Pittsburgh homecoming for Eagles' rookie running back Lewis

"It's going to be good to get back to Pittsburgh," Eagles running back Dion Lewis said. (Michael Perez/AP)
"It's going to be good to get back to Pittsburgh," Eagles running back Dion Lewis said. (Michael Perez/AP)
Posted: August 18, 2011

ALL NIFTY, undersized running backs are not Brian Westbrook.

The Eagles learned this crucial lesson in 2008, when they traded for Lorenzo Booker to help lighten Westbrook's load. Slight, shifty guy, intelligent, good hands. Miscast in Bill Parcells-era Miami offense, figured to be a better fit with Andy Reid's West Coast scheme. Worth sending a fourth-round pick to the Dolphins, right?

Ah, no. Lincoln Financial Field fans quickly grasped that Booker, who lacked Westbrook's squat, muscular base, could be knocked backward by a stiff breeze off the Delaware. Any sort of contact - arm tackle, hand tackle, pinkie tackle - he was on the ground. Maybe even more damning, watching Booker try to pick up the blitz was blooper-reel material. The former Florida State star attacked the task of blocking like a pedestrian trying to hail a taxi, a pedestrian who had never actually hailed a taxi before and wasn't entirely clear on the procedure.

This little trip down memory lane is in service of discussing Dion Lewis, the Eagles' fifth-round rookie running back from Pitt, who returns to the city of his college stardom tonight when the Birds visit the Steelers. Lewis is listed at 5-8, 195, and might even be a little shorter than that. He left Pitt after 2 years, and doesn't turn 21 until Sept. 27.

"It's going to be a unique experience," Lewis said. "It's going to be good to get back to Pittsburgh."

The Eagles' featured back is Lewis' Pitt mentor, LeSean McCoy. Ronnie Brown figures to be the McCoy counterpoint/backup. After that, there is a role for either Lewis or veteran Eldra Buckley. Buckley is a strong special-teams performer, but if there are next to no kickoff returns this year, because of the move of the kickoff to the 35-yard-line, special-teams skills become less crucial.

In the preseason opener, Lewis was the Eagles' leading rusher, with 26 yards on 10 carries, behind offensive linemen unlikely to spend a lot of time on the field this season. He also caught a pass for 16 yards. But maybe more impressive, given his stature, Lewis did a good job blocking, something he has shown a strong willingness to learn in camp.

"I really want to focus on pass blocking," Lewis said this week. "To show 'em that I'm willing to work at it, and I'm willing to get better at it, and I'm willing to do it. I feel like I'm doing an OK job; I still have a lot of work to do. The more reps I get, the better I get."

Lewis acknowledged he didn't do a lot of blocking at Pitt. What has he learned about it in camp?

"Just go at 'em, don't let 'em come at you," he said. "Meet 'em. Close the distance, try to slow 'em down by . . . getting up on 'em as quickly as you can, so [the blitzer] doesn't have time to try to bull rush you or knock you down."

McCoy, who also relishes the chance to play in Pittsburgh again, says Lewis "is a lot stronger than people give him credit for, for his size. He's so small, but he has some big legs on him, he's very strong. He can lift quite a bit."

McCoy has definitely been impressed with the way Lewis has taken to blitz pickup.

"I didn't get that, probably, until my second year," he said. "He's already mastered that."

Asked what he wants to improve tonight, Lewis said: "Just clean up the little stuff - little details like running the right routes. Clean up details on some run plays, my run reads, things like that. Attention to detail."

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