Correll Buckhalter is way ahead of Greg Lewis and J.R. Reed, the two returners who had never caught a punt in a regular-season NFL game before they did so, disastrously, in last week's season-opening loss at Green Bay.

Buckhalter is expected to field kickoffs tonight when the Eagles host the Washington Redskins at Lincoln Financial Field. This will not be a completely new duty for the veteran running back. He returned a kickoff for 28 yards . . . back in his rookie season of 2001, before the knee injuries came along that caused him to miss three of the next four seasons.

It was such a memorable return that Buckhalter didn't recall it, when asked this weekend about his kickoff runback experience.

"I did one in Pittsburgh, that [Aug. 26] preseason game. Other than that, I don't think I've really had a kick return here in Philadelphia, not to my knowledge," Buckhalter said. "It might have been a squib. The times I was back there my rookie year I was blocking for Brian Mitchell."

Buckhalter takes his return philosophy from Mitchell. Like Mitchell, particularly the later-years B-Mitch, Buckhalter has a powerful stride when he can really unfurl it, though he is not a quick, darting runner.

"You have to just hit it," Buckhalter said. "Punt return, you can kind of gauge your way, make a lot of people miss, but kick return, it's a straight downhill run, and then you adjust on your way, as you're running . . . [Mitchell] was a perfect example of a guy, when he caught it, he just hit it downhill."

Obviously, kick returning could be hazardous to Buckhalter's fragile knees. Just as obviously, it's a way for him to get the ball, with Brian Westbrook clearly the featured back and rookie Tony Hunt angling for some of the short-yardage work.

"I don't even think about [injury], man; my faith is too strong in God for me to be worried about that," said Buckhalter, who turns 29 next month. "This is the healthiest I've been; I feel like I did my rookie year."

Reno Mahe, brought back this past week when Reed was cut, is scheduled to return punts. Reed was last week's kickoff returner.

Birdseed

Andy Reid said tight end L.J. Smith (groin) "looks better than he did last week, and feels better than he did last week. So, we'll just kind of play it by ear as we go into the game. I want to make sure that we get him back where he's comfortable, in playing shape, and so on, so we don't have any setbacks" . . . Since 2000, the Eagles are 23-11 coming off a loss . . . Brian Westbrook's brother Byron, a corner, is on the Redskins' practice squad, and played the role of his brother on the scout team in practice last week . . . Donovan McNabb is 8-4 on "Monday Night Football"; tonight he will tie Brad Johnson for second place in "MNF" appearances among active QBs, with 13. They might not catch Brett Favre, who has 32 . . . Reid noted that the Redskins' defensive improvement has coincided with more of an emphasis on zone coverage and less all-out blitzing than they'd been doing. *