CBs successfully fill shoes of vets

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- His last two trips to Honolulu, quarterback Donovan McNabb made it a point to return with some kind of Pro Bowl souvenir for Eagles strong safety Michael Lewis. The point? Here's something in which to aspire. Figures. A Campbell's Soup pitchman doing something to keep a guy hungry.

Hunger satisfied. Lewis no longer is starving for recognition. If McNabb should want a bite to eat next week at the Pro Bowl, Lewis can pick up the tab for a Hawaiian rib eye, having, in his third season, been selected to his first NFL All-Star game. Maybe the other Eagles first timer, third-year corner Lito Sheppard, can treat the regulars, McNabb and free safety Brian Dawkins, to a few Mai Tais or something.

In case you lost track, that's three members of Philadelphia's starting secondary in the Pro Bowl. The fourth, third-year corner Sheldon Brown (he, Lewis, and Sheppard all were acquired in the 2002 NFL draft) also enjoyed a Pro Bowl-caliber season. His teammates wanted to bring him along to Hawaii, but Brown prefers to stay at home with his family.

Still, get used to seeing several of the Birds' defensive backs making the flight over the Pacific Ocean together every February. McNabb knew early on he'd see the youngsters over there sooner or later.

"I could just see the hunger in their eyes," McNabb recalled this week. "Mike is a guy that's truly intense. I remember when Mike first got with the Eagles, I had made the Pro Bowl that year and I came back and gave Mike my laundry bag. Every year I've been giving him stuff from the Pro Bowl. Now he's a Pro Bowler. We reflected on that a little bit.

"Mike is a guy that's willing to go out and do extra to make himself and the rest of the guys better. Lito and Sheldon are the same way. When we were out at practice when they were rookies, you could see the improvement. They took on the challenge of being starters this year and have done a wonderful job in the back end.

"Those are guys you'll be watching in the future."

All eyes were on the Eagles' young corners coming into the season. Three years ago, in fact, a lot of eyebrows were raised when Philadelphia selected Sheppard (Florida) in the first round and Lewis (Colorado) and Brown (South Carolina) in Round 2 when they had a pretty good tandem on the outside. This year Brown and Sheppard, after serving what amounted to two-year apprenticeships, were asked to replace a couple of defensive institutions, long-time starting corners Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent, who were allowed to depart via free agency.

"Lito and Sheldon had a lot of critics when the season started," Lewis said, "and I feel like they went out there and played with a chip on their shoulder."

Philly's secondary punctuated its answer to the preseason's most-asked question -- how are those kids going to hold up? -- with an exclamation point. The Eagles finished tied (with the Patriots, their opponent in Super Bowl XXXIX) for second in points allowed and 12th against the pass. They handled not only the pressure of replacing two known commodities, but also the pressure that comes with playing corner in defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's aggressive scheme.

Sheppard, an exceptional athlete who covers effortlessly, also earned first-team All-Pro honors after making five interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. Lewis, whom secondary/safeties coach Sean McDermott says is the "quarterback" of the secondary (he makes the checks), led the team with 129 tackles. Brown, an extraordinarily disciplined player known for always understanding his assignments and rarely making a mistake, picked off three passes, amassed 94 tackles, and threw in three sacks.

Throwing on the Eagles' young corners is no easy task, as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is well aware.

"They've got three Pro Bowlers in the secondary alone and the guy who is not in the Pro Bowl, he looks as good as the other guys," Brady said. "Brian Dawkins is one of the best safeties in the league, if not the best. Michael Lewis is one of the best strong safeties we've faced all year. … One of the best plays I've seen all year was Lito Sheppard taking that interception back on Monday Night Football [Nov. 15] for [101] yards. You always have to be careful throwing his way."

Brown and Sheppard have different ways of getting the job done than Taylor and Vincent. The old guys had a more physical style, whereas the kids with the fresh legs don't mind running with receivers. "I think they use their feet a little more," Dawkins said. "With Bobby and Troy, I would look across the line of scrimmage and neither receiver would move off the line when the ball was snapped."

"We lost a lot of leadership, but as far as play, I don't think it dropped off," Sheppard said. "You lose two great players and you receive two great players. Not to say you knew you were going to get those players. We were determined to prove to people that we can go out and play this game and it wouldn't be a problem replacing those guys."

The Patriots' deep and diverse receiving corps can present problems for even the most decorated set of defensive backs. And with the attention that must be paid to Corey Dillon, it will be incumbent upon Dawkins and Lewis not to be fooled by Brady's play action. Too many big plays can quickly change the complexion of the big game.

"I don't see them being as patient, willing to nickel and dime you down the field," McDermott said. "So we know the game, at least defensively, rests a little bit on our shoulders. If we can prevent the big play, we have a good chance to win the game."

This we already know: The Eagles' secondary has a good chance to be very good for a long time.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.