Drop 'til You Flop

Eagles punt returners specially deliver win to Packers

Posted: September 10, 2007

GREEN BAY - Well, this game certainly put the "special" in special teams.

The Eagles would be 1-0 this morning had they declined to send anyone back to return punts yesterday.

Yes, that sounds ridiculous, but no more ridiculous than a 16-13 loss to a Green Bay Packers team that averaged 2.7 yards per rush, 3.7 yards per pass attempt, and did not come close to scoring an offensive touchdown in the season opener at Lambeau Field.

Destined to be rehashed more than a few times in the long week before Game 2 against the Redskins at Lincoln Financial Field is the fact that the Packers scored 10 of their 16 points directly off punts the Eagles fumbled away, because neither Greg Lewis nor J.R. Reed had ever fielded a punt in a game that mattered.

Also just in: That's a really dumb way to lose, not that there are a lot of smart ones.

"I feel like I let my team down," said Lewis, whose muff of Green Bay's first punt was recovered in the Eagles' end zone for a 7-0 Packers lead early in the first quarter. "But I'm not going to dwell on it. I talked to the guys and they told me to keep my head up, and that's what I'm going to continue to do, just try to get better each and every time I go out there, and hopefully, what happened today won't happen again."

There's no guarantee Lewis will ever be in a position for it to happen again. Special-teams coordinator Rory Segrest switched from Lewis to Reed on punts after Lewis ran into up-man Jason Avant while fielding one ball and followed that by imprudently running in and throwing himself on a rolling punt that didn't need to be fielded.

"Any time you're on the receiving end of a kick, you definitely want to retain possession of the ball there," astutely noted Segrest, who was promoted in the offseason when John Harbaugh opted to coach defensive backs. Before assisting Harbaugh last season, Segrest coached defensive linemen and special teams at Samford University in Alabama.

"You can't simulate everything just exactly as it's going to be in a game during the course of practice," Segrest said, answering a question about Lewis, but perhaps also stating the key to the Birds' return-game struggles that carried over from the preseason. It took a couple of exhibition games to figure out Jeremy Bloom wasn't what they'd hoped for as a punt returner, after he'd looked great in practice. (Bloom did, in fact, catch cleanly every ball he went for, and might have been cut a little more slack, having not really played in 3 years.) They oriented everything toward giving Bloom optimal game reps early, didn't establish a primary backup, then didn't have time to adequately train a replacement when they cut him.

Reed gained 8 yards his first time back there, but then, with the score tied, the clock ticking toward a minute remaining in regulation, Reed ran up on a short Jon Ryan punt, waving an arm for a fair catch. Reed muffed the catch, on a dead run, and Green Bay corner Jarrett Bush - the guy who'd separated Lewis from the ball on the touchdown play - was credited with recovering at the Eagles' 31. Eagles rookie tight end Brent Celek insisted afterward he had recovered, which seemed quite possible on replay, but there was no apparent video review, with 59 seconds remaining.

Three plays later, rookie kicker Mason Crosby boomed the 42-yard field goal that won the game, ending coach Andy Reid's five-game streak of mastery (including a playoff win) over the team that once employed him as an assistant.

"Obviously, we can't play like that and expect to win football games," said Reid, whose offense seemed to run out of gas in the second half. Donovan McNabb completed five of 16 passes after intermission, for just 73 yards. McNabb's repaired knee was not a factor in the outcome, but his apparent rustiness was, along with the Packers' strong pass rush.

"I had full command of everything that was going on out there, like I thought I would, but when you get in a game, you have to take care of the little things, and we didn't do that today," McNabb said.

The Packers' excellent corners kept McNabb from doing much outside with his wideouts, and he seemed neither comfortable in the pocket nor sharp on the underneath stuff. McNabb ran four times for just 9 yards, clearly lacking his old confidence in his ability to make things happen with his legs.

It wouldn't have been a true Eagles fiasco without a key injury. Pro Bowl corner Lito Sheppard came down under teammate Sean Considine and Green Bay wideout Ruvell Martin, after Considine broke up a Brett Favre pass to Martin just before halftime. Reid said Sheppard suffered a medial collateral ligament knee sprain and will undergo an MRI today. Sheppard seems likely to miss several weeks, at least.

Reid attempted to spread the blame, also decrying dropped balls, offensive and defensive penalties, and missed tackles, which occurred most notably when Favre was able to wriggle out of a few sacks. But really, even if the offense could have been much sharper, it was hard to see how the widely questioned defense could have done a lot more. Green Bay finished the day with 215 net yards. Trent Cole stripped Favre and Jevon Kearse recovered the fumble at Green Bay's 38 with 4:18 remaining. So many times in the Reid Era, that kind of late-game big play by the defense has led to a score and a win and the shrugging aside of how ungainly the team looked in getting to the final result.

"I thought we'd at least get a field goal out of it," said Kearse, who managed two hurries and half a sack.

This time, the offense couldn't do anything with the fumble, actually losing 12 yards, and the defense had to come on the field again. The defense held again - emergency cornerback Quintin Mikell tipping a third-down pass away from Donald Driver with 1:09 left, Mikell in because Joselio Hanson had suffered a concussion. And then, the game turned on Reed's frantic, unwise attempt to make a running fair catch.

"I didn't want the ball to roll, to lose field position," said Reed, who rejoined the team a little more than a week ago, primarily to return kickoffs. "I tried to be aggressive and fair-catch it. It was too far for me to catch. I should have let it go. I thought somebody bumped into me, but maybe they didn't. I don't know."

The earlier return disaster looked just as ugly. Lewis, who acknowledged last week that the three punts he fielded in the preseason were his first since "a previous life," might have seen that previous life flash before his eyes when he failed to call for a fair catch on the Packers' first punt of the game. Lewis was blasted by Bush as he fielded the ball, and it bounced away. The ball hopped crazily through clots of players before it settled in the end zone, with the Eagles' Matt Schobel and the Packers' Tracy White grappling for control. White won, and the Packers had a 7-0 lead.

"I tried to get up under it, and it just did not work out for me," Lewis said. "I tried to get it before it took a bounce. The guy made a good play. Unfortunately, I fumbled, we couldn't recover it, and they got seven points out of it."

Green Bay took a 10-0 lead after McNabb, throwing on the run, was intercepted by Nick Barnett, setting up a 53-yard field goal, an impressive NFL debut for Crosby.

But then the Birds pretty much took over the game in the second quarter, settling for a 33-yard David Akers field goal at the end of a 62-yard, 13-play drive, before driving 67 yards in nine plays for the touchdown that tied it. McNabb hit slot receiver Avant over the middle from 9 yards out for the touchdown.

Akers gave the Eagles a 13-10 lead on a 47-yard field goal with 8:15 left in the third (Sav Rocca's holds seemed just fine, by the way), but Favre then led the Pack's only real drive of the game - 13 plays, 51 yards, setting up a 37-yard Crosby field goal that tied the score at 13-13.

Just like the baseball always seems to find the most uncertain fielder in the late innings, Ryan's wicked, wobbly 29-yard punt found Reed, trying to make a play he didn't need to make.

Where does this loss leave the Eagles? Well, Reid is 0-1 for the sixth time in 9 years, and, in fact, it's not the first time the opening loss probably should have been a win. But assuming the Eagles find somebody who can catch a punt - Bloom remains in the Philly area, a source close to Bloom said yesterday, and the toe that slowed him in preseason is just about healed - nothing that happened yesterday should doom the season, also assuming Sheppard isn't out for the year.

Segrest seemed to think the Birds would try to work with Lewis and Reed, rather than looking elsewhere for punt-return help. Obviously, the Eagles can always risk Brian Westbrook back there, if they have to.

"They're guys that haven't taken a lot of reps during the course of the games," Segrest said of Lewis and Reed. "We're just going to have to get 'em as many reps as we can, get 'em in as many situations as we can, during practice."

Reed vowed not to let the mistake haunt him, and affect his play.

"I've already forgot it," he said.

Eagles fans probably will need a little more time. *

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