Monday September 22nd, 2008

Last Monday night, after Tony Romo and the Cowboys passing game had carpet-bombed Philadelphia for 312 yards, three touchdowns through the air and 41 points overall, Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson expressed some remorse that he didn't call for the blitz nearly enough against their NFC East archrival.

Safe to say they'll be no regrets this week.

"He made up for it this week,'' quipped Eagles head coach Andy Reid, a man seldom given to quipping.

Made up for it, and then some. What the Eagles defense did to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger Sunday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field was avert-your-eyes stuff. Johnson sent his defenders after Pittsburgh's passer in every possible situation except timeouts and halftime, and the results were almost monotonous after a while.

See Roethlisberger drop back. See Roethlisberger under pressure. See Roethlisberger go down. Or hurriedly dump the ball off. Or run for his life. Or get hit even after he managed to buy enough time to find a receiver. Big Ben's going to be known as Big Bruise on Monday. Count on it. That's the very personal price he paid during the course of Philadelphia's 15-6 defeat of the previously unbeaten Steelers.

"He's like a shark, man,'' said Eagles defensive end Darren Howard of the blitz-happy Johnson, who has long made his defensive reputation on his penchant for bringing the house. "Once that blood got in the water, he was just calling them left and right. He called blitzes that we didn't even go over this week. It was kind of confusing, but he was dialing them up and they were there all the time. He was hot today.''

The sacking of Roethlisberger, of course, is a touchy subject in Pittsburgh. He was dropped 46 times in 2006, and 47 more last year, the highest two-year total in franchise history. And the Steelers have been around since 1933, mind you. So keeping Big Ben upright more often was deemed Job One in '08 for the Steelers offensive line.

Before Sunday, things had been going better on that front. Roethlisberger had endured some pressure, but he had only been sacked four times in wins over Houston and at Cleveland. But thanks to Johnson's hyperactive Eagles pass rushers, Roethlisberger tripled his season sack total on Sunday, going down a whopping eight times, for a loss of 35 yards. At one point late in the game, before he left the game with an undisclosed right hand injury with about two minutes remaining, Roethlisberger had been sacked eight times, hurried 14 times and knocked down at least another 12 times. It was the second-highest sack total of his five-year NFL career, topped only by a nine-sack day against Baltimore in November 2006.

"He was starting to wear down a little bit late in the game, with all those big 260-, 275-pound guys hitting him and laying on him,'' Howard said. "He was having to move every play, and after he gets rid of the ball he was getting smacked. That takes a toll. You could see it in his eyes and his body language toward the end of the game. We just got after him today. Early and often. Once we stopped Willie Parker, and kind of slowed down their run game a little bit, we really teed off.''

All told, the Eagles defense totaled nine sacks, dropping Steelers backup Byron Leftwich once for a nine-yard loss after he relieved the injured Roethlisberger. That tied for the third highest-total in Philly franchise history, and was the Eagles' most sacks since Week 3 of last season.

But the sacks were only part of the story told by the Eagles pressure. Roethlisberger was intercepted by Philly cornerback Asante Samuel in the second quarter, and the Eagles pass rush also forced him into two fumbles and a safety, which occurred off an intentional grounding while under severe heat in the Pittsburgh end zone.

"It's exhilarating to play that kind of defense,'' Eagles outside linebacker Omar Gaither said. "That's what you want to do. Some defenses in this league like to bend, but don't break. We don't do that. We're aggressive. We like to go after you. If (Johnson) called a blitz on every play, every down, throughout the game, I wouldn't know the difference. That's how aggressive he is.''

That's a slight exaggeration. But only slight. Johnson said he wouldn't have been so daring in his blitz calls if the Eagles pass coverage hadn't stayed so tight throughout the game. But then again, when you have a quarterback under the kind of pressure that Roethlisberger faced, pass coverage gets a whole lot easier to play in the NFL.

"I don't think there's any secret,'' Johnson said. "We blitzed much more, and the guys just executed on defense a lot better than last week. Today, we thought there were things we could take advantage of. Our guys are aggressive. As long as you're aggressive and the coverage is good, (it works). This week it was excellent. Last week it wasn't.''

Seven different Eagles defenders had at least one-half sack, and the pass rush was led by left defensive end Juqua Parker, who totaled 2½ sacks, four quarterback hits, a forced fumble and a pass defensed. Other than that, he didn't do much. Gaither chipped in with 1½ sacks, as did Howard.

"I think after the first couple hits, I knew we had him rattled,'' said Parker, part of the group that held the previously undefeated Steelers to just 180 yards of offense, and a pair of Jeff Reed field goals. "But Jim was dialing them things up and we were bringing it.''

The Eagles' biggest sack of the game was easily their final one on Roethlisberger, which came when veteran safety Brian Dawkins blitzed and then leaped to knock the ball out of the quarterback's hand at the Steelers' 18 with 3:39 remaining. Dawkins also recovered the ball in addition to the strip and sack, setting up a 31-yard David Akers field goal that made it 15-6 and put the game out of Pittsburgh's reach. On that sack, Roethlisberger injured his throwing hand and left the game.

"That was huge,'' Parker said. "Someone said on the sideline, 'That's the old Dawk right there.' Just a big play at the right time.''

On a night when the Eagles lost their star running back Brian Westbrook with an ankle strain midway through the second quarter, then saw quarterback Donovan McNabb suffer a chest contusion and briefly be replaced to start the second half by backup Kevin Kolb, they got just enough offense to improve to 2-1 and stay near the top in the rugged NFC East.

But it was Philly's blitzing defense that made the loudest and most lasting statement, reminding every future opponent that the Eagles will relentlessly rush the passer. At any point. From any direction. Again and again and again.

"If you're a quarterback, and you stand somewhere and keep getting hit, you're going to start ducking it, even when something's not coming,'' Gaither said. "That's human nature. Ben's a great quarterback, one of the best in the league. But nobody can stand there and get hit all night.''

Not by these Eagles. Not with Johnson aggressively calling the shots. And especially not when there's a hint of regret in the air in Philadelphia.

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