Inside the Eagles: Eagles 'D' fails in the clutch

Posted: October 08, 2012

PITTSBURGH - The Eagles liked their odds on third down and 12.

The Steelers were backed up on their own 18. If the Eagles held, they would have likely forced a punt with 5 minutes, 19 seconds left to play and the Steelers with two timeouts.

Maybe Pittsburgh gets the ball back, trailing 14-13, with one more opportunity. But the Eagles defense was confident it could once again protect a slim lead that had been provided by Michael Vick and the offense's fourth-quarter heroics.

"That's what we were fighting to do, to get them in third and long," Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. "If we get them in third and long, we have to get off the field."

But they did not.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did what he's done plenty of times before and what he did several times on Sunday. He bought time, and he converted on third down.

Five plays later, Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown did it again, moving the sticks on third down when an Eagles stop would have forced the Steelers to kick a long field goal - as long as the one New York Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes could not make in last week's victory.

Those two conversions were, needless to say, back-breakers, and offset another strong effort by the Eagles defense, one, though, that ultimately resulted in a 16-14 loss.

"It didn't come down to that. You can say that throughout the whole game. 'We could have did this. We could have did that,' " cornerback Brandon Boykin said. "Nobody is blaming anybody. Nobody is looking at any particular thing as the thing that lost us the game."

If they were looking for something, Michael Vick's two fumbles - one at the goal line - would suffice. But if they were told before the game that there were going to hold Roethlisberger to just 16 points - one less than the late Jim Johnson's 17-point benchmark - the Eagles would have taken it and jetted back across the state.

But something was missing from the defense, one predicated on getting pressure - sacks. The Eagles did not record a sack for the second straight week.

"We held him to 16 points, and we did a lot of great things against him," Eagles safety Kurt Coleman said. "I don't how many sacks or if we had any sacks, but we definitely gave him a headache."

Roethlisberger was hurried often, and Steelers guard Willie Colon was flagged for holding four times. So it wasn't as if the Eagles defensive front was inactive at Heinz Field. But it lacked teeth and has for most of the season, recording only six of the Eagles' seven sacks.

"We had pressure," coach Andy Reid said. "We had chances to get our hands on him. He's a big, strong guy. You have to get him down once you get your hands on him."

Last year at this point, the Eagles had 16 sacks, all from the line. They finished with a league-high 50 last year, 46 of which were generated by the front four. Defensive end Trent Cole and others talked about the prospects of notching 60 sacks this season.

Opposing offenses have countered the Eagles pass rush with quicker throws and extra blockers. But Roethlisberger, who had been sacked nine times in the Steelers' first three games, stood untouched in the pocket on far too many occasions.

On the key third and 12, Roethlisberger had more than enough time and space to find Brown 20 yards downfield. The Eagles were in a zone defense with two safeties deep. Brown slipped in between Boykin and linebacker Mychal Kendricks. It was difficult to figure out which defender had ultimate responsibility for covering him.

"It was a good [defensive] call. I think everybody was fine with the call," cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said. "It just wasn't executed."

Entering the game, the Eagles defense was third in the league on third downs. Opposing offenses had converted only 14 of 52 attempts (26.9 percent). The Steelers, however, were first on third downs, hitting on 27 of 48. Roethlisberger had completed 27 of 36 passes for 354 yards and five touchdowns on third down.

So something had to give, and it was the Eagles. On third down and four, five plays later, Boykin had Brown in the slot. The corner had played solidly up until that point. Brown had called the rookie a "candy bar" earlier in the week, as in Boykin was sweet for the eating.

Brown ran a short out route, but Boykin was slowed as another Steelers receiver blocked his path.

"We were in underneath man [defense], and they ran a pick route. And any time you run outside that would probably out-leverage you," Boykin said. "It doesn't matter because we still had a chance to win after that."

The Steelers picked up another first down, setting up Shaun Suisham's 34-yard game-winning field goal. The Eagles defense is much improved this year but not quite at level where it can carry an error-prone offense.

"Even on elite defenses every now and then a third and 10, a third and 12 you might give up," Asomugha said. "It's just at the time when you need it the most you got to be able to make that type of play."

Contact Jeff McLane at or on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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