PITTSBURGH - Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Trent Cole says he's part of the best defensive line in the NFL.
The group hasn't been consistently playing at an elite level this season, however. There was nothing fearsome about the Eagles' foursome in the first five games, including a 16-14 loss to Pittsburgh at Heinz Field on Sunday.
The Eagles' defense played well for most of the game, holding the Steelers to just one touchdown. But they failed to get any sacks against Ben Roethlisberger and did not force any turnovers.
"We tried to get to him as best we could," Cole said Sunday. "But he gets rid of the ball fast. He takes two steps and throws the ball fast."
Other defenses had gotten to him this season. Roethlisberger was sacked nine times in the Steelers' first three games while operating behind a porous offensive line.
But the Eagles, who tied for the league lead with 50 sacks in 2011, couldn't drop him.
"I know we're measured here on sacks, but I think we're doing a decent job with the pressure part of it," Eagles coach Andy Reid said Monday in quotes provided by the team. "What we saw last year was maximum sacks and a lot of scoring. What you're seeing this year is not a lot of sacks and we're keeping the scoring down."
Sunday's contest marked the second straight game in which the Eagles failed to get a sack. They also came up short against the New York Giants' Eli Manning in a 19-17 win on Sept. 30.
They have just 7 sacks through five games this season, putting them on pace to finish with 22. Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, the Eagles have finished with fewer than 30 sacks only twice, when they had 29 in 1978 and 2005.
Defensive end Jason Babin, who led the team with 18 sacks last season, has 2 this season and has been shut out in three of the last four games. Cole, who ranks third in franchise history with 69 sacks, has 1.
Babin and Cole explained after the Giants game last week that teams are using an extra blocker, either and tight end or running back, to keep the Eagles from getting to the quarterback.
"Do (the Steelers) max protect against every team they go against?" Cole said Sunday. "It's called respect. That's the best (defensive line). Everybody does it against us. It's no different than other teams. Every team does that."
Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo and defensive-line coach Jim Washburn like to rely on the defensive line to apply pressure, thus freeing the linebackers and secondary to cover receivers.
When the line doesn't get to the quarterback, it puts increased pressure on the cornerbacks to cover wide receivers for extended periods, a practically impossible task even for former Pro Bowlers Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
"Our corners are on an island basically every play," Castillo said last week. "And when you're on an island like that, you're going to give up some big plays. We all understand that. We don't want to, but sometimes it happens."
It happened on the Steelers' final drive.
Despite two fumbles by quarterback Michael Vick in the first quarter, the Eagles led 14-13 when the Steelers' offense took the field with 6 minutes, 33 seconds left in regulation Sunday.
Fourteen plays and 74 yards later, the Steelers watched Shaun Suisham boot a 34-yard field goal with no time remaining to give Pittsburgh the victory.
The Eagles' defense had opportunities to stop the Steelers. Roethlisberger converted a pair of third downs during the drive, including a 20-yard pass to wide receiver Antonio Brown on a third-and-12 play.
"Even on elite defenses, you might give up plays on third down," Asomugha said Sunday. "It's just at the time when you need it the most you've got to be able to make that type of play. Every game's been a fight this year. But we've shown we can pull it out in the end. The confidence was there. On that last drive, everybody was like, 'It doesn't matter what's happened before. We've closed out games before. If they don't score, we win.'
"For them to go down and get that field goal was a little disappointing."
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