Paul Domowitch: Johnson's defensive mission a success for Eagles
Jim Johnson loves to blitz. When he doesn't, well, you notice it. You definitely noticed it last Monday night when Johnson's defense sat back and relied mainly on a four-man rush to stop Tony Romo and the Cowboys. To say the strategy didn't work would be an understatement. Romo threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns and wasn't sacked a single time in a 41-37 Cowboys' win.
Jim Johnson loves to blitz. When he doesn't, well, you notice it.
You definitely noticed it last Monday night when Johnson's defense sat back and relied mainly on a four-man rush to stop Tony Romo and the Cowboys. To say the strategy didn't work would be an understatement. Romo threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns and wasn't sacked a single time in a 41-37 Cowboys' win.
Yesterday, the Eagles' defensive coordinator returned to form, sending everybody but his barber after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and backup Byron Leftwich most of the game. The result: a season-high nine sacks in a badly needed, 15-6, win.
"It's a funny thing sometimes,'' Johnson said. "It comes down to protection. I might not [blitz] against a certain type of protection. Today, we thought there were some things we could take advantage of.
"And the coverage was good. Last week [against the Cowboys], the coverage wasn't good. You've got to have confidence when you blitz that the coverage is good. Last week it wasn't. This week, I decided I was going to challenge those guys [in the secondary] to cover and we did a better job.''
According to the Daily News' unofficial calculations, the Eagles blitzed about 85 percent of the time yesterday. Johnson often lined up linebackers Omar Gaither and Stewart Bradley on each side of the center and sent one or both of them through the gaps. Gaither had 1 1/2 sacks and two hurries to go with seven tackles. Bradley didn't have a sack, but had six tackles, three for losses.
"It was working for us and coach Johnson kept going with it,'' said Gaither. "Stew did a great job of taking the center and allowing me to come free a lot of times. And vice versa. We work well in there together.
"The thing today was, even when we didn't bring pressure, our ends were able to get sacks because [the Steelers] thought we were going to bring pressure. That just sets up everything.''
Eagles defensive ends had just half a sack in the first two games. Against the Steelers, they had five. Left end Juqua Parker, who came into the game with just two sacks in his last 15 games, had a team-high 2 1/2 against the Steelers. Darren Howard added 1 1/2 and Trent Cole had one.
Cole, the Eagles' Pro Bowl right end, was clearly frustrated after the Dallas game with the constant double-teaming and chipping he had to deal with. But he didn't see nearly as much yesterday as the Steelers scrambled to stop the extra pass-rushers Johnson kept sending after Roethlisberger.
"It looked like they wanted to do it, but they saw the blitzes and had to jump off me and deal with the other guys coming,'' said Cole, whose biggest play of the game didn't even make the stat sheet.
Midway through the fourth quarter, with the Eagles clinging to a 10-6 lead and the Steelers facing a third-and-11 on their own 5, Roethlisberger was flushed out of the pocket in the end zone toward Cole's side. Cole beat Steelers left tackle Marvel Smith and got his arms around Roethlisberger, who frantically threw the ball away and was called for intentional grounding in the end zone, resulting in a safety.
"There was somebody getting loose every play,'' Cole said. "He couldn't get himself set. I think it was shaking him up, guys blitzing down on him and stuff.''
Johnson, who frequently used a six-defensive back package against the Cowboys that included three cornerbacks (Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard) and three safeties (Brian Dawkins, Quintin Mikell and Sean Considine), never went with more than five DBs yesterday, keeping Considine, who was victimized by the Cowboys' Terrell Owens for a 72-yard touchdown, off the field.
Johnson had a lot more confidence in his defense's ability to shut down the Steelers' wideouts than he did the Cowboys'. Hines Ward is an excellent receiver, but he's primarily a short- to intermediate-route runner. Santonio Holmes is their fastest wideout, but nobody will ever mistake him for Owens. Plus, tight end Heath Miller isn't the pass-catching threat that the Cowboys' Jason Witten is.
"We blitzed more much today,'' Johnson said. "They gave us some stuff that we had worked on a little bit and guys just executed the defense a lot better than we did last week.
"It just happened to be one of those days where we kept coming.''
Expect next Sunday's prime-time meeting against the Chicago Bears and their punchless offense also to be one of those days.
By the numbers
-- Donovan McNabb completed his first 15 passes yesterday. That broke his previous game-opening mark of 14, set against Green Bay in 2004.
-- McNabb's interception in the second quarter was his first this season. He's thrown just two picks in his last 254 attempts dating back to last season.
-- The Steelers haven't beaten the Eagles in Philadelphia since Oct. 24, 1965. They are 0-8 in Philly since that win.
-- McNabb has completed passes to seven or more receivers in each of the Eagles' first three games.
-- Hank Baskett's eight receptions were a career-high. He had seven catches against Atlanta as a rookie in 2006. Eagles wideouts have 45 receptions for 694 yards in the first three games. Through three games last season, they had 32 catches for 449 yards.
-- Correll Buckhalter's 16 touches against the Steelers were 12 more than he had in the first two games.
-- DeSean Jackson has 17 catches for 256 yards in the first three games. In '04, Terrell Owens had 18 catches for 254 yards in his first three games with the Eagles. The difference is Owens also had five TDs. Jackson has none.
-- With Sunday's win, the Eagles are 29-14 following a loss since 2000.
-- The Eagles haven't allowed a touchdown in their last three games at the Linc, dating back to Week 17 of last season. It's the first time in franchise history they've done that. Their opponents have converted just four of 36 third-down opportunities in those three games, including two of 13 yesterday.
-- The Eagles' first three opponents this season have converted just 3 of 22 third-down opportunities of 6 yards or more. The Steelers were 0-for-8 on third and 6 or more.
Did you notice?
-- Wide receiver Reggie Brown, who missed the first two games with a hamstring injury, only was on the field for eight of the Eagles' 64 snaps and didn't have a reception.
"He could have been used more,'' coach Andy Reid said. "He was feeling good. I just wanted to make sure he came out of this game healthy, and that's how he feels. We'll use him more now.''
-- Defensive end Chris Clemons was on the field for only three or four defensive snaps. Juqua Parker took the lion's share of reps at left end. When he needed a blow, Darren Howard replaced him.
Quote of the day
"He a warrior, man. He's a warrior. He's a tough-minded guy. I know he's getting old. He knows he's getting old. You gotta know you're getting old. But he just goes out there and plays his heart out.'' - Eagles coach Andy Reid, on safety Brian Dawkins
Making our grade
Paul Domowitch's report card on the Eagles-Steelers game:
RUSHING OFFENSE: Steelers weren't going to be easy to run against anyway. But without Brian Westbrook for the final three quarters, they finished with their fewest rushing yards (65) since Week 12 of last season.
PASSING OFFENSE: Donovan McNabb completed his first 15 passes, but then the music died. He averaged a pitiful 3.1 yards per attempt in the second half.
RUN DEFENSE: Willie Parker came in to the game with two straight 100-yard rushing performances and an impressive 4.6-yard-per-carry average. He left with 20 yards on 13 carries. Eagles have held their first three opponents to 2.4 yards per carry.
PASS DEFENSE: Ben Roethlisberger is going to have nightmares about this game for a while. Jim Johnson unleashed the blitz hounds and they sa cked Big Ben eight times and held him to 5.2 yards per attempt.
SPECIAL TEAMS: P Sav Rocca is off to a Pro Bowl-calibre start this season. He put 3 of 5 punts inside the 10 v. Steelers and nailed another one 64 yards when Eagles were pinned deep in their own territory. Coverage units did a solid job.
OVERALL: With the offe nse missing four starters for most/all of the game, the defense had to carry the day, and boy, did they carry it, blitzing the hell out of Ben Roethlisberger and holding Steelers to 180 net yards.
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