LANDOVER, Md. - What middle linebacker problem?
After dealing with two season-ending injuries, an uninspiring open competition, and an underwhelming comeback, the Eagles appear to have found themselves a full-service middle linebacker.
Will Witherspoon, acquired in a trade just six days before last night's Redskins game, was to the Eagles' defense what wide receiver DeSean Jackson was to the team's offense: a difference-maker.
In the first half alone, the linebacker recorded a sack, forced a fumble, and returned an interception for a touchdown as the Eagles earned a sloppy 27-17 NFC East victory. Not bad for a guy who was playing a different position - weakside linebacker - just a week ago for the winless St. Louis Rams.
"It's a little surprising," Witherspoon said. "You can't expect a sack, caused fumble and interception for touchdown. You're like: What? Who in their right mind would think that in their first game?"
There were concerns about Witherspoon's playing almost every down. Mainly, would the 29-year-old be able to make all the calls for a defense known for its intricate schemes? Eagles coach Andy Reid did not seem too worried about it Saturday.
"He did a nice job of picking things up," Reid said. "He'll continue to study. He's a smart guy, innately a smart guy. And then, I think, he is football smart also."
Witherspoon did have two things going for him. For one, he played in a system similar to the one that defensive coordinator Sean McDermott employs with the Eagles. And two, he had the advantage of having played the Redskins in Week 2, when he had 10 tackles.
It didn't take long for Witherspoon to instantly become Eagles fans' favorite new middle linebacker. And that's saying a lot after the team brought back fan favorite Jeremiah Trotter a month ago in an attempt to shore up its run defense.
On Washington's third possession, quarterback Jason Campbell dropped back. Witherspoon and safety Quintin Mikell blitzed. A leaping Mikell deflected a Campbell pass and a Johnny-on-the-spot Witherspoon pulled in the interception. He then scooted 9 yards for the touchdown and a 14-0 Eagles lead.
On the Redskins' ensuing drive, Witherspoon sacked Campbell and forced a fumble into the hands of coconspirator Mikell.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Witherspoon became the second player (after Buffalo's Sam Adams) to post a sack and interception return for a score in his first game with a team. It was the second time in his nine-year career that he pulled off the trifecta of a sack, an interception for a TD, and a forced fumble.
It has been a headache-filled several months since linebacker Stewart Bradley suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee a week into training camp. Joe Mays was given the first shot at replacing Bradley in the middle, but the second-year pro couldn't hold on to the job. Omar Gaither, who had played in middle two seasons ago, stepped in, but the team felt he wasn't big enough to stuff the run, so it brought back the 32-year-old Trotter to help out on running downs.
Trotter hasn't done much in his three games back to suggest that he should have come out of a one-year retirement. He hardly played at all last night.
When Gaither suffered a Lisfranc fracture in his foot in the fourth quarter of the Raiders game, the Eagles knew they had to make a move. They packaged rookie wide receiver Brandon Gibson and a fifth-round draft pick to St. Louis for Witherspoon. After last night, it looks as if they received quite the present in return.