HE DOESN'T have the flair of Terrell Owens or the following of Donovan McNabb, but Eagles running back Brian Westbrook is becoming a Philadelphia favorite. He's no longer viewed as a diminutive player (5'10", 205) out of a Division I-AA program who surely couldn't withstand an NFL pounding. Coming off a breakout 2004 season, he is seen as a multidimensional threat who gives defenses fits.
He'll line up at running back, in the slot or at wideout, and he's capable of making a momentous play every time he touches the ball. "Brian is the key to our offense," says fullback Josh Parry. "Everybody talks about TO, but Brian is the most versatile player I've seen in a while."
Westbrook has drawn comparisons to Marshall Faulk, the Rams' multitalented back, and for good reason. During the regular season Westbrook rushed for 812 yards, caught 73 passes (an NFL high for running backs) for 703 yards and scored nine touchdowns. Not bad for a player who didn't even enter training camp as Philadelphia's featured back.
In 2003 he split carries with Correll Buckhalter and Duce Staley, while also excelling as a return man. But after Staley left as a free agent and Buckhalter went down in August with a season-ending knee injury, Westbrook took the ball and ran with it. "We caught defenses off guard last year because we had different personnel in the game at various times," says Westbrook, a 2002 third-round draft pick out of Villanova. "This year teams have prepared for me more, and we've had to work harder to create [opportunities]."
Defenses are constantly adjusting as Westbrook moves around in the offense. "He's hard to find," says Vikings defensive end Lance Johnstone. "If they come out with two tight ends, he might start as the single back and motion out. Or he could start in the slot and they could have no backs. It's hard to make adjustments because you have to account for him first. He can create all kinds of mismatches because they use him so creatively."
In the divisional playoff the Vikings covered him primarily with linebackers. In the NFC Championship Game the Falcons chipped Westbrook with defensive ends and shadowed him with linebackers and nickelbacks. In those two games Westbrook had 252 total yards (166 rushing, 86 receiving) and scored a touchdown.
So what will the Patriots do? "I think New England will get after Brian," says Eagles offensive coordinator Brad Childress. "They'll try to make it hard for him to get off the line of scrimmage. But the thing is, you can't completely bastardize your defense to handle him. Atlanta talked about covering him with [strong safety] Bryan Scott, but [Westbrook] can show up in places that safeties just can't play."
It's a dimension that was missing during Philly's playoff run last year, after Westbrook was lost in the regular-season finale with a torn left triceps. Now he is McNabb's primary weapon. "If teams are going to focus on me, that's going to open things for other people," Westbrook says. "That's what TO brought to this offense. He took a lot of pressure off everybody else. Now that role belongs to me." --Jeffri Chadiha
WHEN PHILADELPHIA HAS THE BALL: KEY MATCHUPS
Eagles WR Greg Lewis versus Patriots DB Hank Poteat
If he gets on the field at all, Terrell Owens isn't likely to be much of a deep threat. That job falls to Lewis, who had the longest gain (45 yards) in the NFC Championship Game. He's the fastest player on the roster, and he'll line up wide, usually on the left side, whenever Philadelphia is in slot formation. Poteat, a free agent signed on Jan. 10, played the right corner in nickel and dime defenses in the AFC title game and held up surprisingly well. If New England uses Poteat the same way on Sunday, the Eagles will test him deep, trying to get Lewis against him in man coverage.
Eagles LT Tra Thomas versus Patriots DE Jarvis Green
Playing in place of the injured Richard Seymour, Green was the best lineman on the field in the AFC Championship Game. He did a terrific job neutralizing the left side of the Pittsburgh line, where the Steelers like to run, and he was active in the pass rush. Thomas is a mauler who can be effective blocking down on running plays to his outside, but at times he falls asleep. Green, or Seymour if he's back from his knee injury, can beat Thomas with leverage and quickness.
Eagles RB Brian Westbrook versus Patriots ILB Tedy Bruschi
When New England goes into its nickel or dime, Bruschi is alone in the middle. He's vulnerable to the quarterback draw, if a blocker can get to him, or a draw by Westbrook, who can get through the hole in a hurry. Westbrook is also valuable as a receiver working the short zone, which takes him into Bruschi's territory, or lining up in the slot or on the flank and attacking the deeper areas. --Paul Zimmerman