The Eagles kick off the 2011 regular season this Sunday at 1:00pm amidst Super Bowl dreams and let down nightmares. The players and the front office alike know it’s Super Bowl or bust for this team and in the win-or-go-home NFL, a victory in the opening week is a huge pacesetter for the months to come.
With that said, there are quite a few storylines to watch unfold as the game is played, intrigue within a game that will have a lasting impact on the season to come — both positive and negative — depending on how things go.
First and foremost is the play of the offensive line. Even before the Eagles benched first round pick Danny Watkins, the projected opening day line had never once taken a snap in a game situation as a unit. So even with the newly acquired Kyle DeVan taking over for Watkins at right guard, the group will still struggle with unfamiliarity and continuity. Rookie center Jason Kelce, while showing flashes, has also looked very much like a rookie, and the last time Todd Herremans played tackle was in college, and that was on the left side. Journeyman Evan Mathis isn’t exactly a sure thing at Herremans’ previous left guard spot either. So the line play should be as big a focus as anything else, for this game and going forward.
The play of the quarterback will also be affected tremendously by whether the line knows (or blows) their assignments and executes their blocks. Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo, who coached the Eagles linebackers and defensive backs over eight years with the late Jim Johnson, knows that Eagles quarterback Michael Vick struggles with picking up blitzes and Spags will scheme his already blitz-heavy, Johnson-esque scheme accordingly. Spagnuolo will likely attempt to confuse the easily befuddled Vick early and often, with disguised coverages, zone blitzes, and more, so the line needs to be able to adjust on the fly and help Vick to recognize what’s coming.
How Vick responds in the face of intense pressure that he will unlikely be able to diagnose and see coming will go a long way in determining the winner of this game. The play of the offensive line is going to need to be strong all game to keep Vick off his back and to prevent him from tucking and running right after he drops back. If Vick gets flattened it could potentially be a pretty rough time for the offense as it will be Mike Kafka, not the injured Vince Young, who will be brought in the game.
Working in Vick’s favor is his elite athleticism as well as the Rams’ defense being a little light on overall talent, though the defensive end duo of Chris Long and rookie first round pick Robert Quinn may have something to say about that. Spagnuolo can use whatever defensive scheme he wants but he still needs players to make plays, so it will be up to those guys, as well as others like stud middle linebacker James Laurinitis and former Eagles saftey Quintin Mikell to lead the charge.
Another key part of Vick’s performance will be whether wide receiver DeSean Jackson is motivated to play all out. With his contract situation still a major issue, DeSean, intentionally or otherwise, may be hesitant to go over the middle or lay out for a deep bomb. Not saying that Jackson will be taking TO’s advice to not show up at all, but if DeSean is tentative it could be a long day.
Speaking of concerns with Jackson, is he still going to be willing to put himself out there as the punt returner? He says he wants to do it — and head coach Andy Reid has already said Jackson will be the primary punt returner — but what if DeSean decides he would rather not risk an injury doing a job usually reserved for someone other than the team’s number one receiver? And if that’s the case, who steps in? The Eagles would likely use Jeremy Maclin instead, a fantastic returner in his own right but he’s coming off a major offseason illness and needs to focus on playing receiver.
And really, not many teams list their top two receivers as primary and secondary punt return options, as in the Eagles are probably the only one. So what about rookie Dion Lewis? He will be returning kicks but will he be able to return punts as well? If the team gives him a shot back there and Lewis isn’t up to it, things are going to get ugly. It wasn’t that long ago that the Eagles got embarrassed by having no one to return punts in Week 1 (Greg Lewis, anyone?), so will it be deja vu all over again?
Defensively, the Eagles will debut the full out, non-preseason wide-nine technique of new line coach Jim Washburn, with Trent Cole and Jason Babin looking to immediately start putting up Pro Bowl sack numbers, starting Sunday. And the Eagles finally have a defensive tackle in Cullen Jenkins that can collapse the pocket and get to the quarterback himself, and that alone will increase the ends’ effectiveness. The preseason was just a hint of what this unit will be capable of and it’s very exciting looking forward to how things play out in a game that counts.
Behind the line is the defensive situation with the most question marks, with the linebackers ability to pull their weight a huge focus. With the Rams trotting out an elite running back in Steven Jackson these guys are going to have to step up right away. This isn’t an SEC school playing a creampuff to start the season — Jackson will not only run you over, he’ll catch passes too (and then run you over). So rookie middle linebacker Casey Matthews needs to be the man from the first snap on.
On the other side of the coin is the group with the least concerns – the cornerbacks. That said, it’s still intriguing to consider how the Big Three are going to be used. Nnamdi Asomugha will start but will he play on the outside all game, or will he also be used in the slot as a blitzer, Charles Woodson-style? Will Asante Samuel see as many snaps or will he have his playing time reduced? How will Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie be utlilized? These are generally good problems to have but at the same time it would be nice to see some continuity of scheme. These guys are all elite talents but they need to be used effectively to produce at that level.
The Eagles should win this game but the Rams are no longer a laughingstock. Sam Bradford is one of the best young quarterbacks in the league and Steven Jackson is still a stud. With an improved defense another year bought into Steve Spagnuolo’s schemes, this St Louis team is poised to compete. To win, the Eagles will need to dominate their matchups and execute with skill and efficiency, otherwise it’s going to be a long day, followed by a longer week of hyper-criticism.
The Eagles, whether they wanted it or not, have painted a huge target on their collective backs and teams will be gunning for them all season. Anything less than winning convincingly will likely be seen as a huge disappointment, both Eagles fans as well as the organization.
Prediction: Eagles 31, Rams 20.
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