- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2003

PHILADELPHIA — For the first time all week, the only race that was relevant was the one in the NFC East.

It’s a four-team scrum that the two-time defending division champion Philadelphia Eagles have thrust themselves back into the middle of. Thanks in large part to a defense that, along with their supposedly overrated quarterback, always has been their backbone.

Yesterday at Lincoln Financial Field, where the Eagles won for the first time in five tries (counting two exhibitions), it was their depleted secondary that stood tallest.

Safety Brian Dawkins and cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor were out with assorted injuries. They took seven Pro Bowl appearances to the sideline with them. In their place were three guys who owned a combined 11 NFL starts before yesterday: Lito Sheppard, who played under Steve Spurrier at Florida; Sheldon Brown, who was starting for the first time; and Michael Lewis. All high draft picks, but each pretty much untested. Worse yet, it meant rookie Roderick Hood and Clinton Hart, a pair of undrafted free agents, became part of the nickel and dime coverage packages. Hart had never even played a down of college ball.

The Redskins, of course, have a bunch of weapons at the disposal of the old Ball Coach. The thought of Laveranues Coles and Rod Gardner running free downfield must have had Spurrier drooling like it was Vanderbilt week all over again. But it never happened. Or at least not until it was too late to really matter.

Patrick Ramsey tried to take advantage of those “mismatches,” especially when the Redskins’ running game failed. He put the ball in the air 50 times, completing half, for 271 yards and a touchdown that got the Redskins within a 2-point conversion with 13 seconds left. The numbers don’t look all that shabby. In reality, the young Eagles more than held their ground.

“I started calling them Michael Lewis and the No Names,” said Eagles coach Andy Reid, whose 2-2 team will take a modest two-game winning streak to Dallas next week where first place will be on the line once again. “They battled. Nobody knows who those guys are. But they got the job done.”

They had help.

The defensive front dominated the line of scrimmage, holding the Redskins to 49 yards rushing. It also had two sacks and a load of pressures, one of which led to former Redskin N.D. Kalu intercepting a screen pass and running it back 15 yards for a third-quarter score.

But Sheppard had two breakups and four tackles. Lewis had two deflections and five tackles. Brown also got in the way of two throws to go with his three tackles. Even Hood and Hart combined for five breakups and four tackles, with a pick. One big group hug.

Since there’s no concrete timetable for the return of any of the missing starters, the Eagles will probably need more of the same to remain in the chase.

“You have to give them credit,” said Coles, who did catch five passes for 60 yards, half of that coming on one play. “They just played. This is the NFL. They’re not a minor-league team. Because anyone can step on the field and make plays.”

In hindsight, maybe the controversy that followed Rush Limbaugh’s remarks about Donovan McNabb took some of the pressure off the youngsters.

“We were just focused on minimizing their big plays, because that’s what they do,” Hart said. “We had a task to perform, simple as that. Who else were we going to turn to?”

Any more questions?

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