JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- They will be back there Sunday night, standing as the Philadelphia Eagles' last line of defense against Tom Brady and the Patriots' aerial attack.
Free safety Brian Dawkins and strong safety Michael Lewis have the credentials to handle such challenges. Both are headed to the Pro Bowl in Honolulu next week. Both excelled in harassing Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick in the NFC Championship game, a 27-10 Eagles victory.
In helping the Eagles to their first Super Bowl appearance in 25 years, Dawkins and Lewis have anchored an Eagles secondary that allowed mainstay cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent to leave via free agency before the season.
"Bobby and Troy did a great job for us and that's the hardest part about being a head coach. You've got to make those decisions to let guys go in free agency," said Eagles coach Andy Reid.
"It wasn't because those guys couldn't play. If you're going to try to win year-in and year-out, you've got to make some changes here and there. We were fortunate to have drafted well."
Dawkins was a second-round pick in 1996 out of Clemson, while Lewis was chosen in the same round in 2002. Dawkins has earned Pro Bowl honors four times, including this season, while Lewis was chosen this year for the first time. The cornerbacks are not slouches, either. Lito Sheppard is going to his first Pro Bowl, and Sheldon Brown is young and talented. Beating this crew will be a formidable task for Brady and the Patriots.
Lewis led the Eagles with 129 tackles, but it's clear that Dawkins is the leader of the unit. "Whatever he says goes," said Lewis. "You are back there and you are a little nervous, you are not sure if he's going to have confidence in you, but this guy has been behind us, backing us 100 percent."
Reid rattled off a lengthy list of Dawkins's traits. "He's fast," said Reid. "He is aggressive and he is smart. He has the instinct that you need to get yourself in the right position around the football. He spends a lot of time studying the game. I think people will be very fortunate to see a few good safeties play in this game. I think both teams are safety strong and there should be a lot of good hitting involved."
Dawkins was asked to describe his best hit.
"I'm trying to be humble," he said with a laugh. "But there are so many. No, I'm just kidding. One that stands out to me was probably against Carolina, probably in the 2000 season. It was against a running back named Fred Lane. That's got to be the hardest one that I've had." It took time for Dawkins to develop a reputation as a hard hitter. "When I first came into the league, I was basically a third corner and I was covering receivers all the time," he said. "Then the opportunity delivered itself. I always did want to deliver a big hit. But I really wanted to be well-rounded so that you couldn't say that I'm just one thing, that I'm just a guy in the box or that I'm just a guy that stays deep."
With Dawkins as the veteran anchor, the change in personnel in the Eagles secondary did not have much of an effect. "If there was any concern, it was just the unity of being able to come together," said Lewis. "Early on, we were able to gain that unity and just go out there and play."
Dealing with Brady, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, presents a challenge. "He has the ability to look off guys," said Lewis. "He looks guys off and pulls guys out of coverages and then hits the open guy. All of his passes for the most part that I've seen are on the money."
Dawkins says the Eagles, as talented as they are, have to be careful. "You can't just blitz every down," he said. "You have to be smart about when you are going to blitz, but it's risky to sit back there and let Brady pick you apart. That's why I trust [Eagle defensive coordinator] Jim [Johnson] and what he's been telling us."