still need Westbrook to get healthy, because the entire offense depends on his versatility. They also need McNabb to stay as hot as he was when he completed his first 15 passes Sunday. But there's something different about the 2008 Eagles defense, something that suggests it might be regaining the same dominant form that marked this team's rise to NFC prominence in the first place. And that is something that shouldn't be lost on their upcoming foes.

Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.