Originally created 01/17/04

Keeping McNabb upright a key for Eagles



PHILADELPHIA -- Eight times, Donovan McNabb went down against the Green Bay Packers. Another such sackfest could mean yet another NFC championship game flop for the Philadelphia Eagles.

One week after the Eagles overcame their inability to protect McNabb, they face one of the league's top defensive lines on the Carolina Panthers. If All-Pro tackle Kris Jenkins and dangerous ends Mike Rucker, Julius Peppers and Al Wallace make a strong impact Sunday, the Eagles might be watching the Super Bowl from home again.

"It could have been either, just not picking up the guys as many times as we needed to, or me holding the ball," McNabb said Friday. "We went over that.

"I think what we need to do this week is if there is nothing there, we need to take full advantage. We need to pick up as many yards as I can, throw the ball out of bounds, or go onto the next play, whatever it may be."

What if it's a whole bunch of trips to the turf under onrushing Panthers?

"I can take the eight sacks every week if we are going to win the game," McNabb said with a wry smile.

Although neither team had a dominant defense this season and wasn't overwhelming in getting to the quarterback, Carolina's line ranked second in sacks to Miami. Of the Panthers' 40 sacks, the line had 32 1/2 , led by Rucker with 12 in 14 games.

Against Dallas in a 29-10 romp in the wild-card round, the Panthers trapped Quincy Carter three times and hurried him 19 times. Last weekend, in their double-overtime 29-23 victory at St. Louis, there were two sacks and the Panthers hurried Marc Bulger into three interceptions.

"So much is said about their defensive line," Eagles coach Andy Reid said, "and it's all true. They are as good as any in the NFL."

And they'll have to be to carry Carolina (13-5) to its first Super Bowl.

With the way McNabb rallied the Eagles (13-4) against Green Bay, rushing for 107 yards and throwing for two touchdowns, it's critical for Carolina to keep him from dominating the title game.

The best way to do that is with an unrelenting pass rush and solid stay-at-home play by DT Brentson Buckner and Jenkins when McNabb opts to run.

"He is real good when a blitz is coming," middle linebacker Dan Morgan said. "If you don't stay in your rushing lanes, he'll break the pocket and be running. I think he ran for about 30, 35 yards last week on one play.

"We have an athletic defensive line with 'Ruck' and Peppers at the edge and Jenkins and Buckner. They are all athletic guys that can move and run and stay with him."

Which they must do, because McNabb's creativity is Philadelphia's best offensive weapon.

"Green Bay got eight sacks, but he hurt them with his legs," Peppers noted. "We've got to do the normal things on the rush. You've got to attack, instead of waiting for him to decide what he wants to do. You can't do that."

Philadelphia allowed 43 sacks in 2003, and the Packers exposed some weaknesses the Panthers hope to exploit Sunday. Remember, had Green Bay's coaching staff not turned so conservative late in the game, those sacks would have been the difference in a Packers' victory.

Tackles Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan face even more formidable foes this week in Rucker and Peppers and Wallace in reserve. Guards John Welbourn and Bobbie Williams and center Hank Fraley must deal with Jenkins, probably the league's most effective defensive tackle this season, and Buckner.

Or maybe the matchups will be something else.

"They run all kinds of games in there," Runyan said. "It makes what we have to do more difficult. Peppers is an oversized linebacker, a great athlete kind of caught between two bodies. And their guys inside are quick, too. Plus they take up space."

They want to take up the space where McNabb is standing.