Youthful Dawkins, Eagles' defense suffocate Steelers

Posted: September 22, 2008

BRIAN DAWKINS did not leap like a soon-to-be-35-year-old man.

The Eagles' free safety made the closing statement on an afternoon of redemption for the Birds' defense, with Lincoln Financial Field shaking from the thunder Jim Johnson unleashed on the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Third-and-15, a little more than 3 1/2 minutes left, Ben Roethlisberger back to pass, the Eagles still a fluke touchdown away from losing a game they were dominating everywhere but the scoreboard.

Dawkins flew toward Roethlisberger. This is not sports writer hyperbole. There was a guard, Kendall Simmons, between the blitzing safety and the quarterback, so Dawkins launched himself, flying over Simmons and slashing downward like Wolverine, the comic book superhero whose image is plastered all over Dawkins' locker. The ball thunked to the turf, where Dawkins fell on it. Four plays later, David Akers set the final margin of a 15-6 Eagles victory with a 31-yard field goal.

It was a victory to savor, at least until today, when the MRI results come in on Brian Westbrook's right ankle. Westbrook left the game after appearing to step on one of teammate Tra Thomas' feet, on the first play of the second quarter. Coach Andy Reid said Westbrook suffered an ankle strain of undetermined severity.

If Westbrook, the focal point of the Birds' offense, is sidelined for very long, Dawkins and the defense might need to reprise yesterday's shutdown effort, more than once.

"Our defense played their hearts out, and the crowd screamed their hearts out," said Reid, who gave fans credit for the Steelers' out-of-sync pass blocking.

"I don't know what a 34-year-old is supposed to feel like or play like. I just know I had to get to Ben; he was scrambling, and I had to make the play . . . As I got off the [initial] block the back tried to block me," Dawkins said. "I pushed him back, saw Ben trying to step up, I knew I had to get to him, and I felt somebody at my feet. The next thing I knew, I was in the air. I knew I knocked [the ball] out. I didn't know where it landed . . . basically, it was right up under me. I just had to cradle it in."

No Eagle took more heat after last Monday's 41-37 loss in Dallas than Dawkins, who was seen flailing in the wake of long Cowboys completions, over and over. Dawkins, a six-time Pro Bowler, gave an impassioned defense of his abilities during his regular Wednesday news conference.

"I told you guys - I understand how it works," said Dawkins, who had five solo tackles yesterday, two for losses. "You get a certain age, every play that I'm not making this year from here on out, it's going to be the same way - 'he's getting old.' I can't worry about that."

Reid said: "I know he's getting old, he knows he's getting old, you guys know he's getting old, but he just comes and plays his heart out."

"That's the Dawkins we all know," said Johnson, the Eagles defensive coordinator. "Dawkins had a week like I did . . . It was good to see him come back. He's a good football player."

Johnson felt he didn't blitz enough Monday night, when the Eagles didn't sack Tony Romo. As Reid noted, Johnson made up for it yesterday; the Steelers, who hadn't seen the Eagles in the regular season, with a real defensive game plan, since 2004, seemed totally befuddled, unsure where the heat was coming from next. Roethlisberger was sacked eight times, fumbled the ball away twice and was intercepted once, in what might have been the worst offensive-line performance ever that didn't involve Winston Justice.

Byron Leftwich quarterbacked Pittsburgh's final series, after Roethlisberger said he'd gotten his passing hand stepped on in the scramble for the fumble Dawkins caused. Roethlisberger's previous series ended in a safety, when he reacted to being grabbed by Trent Cole in the end zone by bouncing a pass off Juqua Parker. That was ruled intentional grounding; you could argue Steelers back Mwelde Moore was nearby, but it was hard to argue Roethlisberger was trying to hit Moore, since he plunked Parker so squarely.

"They're a good defense," Roethlisberger said. "They brought guys from all over the place, and did a good job."

Parker played a monster game, finishing with a career-high 2.5 sacks, four hurries, a couple of tackles for losses and a forced fumble. Like Dawkins, he'd spent the short week of preparation in the crosshairs; Johnson talked on Thursday of needing to get more pressure from the end opposite Cole, and seemed to be saying Chris Clemons would play more against the Steelers. Clemons was not a factor in the game. Parker certainly was.

"Jim was just dialin' those blitzes up, man," Parker said. "They didn't know what was coming . . . people were getting free. [Roethlisberger] was getting flushed out toward me."

Parker said he didn't see the ball Roethlisberger hit him with, that was ruled a safety. "They were messin' with me on the sideline, about [not getting] an interception," he said.

Earlier, it was easy to feel uneasy as the Linc shadows started to lengthen. The Eagles had outgained the Steelers, 213 yards to 95, as Pittsburgh got the ball late in the third quarter. Willie Parker, who began the day as the NFL's No. 3 rusher, finished it with 20 yards on 13 carries, shut down by the league's No. 1 defense against the run. (That's going to take some getting used to, isn't it?)

But the home team started the final quarter with just a 10-6 lead, and no Westbrook. Donovan McNabb had suffered what Reid called a chest contusion, on the play before the one on which Westbrook was injured, and had missed the first five snaps of the second half.

When McNabb came back, he didn't throw the ball as smoothly as he had early on, when he broke his own franchise record with 15 successive completions to start a game. (The old record was 14.) After completing 16 of 19 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown (a 20-yarder, to Correll Buckhalter, McNabb's franchise-record 176th) in the first half, McNabb connected on just eight of 16 for 51 yards in the second half.

"I'm sure he'll be sore, but I think he'll be all right" for next week's game at Chicago, Reid said. "He's not going to be going out and doing any gardening [today]."

McNabb confirmed that he was injured on an attempted flea flicker that fooled no one, and ended with him being sacked by Travis Kirsche and Larry Foote.

"They pounced on me a little bit," McNabb said. "It was a tough hit - my chest felt like it caved in and my head hit the ground . . . You're playing with guys out there who are giving it their all, and you just have to do the same. A couple of throws, obviously, I wanted back . . . we did what we had to do to win the game."

There was a feeling in the Eagles' locker room that they had proved something - if Pittsburgh goes on to make the postseason, this will be the first AFC playoff team Reid has ever beaten, in 10 seasons. But that feeling was tinged with caution, as Westbrook undertook the most scrutinized 20-yard gain of his career. Several TV cameras and a bunch of print reporters watched Westbrook, barred from speaking to reporters by the Eagles, swing away from his dressing stall on gray metal crutches after an extended conversation with head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder. Westbrook worked toward the door, placing both feet on the carpet with each step but clearly leaning on just one, pretty much the way the Eagles leaned on their defense after Westbrook left the field.

Birdseed

It was hard to even remember amid the much more pressing injury news afterward, but right guard Shawn Andrews (back) missed the game, as expected. Sub Max Jean-Gilles seemed to do a decent job . . . Eagles fullback Tony Hunt left the game with a concussion suffered on his first-possession fumble . . . Tight end L.J. Smith left late with a lower back strain . . . The Eagles haven't allowed a touchdown in their last three home games, this game, the opener against St. Louis and last season's finale against Buffalo . . . Brian Dawkins' 170th game moved him past Chuck Bednarik and into second place on the franchise's all-time list, behind Harold Carmichael (180). *

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