Behind enemy lines: Philadelphia

Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson felt that if he could improve Philadelphia's pass rush this year, it would solve most of the problems that befell his unit last year, when it registered the fewest QB sacks (29) by an Eagles defense in 27 years. Philly had a league-high 13 sacks after two weeks, but now the Eagles will have to come after the 49ers without the services of sack-master Jevon Kearse.

The Philadelphia defense improved up front significantly in the offseason with additions of free-agent defensive end Darren Howard and first-round defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley. While the pair have yet to register their first '06 sacks, they've helped their linemates rack up a league-best 13 sacks in the first two games.

That's the good news. The bad news is that, even with the improved pass rush, Johnson's defense still is giving up too many yards, too many big passing plays and too many touchdowns.

After two weeks, the Eagles are 27th in the league in pass defense, allowing 37 more passing yards (244.5) per game than they did during last year's 6-10 debacle. Their opponents' 70.0 completion percentage is tied for third worst in the league, ahead of only Detroit (79.3) and Tennessee (71.0).

But most distressing to Johnson is the number of big plays the Eagles already have given up. Last year, with no pass rush, the Eagles gave up 38 passing plays of 20 yards or more, including 7 touchdowns. This season, despite the league-best 13 sacks, they've already given up nine pass plays of 20-plus yards, including 5 for touchdowns.

"(The big passing plays) are a concern," Johnson said. "They just kill you. They killed us Sunday."

He was referring to the Eagles' 30-24 overtime loss to the New York Giants. Despite sacking Giants quarterback Eli Manning eight times, they blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead. They gave up five pass plays of 22 yards or more, including four that resulted in touchdowns. The final one was a 31-yard touchdown pass from Manning to Plaxico Burress in overtime.

"We blitzed on that last one," Johnson said. "I gambled a little bit to try to keep them out of field-goal range. It was overtime. I felt we had to try to make them move back a little bit. I didn't want them throwing a five-yard out and all of a sudden, they have a 25-yard field goal. It was my call and it didn't work. I put Sheldon (Brown, who had man coverage on the 6-5 Burress) in a tough situation. But he'll be fine. I told (the corners) they've got to have a short memory."

Injuries have left the Eagles thin in the secondary. Starting corner Lito Sheppard went down in Week 1 with an ankle injury that could keep him out for 3-5 weeks. Then, last week, his replacement, Rod Hood, injured his heel. He likely will miss Sunday's game against the 49ers.

With Sheppard and Hood out, Joselio Hanson, who is just four months removed from NFL Europe, will start against the 49ers. Dexter Wynn, who was cut in the preseason and then re-signed last week after Sheppard got hurt, will be the nickel corner. Dustin Fox, who was signed off the practice squad Tuesday, will be the fourth corner.

Making matters worse, Kearse, who had 3.5 sacks in the Eagles' first two games, is out for the season after tearing three ligaments in his left knee against the Giants.

"It's a concern," Johnson said of his cornerback situation. "Hopefully Rod won't miss much time and we'll get Lito back in a couple of weeks. But right now, we're thin there."

Hanson spent much of Sunday's game trying to cover Burress, who finished with 6 catches for 114 yards. Wynn, who played the nickel slot corner, was frequently matched up with Amani Toomer, who had 12 receptions for 137 yards and 2 touchdowns. Toomer beat Wynn for a 22-yard TD with 3:28 left in the fourth quarter that got the Giants within a field goal.

"When we lost Rod, we have to juggle everything," Johnson said. "I had to put Dexter in the nickel in the slot. He hasn't practiced that since we let him go (in early September). But he did a nice job except for that one play. But he was put in a tough situation.

"I thought Hanson, for the most part, did a good job. I was pleased. The only bad play was that third-and-18 (a 20-yard completion to Burress). That was a big play when he didn't go for the interception or at least knock it down. Other than that, though, I was pretty happy with him."

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Hanson, who is expected to make his first start as an Eagle on Sunday against San Francisco, spent two seasons with the 49ers. Signed by them as an undrafted free agent, he spent '03 on their practice squad, then appeared in 13 games for them in '04, including three starts.

But he was released after Mike Nolan replaced Dennis Erickson as head coach. "With a new coaching staff, I didn't get much of a chance," Hanson said.

He said he is looking forward to playing against them this week. "I have to admit that there is extra satisfaction playing the 49ers. If we win, it will feel so good."

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Running back Brian Westbrook didn't practice Wednesday or Thursday and still is listed as questionable on the team's injury report for Sunday's game with inflammation in his right knee.

Westbrook didn't practice last Wednesday or Thursday either, but was listed as probable the entire week on the injury report. He had 26 touches and 124 rushing and receiving yards in last Sunday's 30-24 overtime loss to the New York Giants.

"Brian has a lot of experience and he played last week, and played pretty well for the most part, with very little practice," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "I'm not quite as concerned (about Westbrook not practicing) as I would be with a rookie or maybe a second-year man. And everybody is different. Some guys need that practice to play real well and others seem to play pretty well without it."

Westbrook sat out most of the preseason after stretching ligaments in his foot on the first series of the Eagles' first preseason game against Oakland. After getting 24 touches in Week 1 against Houston, the knee became inflamed.

If Westbrook plays this week, which is likely, coach Andy Reid probably will lighten his load a little and give more carries to backup running backs Correll Buckhalter and Ryan Moats. Buckhalter has just 14 carries in the first two games. Moats doesn't have a carry yet this season.

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Defensive end Jerome McDougle, the team's '03 first-round pick, will be activated for the first time Sunday. McDougle, who missed much of the preseason with two broken ribs, was deactivated for both of the Eagles' first two games.

But the season-ending knee injury to Jerome Kearse has opened up a spot in the Eagles' four-man DE rotation for McDougle.

"He's had a great last couple of weeks of practice," defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said. "He's been working his butt off in practice. He wants to play. He's foaming at the mouth (to play). I think he's physically and mentally ready."

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Tight end L.J. Smith has a team-high 13 receptions after two games. He got off to a torrid start last year as well, catching 26 passes in the first four games.

"I'd rather have no catches and win rather than ... I don't even know what I did (last week against the Giants)," said Smith, who had 7 catches for 111 yards, but failed to hang on to a critical third-down pass from Donovan McNabb in overtime.

--- DE Jerome McDougle, who was inactive for the first two games, will be activated Sunday and rotate at right end with Trent Cole.
--- TE L.J. Smith suffered an AC shoulder sprain Sunday against the Giants. He didn't practice Wednesday, but is expected to play this week. Smith has a team-high 13 receptions.
--- G Shawn Andrews injured his shoulder against the Giants, but it's not expected to keep him out of this week's game against the 49ers.
--- TE Mike Bartrum, the team's long-snapper, did not practice Thursday for the second straight day and is listed as questionable for Sunday's game against San Francisco. If he can't play, defensive end Darren Howard would handle the long-snapping duties.
--- CB Dexter Wynn likely will handle the punt return duties again Sunday, even if Reno Mahe's sprained ankle is healed. Wynn had 22- and 14-yard punt returns last week against the Giants.

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