NEW ORLEANS - When the season opened 3 1/2 long months ago, linebacker was one of the Eagles' bigger question marks.
They had a guy on the strongside - Chris Gocong - who hadn't played an NFL regular-season down. They had a guy in the middle - Omar Gaither - with a total of five NFL starts, all on the weakside. And they had a new guy on the weakside - Takeo Spikes - who had been acquired in an offseason trade.
While a lot of questions will follow the Eagles into the upcoming offseason, linebacker won't be one of them. Gocong, Gaither and Spikes quickly meshed and played well together. And yesterday, yet another linebacker impressively thrust himself into the 2008 starting picture.
With Spikes out with a torn rotator cuff, rookie third-rounder Stewart Bradley got his most significant action of the season and made the most of it, helping lead the Eagles to a 38-23 win over the Saints.
Bradley had six tackles, a sack and an interception, and played a starring role in a huge momentum-swinging goal-line stand early in the third quarter.
Bradley, who until yesterday primarily earned his rookie keep on special teams, opened the game as Spikes' replacement in the Eagles' two-linebacker nickel package, with another rookie, Akeem Jordan, replacing Spikes at WILL in their base defense.
But when Gaither went out with a quad contusion 2 minutes into the second half, Bradley replaced him in the middle.
Three plays later, the Saints had the ball on the Philadelphia 1 and were on the verge of tying the game. But led by Bradley, the defense thwarted three straight shots at the end zone.
First, Bradley and defensive end Trent Cole stopped fullback Mike Karney for no gain. Then Bradley stuffed running back Aaron Stecker.
Saints coach Sean Payton shunned a field goal on fourth down and took his chances with the league's No. 1-rated red-zone offense. Gave it to Stecker again, but Bradley and safety Quintin Mikell knocked him back.
"He's a physical guy," defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said of the 6-3, 254-pound Bradley. "Those were great plays. He helped himself today. We'll see what's going to happen next year. But he helped himself as far as working into the starting lineup."
Gaither played well in the middle this year after being moved from the weak side. But he's a more natural WILL
linebacker. Bradley gives the defense the kind of inside physical presence they had with Jeremiah Trotter.
"It's a nice problem for us next year," Johnson said. "This was a great opportunity for him. He started out a little shaky. He made some mental mistakes the first couple of series. But he settled down.
"He's a very physical player. He can run and made some nice hits. He did a great job on their tight end [Billy Miller], running down the middle. It's just been a matter of learning the position. He was a SAM [strongside] linebacker in college. Now he's got to learn a little bit of MIKE [middle] and SAM. But he came through."
Bradley notched just the third sack by an Eagles linebacker this season in the second quarter when he dropped Drew Brees for an 8-yard loss. It was only the 13th time Brees has been sacked this season.
Late in the fourth quarter, Bradley posted only the second interception of the year by an Eagles 'backer when he alertly grabbed a deflected pass intended for wide receiver Devery Henderson.
"We wanted to use these last two games to springboard into next season and carry over," Bradley said after the game. "Hopefully, I've shown them that I'm capable of not being a mental liability on the field.
"I'm still young and am going to make mistakes. But I think they have faith in me. They showed that by putting me on the field today. Hopefully, I didn't disappoint."
The Saints came into the game rated first in the league in both red-zone offense and third-down efficiency. They had converted 32 of 44 red-zone opportunities into touchdowns before yesterday, but were 2-for-4 against the Eagles. Came in with a 49.5 percent third-down success rate, but converted just three of 12.
"It was a pride thing," Johnson said. "Going up against a team that's No. 1 in the red zone, No. 1 in third downs, No. 1 in sacks [allowed]. It comes down to pride and competition. They came through."
* To Saints safety Josh Bullocks, for his low hit on Donovan McNabb on the Eagles' third possession. Bullocks, who came in untouched on a blitz up the middle, hit him just above the knee. It was legal. But considering that he was unblocked, he didn't need to go that low.
* Why opposing defenses bite so often on the fake to fullback Thomas Tapeh when the Eagles run that toss play to Brian Westbrook. There's a better chance of a meteor colliding with Earth than Tapeh actually getting the ball on that play. He has just five rushing attempts this season. *