There was plenty of blame to spread around the Eagles' defense after it yielded 41 points in Monday night's loss to Dallas. The linemen didn't get much, if any, pressure on quarterback Tony Romo. The secondary had coverage issues, particularly on deep routes.
And then there were the linebackers. They must have been out there somewhere, but aside from Chris Gocong falling on a football in the end zone, they didn't make themselves very noticeable. If they didn't play badly, then they played invisibly, which might be the same thing.
Sunday is another game, though, and an opponent that might suit the linebackers a good deal better. The Steelers like to play a punishing game, like to run the football, and, by the way, their quarterback might have a separated shoulder on his throwing arm.
On paper, a traditionally unreliable playing surface, this has a chance to be a game that is made for the linebackers.
"Yeah, it is," said Omar Gaither, who starts at the weak side for the Eagles. "This is what you look for and look forward to. This is a challenge."
The Cowboys looked challenging, too, but in a very different way. Pittsburgh promises to present its challenge in an old-school, knuckles-in-the-dirt manner.
"They're known for being physical. That's what their line takes pride in. That's what we take pride in as well," said Gocong, the strong-side linebacker.
Because it is their natural personality, and because Ben Roethlisberger needs to be protected a bit more than usual, the Steelers are going to run frequently. For the most part, they will hand it off to Willie Parker, who, since the 2006 season, has gained more rushing yards than anyone in the NFL other than LaDainian Tomlinson. Parker leads the league in carries after the first two games (53), and he has scored all three of Pittsburgh's rushing touchdowns.
The Eagles held Dallas' running game in check. Felix Jones had just 10 yards on three carries, and Marion Barber carried 18 times for 63 yards. It was the passing game, whether underneath routes or over-the-top routes, that proved to be the Eagles' undoing. The linebackers couldn't help enough to make a difference, not adding to the pressure on Romo and not providing reliable coverage on the receivers assigned to them. It was a bad day for the entire defense, but it was really bad for the linebackers.
"Any time you have a game in which you lose like that or give up 41 points, you're always looking forward to a little redemption," Gocong said. "I think we'll be playing with a chip on our shoulders. It's just pride. We play to win, but we're playing to dominate."
The linebacker situation was a question mark coming into the season. Gaither has the most overall experience, but he was moved from the middle to the weak side in the off-season. Gocong returned as the starter on the strong side, but he is still learning the position after playing his college career as a down lineman. Stewart Bradley, the middle linebacker, made just one start as a rookie in 2007.
That meant the three starters came into this season with a combined total of 34 career starts, with all three relatively new to their roles. Even the most optimistic would have to admit that this was going to be a work in progress.
It didn't seem that way after the opener against St. Louis. But then again, there didn't seem to be problems at any position after the Rams were routed. The Dallas game changed that perspective, for the linebackers as much as any position.
"One week [people are criticizing] you and one week they're not. We don't care about that," Gaither said. "We know we can play better. Obviously, we gave up too many points and too many big plays. We've got to get better. It wasn't anything we hadn't seen before. They came out and played well. But that was last week. We've moved on to Pittsburgh."
And they look forward to a matchup more suitable to their strengths.
"You see different philosophies and you have to adjust," Bradley said. "Pittsburgh's mentality is to run the ball. Well, one of our main focuses last week was to stop the run, and we did a pretty good job of that. It's one of our big goals this week, too. We'll try to get our hands on them early."
Early or late, there will be opportunities for the whole defense in this one, and particularly for the linebackers.
"Hopefully, we'll put on a better showing this week," Gaither said.
Just showing up on the game film this time would represent some progress.