The Eagles played in a crazy game on Sunday. A friend used the word "exciting" when we were discussing it. I can't quite say that seemed right. I was too nervous to be excited. It was fun, but there was so much pressure on every play that a lot of stress was involved as well. The Eagles held the lead for almost the entire game, but up until the 3:29 mark of the fourth quarter it was a small lead. One big play from the Steelers would have put them in front. That closeness made you live and die on just about every snap. Those kinds of games are enjoyable when your team wins, as the Eagles did.
That was a big win for the Eagles. In the opener, the team proved it could dominate lesser competition. Last week, the guys showed they could play in a shootout. This week they proved they could bounce back from a tough loss and win a hard-fought defensive battle.
The win gets the team to 2-1. That may not sound like a big deal, but it does take pressure off them. Last season, they didn't get their second win until Oct. 14, and it only improved their record to 2-3. The 2008 Eagles want to be Super Bowl contenders. You can't do that if you're always fighting to get to the .500 mark. Good teams have to make plays and win games. The Eagles did both on Sunday.
There are concerns about the health of quarterback Donovan McNabb and running back Brian Westbrook that took away from some of the joy after the win. We need both guys healthy if this team is to challenge for a championship.
One thing we learned on Sunday was that the team can win with defense. That was a big question mark after the struggles on Monday night. With dominant performances in two of three games, I think it is safe to say the Cowboys game was an aberration. They have a great offense and our guys didn't play well. Jim Johnson had his guys ready to play against the Steelers and let them attack over and over. The results were pretty darn good.
The Eagles racked up nine sacks. They had 10 tackles-for-loss. They came up with two takeaways and a safety. The turnovers led to a pair of field goals. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was knocked out of the game with a hand injury and the Steelers gained only 180 net yards. That is a major difference from last week. Even more impressive is that this performance came on a short week since the Eagles played on Monday night.
The defensive gameplan was pretty simple. The goal was to aggressively play the run and then blitz on pass plays. Roethlisberger will hold the ball. He likes to throw downfield. He was sacked 47 times last year, so you know a good pass rush can work against him. He is the kind of quarterback you can really blitz against.
The first part of the equation was stopping the run. That sounds good in theory, but not many people shut down the Steelers. They were among league leaders in rushing yards coming into the game. The Eagles did have the top-ranked run defense in the league, but surely they couldn't shut down Pittsburgh. They did and they made it look easy. Willie Parker's longest run was only eight yards. He never once seemed close to breaking off a long run. He was tackled or hit around the line of scrimmage on most of his carries.
The Steelers helped the Eagles out by not running very much. Roethlisberger is a good passer, but it seemed strange for them to go away from the run like they did. Pittsburgh finished the game with only 19 carries for 33 yards. I think the Steelers saw the Dallas passing attack and figured the way to attack us was by throwing the ball. Sounds good in theory.
Reality was the Eagles pass rush getting constant pressure and the cover guys sticking right with receivers. Roethlisberger dropped back to pass 37 times. He was sacked on eight of them and forced to run on another four. That doesn't even take into account the plays where he had to hurry throws or simply throw the ball away. Factor those plays in and he was affected by the pass rush and blitz on almost every other pass. That's good pressure.
Jim Johnson and the defense never let Pittsburgh get into any kind of offensive rhythm. The defense blitzed off the edges and up the middle. Some plays only four men rushed. The safety came with only the four defensive linemen going after the quarterback. There were other plays when only three men rushed and eight dropped back into coverage.
A few individuals stood out. Trent Cole spent most of the game in the Steelers backfield. He went hard outside at times. He used inside moves with good success. They used a double-team on him several times. Even that didn't always work. There was one play when Cole got hit by a running back and just spun off the block to get pressure on the passer. He "only" had one sack. He just missed several others. The safety should have been a sack. Roethlisberger's knee was on the ground before he threw the ball.
Juqua Parker had a terrific game from the left defensive end spot. He led the team with 2.5 sacks and also forced a fumble, which led to a field goal. Stats aside, Parker had a big game. There were a handful of plays when Roethlisberger was forced to throw the ball because Parker was bearing down on him. With four quarterback hits, Parker got to Big Ben more than any other defender. He also made several hustle plays, chasing the ball from behind and getting in on the tackle. Parker was also used as "The Joker." That's when he lines up like the middle linebacker on certain passing downs. Sometimes he drops into coverage. Sometimes he blitzes up the middle. On Sunday, he seemed to be shadowing Roethlisberger so that Ben couldn't take off and run for the first down.
Brian Dawkins proved that he can still make plays around the line of scrimmage. Let him attack and he will make things happen. Last week, he forced a fumble that resulted in a Chris Gocong touchdown. This week, he knocked the ball out of Roethlisberger's hand and fell on it deep in Steelers territory. That set up a field goal that gave the Eagles a 15-6 lead and let all of us sigh a breath of relief.
I do have to mention a couple of offensive players as well. Wide receiver Hank Baskett played his best game as an Eagle. I know he has some long touchdown catches in other games, but this week he made several important grabs in a tight game. His long touchdown catches have all involved mistakes by defensive backs. That wasn't the case against Pittsburgh. Baskett played well and earned each of his catches. He used his big frame to shield defensive backs and give McNabb a target. Baskett finished with a career-high eight catches for 85 yards.
Correll Buckhalter had to alternate between fullback and running back because of injuries to Westbrook and Tony Hunt. He did both jobs as best he could. Buckhalter had 10 carries for 43 yards. He caught six passes for 44 yards, including a 20-yard touchdown. Buckhalter showed that he can make big plays if given the chance. I do wish the coaches would get him the ball more often even when Westbrook is healthy.
Arguably the most important player in the whole game was punter Sav Rocca. He came up huge in the second half. The Eagles didn't punt at all in the first half. His first punt only went 28 yards, but it had excellent touch and put the Steelers at the 10-yard line. His next one involved a slightly off-target snap. Rocca got the ball off, but it only went 39 yards and gave the Steelers good field position. The defense bailed him out. After that Rocca came alive. His next punt went 64 yards and flipped the field, putting the Steelers at their own 30. He launched a 54-yard punt that pinned them down at the 6-yard line the next time around. His next kick only went 37 yards, but again put Pittsburgh deep, this time at the 7-yard line.
The Eagles faced some adversity on Sunday. They overcame some critical injuries and showed a lot of toughness in grinding out a win over the Steelers. I never want to make too much of a September win, but it was really good to see the Eagles beat a quality AFC team and get back above the .500 mark.