When you're lining up a backfield of Kevin Kolb at quarterback, Correll Buckhalter at fullback and Lorenzo Booker at halfback, well, you know things are a little bit haywire for an Eagles team not quite used to that trio. But the Eagles were involved in something special on Sunday: An old-fashioned physical brawl at Lincoln Financial Field against the Steelers, just the kind of game Pittsburgh has made its signature for years.
But in this game, the Eagles were the team that showed the most heart. In this one, the Eagles reached deep into their reserve and, on a short week and with a roster depleted by injury, rose to the occasion and punched Pittsburgh in the mouth over and over again to win a thriller, 15-6. The victory gives the Eagles a 2-1 record heading into another expected brawl in Chicago on Sunday night.
There sure is a lot to talk about here, so let's get a couple of things out of the way immediately ...
- Running back Brian Westbrook limped off the field in the second quarter -- his right foot came down wobbly after stepping on the leg of Tra Thomas with his left foot -- and was taken to the locker room for X-rays on his right ankle. The X-rays, said head coach Andy Reid, were negative. There is, then, as we know it now, no fracture. Westbrook has an MRI scheduled for Monday, and while there is optimism from the Eagles camp -- specifically, safety Brian Dawkins, who said in his post-game press conference that he expects Westbrook on the field against the Bears -- nobody really knows until the results of the MRI are known. Reid called Westbrook's injury an "ankle strain," which can mean any number of things. Keep your fingers crossed. Westbrook left the stadium on Sunday night on crutches.
In Westbrook's absence, the Eagles turned to Buckhalter, who ran hard and gained 43 yards on 10 carries and added another 44 yards on six receptions. He had a dazzling 20-yard catch and run when he grabbed a McNabb pass in the flat and then turned on the jets up the left sideline and leaped into the end zone, a la the touchdown he scored in Miami back in 2003.
Buckhalter ran hard. He ran with a purpose and he blocked well. Buckhalter is a capable running back. He is going to play well when called upon. But even the combination of Buckhalter and Booker isn't enough to overcome the absence of Westbrook, because, you know, he's the best running back in the game right now. So we're all hoping for good news on Monday.
- Donovan McNabb stayed in the locker room through the first offensive series of the second half and then for part of the second series. McNabb suffered a chest contusion in the first half when he was walloped taking a sack, but he returned to the game and was able to function pretty well the rest of the way even though the offense wasn't as explosive as it was to open the game. McNabb completed his first 15 passes and was 24 of 35 for 196 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The offense went right down on the field on its first possession, but Tony Hunt fumbled after a catch and run -- the initial call indicated no fumble, but the Steelers challenged the call and won, and I still haven't seen the fumble. Early drives were strong. The Eagles were moving the ball, but had just 10 points to show for it in the first half.
McNabb's scoring pass to Buckhalter was the 176th of McNabb's career, an Eagles record. McNabb, while expected to be sore for the next few days, should be OK for the Bears. At least that is what came from Reid after the game, but we'll know more later on Monday.
- The defense, so roundly criticized after its performance in Dallas, won this game for the Eagles. Flat-out won the game. The special teams were great -- more on that later -- and the offense scored early, but the defense was stifling. It was a performance the reminded you of great Eagles defensive games from the past -- House of Pain, anyone? -- because coordinator Jim Johnson dialed up a masterful scheme. The Eagles blitzed on nearly every play. They shut down a great running game -- the Steelers gained just 33 yards on 19 carries -- and they sacked quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich nine times for 44 yards in losses.
"The guys just executed the defense a lot better than they did last week," said Johnson. "I did blitz more this game ... we felt there were some things we could take advantage of. They have a good offense, but there were some things there. When the coverage is good, you can do some things. The coverage wasn't as good last week (against Dallas). This week, it was. So you have confidence when you blitz. Our coverage was excellent."
The Steelers actually came out and threw the ball early. They wanted to back the Eagles off the line of scrimmage, but the defense was stifling. Stewart Bradley had six tackles, three for losses. Quintin Mikell had eight tackles. Brian Dawkins had seven tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a recovery that basically clinched things. He leaped at Roethlisberger and knocked the ball loose late in the fourth quarter and then emerged from the pile with the football. The Eagles turned it into three points to take a nine-point lead with only a couple of minutes to play.
Asante Samuel had an interception, Trent Cole had a sack and a pressure that resulted in a safety and the Eagles simply would not allow the Steelers to move the football. Pittsburgh gained a total of 180 yards and converted 2 of 13 third downs.
After three games, ladies and gentlemen, the Eagles are allowed 45.3 yards per game on the ground, and teams are converting 23.5 percent of their thrid downs. Dallas made big plays and gashed the defense, but Johnson wanted the group to rebound and it did. Consider this number: The defense had 19 plays that resulted in negative yardage for the Steelers. Pittsburgh ran a total of 60 plays, so nearly a third of them went for minus yards.
- Dawkins answered the critics who questioned whether he "still had it" by enjoying a vintage Brian Dawkins game. Dawkins played well in coverage and blitzed beautifully. He was an impact player and for the second straight game he forced a key fumble by the quarterback.
- The special teams were great, largely because Sav Rocca averaged 44.4 yards on five punts and knocked three inside the 10-yard line (OK, one was officially at the 10-yard line, but who is quibbling?) and three times in the fourth quarter was a weapon in the battle for field position. Rocca had punts of 64 yards to the Steelers 25-yard line to get the Eagles out of difficult field position, then had a 54-yard punt to the Steelers 6-yard line and then, finally, angled a 37-yard punt to the Pittsburgh 7-yard line that was downed by Sean Considine.
- The offensive line deserves some congratulations, too, as Max Jean-Gilles filled in for the injury Shawn Andrews and Jamaal Jackson played the entire game after mourning the death of his brother last week. Pittsburgh's blitz game won some of the battles, but the offensive line won the war.
- Hank Baskett stepped up as the Steelers concentrated on taking DeSean Jackson out of the mix, catching a career-high eight passes for 85 yards and making some tough grabs in traffic. Jackson had five receptions for 40 yards.
It was the kind of game most folks expected. For those interested in the back-and-forth scoring-spree games that the Eagles played in Dallas, well, this was just as tense and certainly every bit as physical and absolutely as emotional. The crowd at Lincoln Financial Field was in a frenzy from the very start of the game. It was a superb football environment.
And make no mistake, it was a game the Eagles wanted very badly to win. In a very tough stretch of games, this was a dangerous game against a top AFC team. The Steelers had beaten up the Eagles pretty badly back in 2004, and that memory was still fresh.
But the defense led the way here. The Eagles showed so much heart and so much grit and some very important depth to turn back Pittsburgh and stay pace in the ultra-competitive NFC East.
"It was a great game for us to win," said McNabb. "We have great team chemistry. We're picking each other up. It was a short week and all of that, but we came to play. We have to keep playing this way, with a lot of emotion. We have to be physical."
That's the way it was on Sunday. The Eagles went out and traded punches and came out on top. The Westbrook Watch is something to tune into on Monday. Now it is time to savor a win against a qualtiy opponent at a time the Eagles really needed to grab the game.