Healthy McNabb stern test for defense
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Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb gave defensive coordinators fits earlier this decade with his double-threat abilities. His passing and scrambling skills led a football renaissance in Philadelphia as he took the Eagles to four NFC championship games and one Super Bowl appearance as well as receiving personal accolades, which included five consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl.
• Game: Steelers (2-0) at Philadelphia Eagles (1-1), 4:15 p.m.
• Where: Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia.
• TV: KDKA.
• The line: Eagles by 3.
That was before three injury-plagued seasons curtailed his production and placed some doubt as to whether he would regain his status as one of the league's top quarterbacks.
McNabb has no injury issues this season, and it looks as if he is in the beginning stages of a big comeback. McNabb has thrown for 642 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the first two games, and the Eagles are second in the league in scoring with 37.5 points per game.
"A big part of it is Donovan being healthy for the first time in a while where he didn't have to go into the offseason rehabbing something," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "He is making plays mentally and physically and he is enjoying playing."
That hasn't been the case for the past few years. Two times in the past three seasons, McNabb has been placed on injured reserve with season-ending injuries. A sports hernia injury ended his season in 2005, and a torn ACL ended his season in '06. Last season, ankle and thumb injuries kept him from playing in two games.
"Now that McNabb is healthy, he just brings another dimension to their offense," Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden said.
"When he's healthy, he's one of the top quarterbacks in the league, I feel. If you look at his numbers before he was injured, he was in the top of the league."
Steelers safety Ryan Clark played against McNabb twice a season when he played for the New York Giants and Washington Redskins from 2002-05. He knows firsthand how dangerous McNabb can be.
"He's an awesome player, a guy who takes flak he shouldn't have to take," Clark said. "He's one of best quarterbacks in this league over the past decade if you look at the things he's done -- four NFC championship games, a Super Bowl game, multiple Pro Bowls. He's had some great years and he really hasn't had receivers, other than the year with [Terrell Owens]."
McNabb played parts of two seasons with Owens in 2004 and '05 and enjoyed two of his better statistical passing seasons. In '04, the year the Eagles lost to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, McNabb had a career-high 3,875 passing yards with 31 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
In '05, Owens played in the first seven games before being suspended by the team for the remainder of the season. McNabb was placed on injured reserve two weeks later with a sports hernia, but he still threw for 2,507 yards and 16 touchdowns in what amounted to half a season.
That was the last time McNabb had a bona fide top-flight receiver at his disposal. It is too early to tell whether Eagles rookie DeSean Jackson will develop into that type of receiver in the league, but he is off to a pretty good start.
Jackson, who played collegiately at Cal, is averaging 18 yards per reception and is fourth in the league with 216 receiving yards. He is the deep threat McNabb has not had in recent years.
"He adds more fuel to their fire," McFadden said. "[McNabb] has big-play capability now. That's the last thing that offense needed because that offense had enough before."
The Steelers had great success the last time they faced McNabb in '04. They sacked him four times and intercepted a pass as the Eagles' offense was shut down in a 27-3 Steelers victory.
Pressuring McNabb and keeping him in the pocket will be of utmost importance for the Steelers in tomorrow's game in Philadelphia.
"You get your hands on him, and he can still get out of tackles, and once he gets out of tackles, he still knows where all his guys are," Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith said. "Most quarterbacks, if they get scrambling, they don't want to throw the ball. They're so disoriented that they don't know where anyone is.
"You have to be careful. They have big-play potential. ... Obviously, that's something we have to have to prepare for, try to eliminate -- big plays."
NOTES -- Starting cornerback Deshea Townsend did not practice again yesterday and McFadden will get a second consecutive start against the Eagles. ... Cleveland defensive lineman Shaun Smith was fined $5,000 by the NFL office for pulling the facemask of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Sunday's game at Cleveland, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Smith said he would appeal.
First Published September 20, 2008 12:07 am