Eagles will be going after Big Ben

Posted: October 04, 2012

MAYBE SACKS aren't quite the Holy Grail, after all.

The Eagles didn't have any Sunday night against the Giants. They still shut down one of the NFL's top offenses. Eli Manning flung a few passes to the benches at the very last second, which meant plays were still disrupted. Tight end Martellus Bennett, a dangerous weapon, caught one ball all evening - he had to stay in and block.

If you saw the game, you know the Eagles' defense had the upper hand, whether the sack stats reflect that or not.

Which brings us to this week, and Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben came into this season, his ninth in the NFL, having been sacked 314 times. He has been sacked nine times this season, in three games. You know how people here grumble about Michael Vick holding onto the ball too long? That's Roethlisberger's signature. Over the years, he has taken a beating, but he has made it work; the Steelers have won two Super Bowls during his tenure, and they went 12-4 each of the past two seasons, with Roethlisberger sacked 72 times, total.

At 6-5, 241, Roethlisberger is the king of extending the play, getting the ball downfield just as you're watching him disappear under a pile of enemy jerseys. A sack or two or five is just part of the cost of doing business. Though Pittsburgh is 1-2, Roethlisberger has completed 68.3 percent of his passes this season, with eight touchdowns and one interception. He has a 109.2 passer rating.

"He's very strong in the pocket, and he has mobility. He always keeps his eyes down the field," Eagles coach Andy Reid said Wednesday, when asked about Roethlisberger. "If you have that one quality that's a little different from some of the other quarterbacks, this one guy here keeps every play alive. As a secondary player, you'd better continue to play your player until the play is history, until it's over, or he's going to find that guy and make you pay for it."

Even though Roethlisberger can succeed while taking sacks, he's most lethal when you're "almost" sacking him, Eagles defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins said.

"When you get a chance to get him, you've got to make sure you get him down," Jenkins said. "He's tough. It's not an easy job . . . keep him from extending plays, try to help the back end out."

The way Jenkins sees it, the Eagles are going to need to be in Roethlisberger's lap every snap, with no exceptions. Which is hard to do.

"He's patient, he's consistent, if you let down for one play, he'll burn you," Jenkins said.

Eagles running back LeSean McCoy sees parallels with Michael Vick, in the continuing debate over whether Roethlisberger takes too much punishment, tries to extend plays too often.

"Hold onto the ball long enough to get it off, hold on long enough to break a tackle, make a big play - those are things he's consistently done, so it's hard to say he does it too much," said McCoy, who said he watched Roethlisberger a lot when McCoy was at Pitt. "The guy has two Super Bowl rings for a reason . . . I don't think he's as fast as Mike, but he's tough, takes hits, always finds ways to get out of the first tackle. This is a guy where if the play breaks down, that's kind of a positive thing at times."

Eagles middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans said: "You just have to be disciplined in what you're doing. Just tight coverage, have the four guys get as much pressure as they can up front."

The Eagles have just seven sacks, by the way, which ties them for 21st in the league. Opposing QBs are making getting the ball out quickly their top priority, and max-protect schemes are common.

The Birds' defense has been very solid so far this season despite working on a short field way too often, but it will get a huge test, on the road against a Steelers team that is coming off a bye and welcoming back running back Rashard Mendenhall, who hasn't played this season after tearing the ACL in his right knee in the Jan. 1 regular-season finale. The Steelers, known for running the ball, are 31st in rushing offense this season.

The Eagles are 12th in rushing defense and have been very stout on big short-yardage plays. Sunday night it was the Giants, not the Eagles, who lost gap control when their line started to wear down in the second half, everybody trying to help out the other guy instead of doing their job. That was how the Eagles often looked against the run in 2011.

"There's definitely a level of trust out there. I think we have that this year," Jenkins said. "You're confident the guy next to you or the guy behind you is gonna take care of their assignment, and you know that you just need to take care of your assignment."

Reid, whose defense ranks seventh against the pass and sixth overall, said the Steelers' offense has "a good blend . . . their short and intermediate games are good. They do a lot of quick screens, and you have to be aware of those. They get everyone involved."

Safety Kurt Coleman said sticking with the receiver until the whistle blows is a point of emphasis this week.

"He's not a scrambling QB, and yet, he is, if that makes any sense," Coleman said of Roethlisberger. "He doesn't want to run unless he has to, but he knows how to continue to elude guys."

Several Eagles said they didn't figure Mendenhall would radically change the Steelers' offensive approach - they aren't going to take the ball out of Roethlisberger's hands a lot more - but it might make their running game more effective.


Contact Les Bowen at bowenl@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @LesBowen. For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' blog at eagletarian.com.

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