The Eagles third preseason game will kickoff tonight against the Cleveland Browns, with the starters expected to play a whole three quarters. It’s the last hoorah of the practice games, with next week’s exhibition against the Jets serving strictly for the jabronies to fight over those last few roster spots.
This game is an opportunity for the first team to ensure they are start clicking in time for the start of the season. Of course, with pretty much no offseason it’s a challenge for the coaches and players to develop any sort of cohesion. Unfortunately though, the start of the season isn’t getting pushed back to give guys time to learn their route trees or blocking assignments or to pick up blitzes.
So it’s game on, and the Eagles need to put on a much better showing than the slopfest that occurred against the Steelers last week. This game will feature some particular areas worth watching, both for the positive and for the negative.
This is arguably the team’s biggest question mark. Middle linebacker Casey Matthews looked like Irene struck last week he got washed out so much. He has an extremely steep learning curve and we need to be patient with him but that won’t really matter if he’s getting blown up when the games count. The problem is, if Matthews can’t cut it there’s no one to replace him. Sure, Jamar Chaney could kick back in to the middle but then the problem repeats itself. The Eagles linebacker depth is pretty terrible, though rookie Brian Rolle will get a chance tonight to make some plays. If Matthews struggles again, Chaney could be move in from the strong side, and if Rolle shows well against the Browns, there’s a possibility that weakside starter Moise Fokou will flip sides, allowing Rolle to run around and make plays as a starter.
Remember that argument mentioned above about what is the Eagles biggest question mark? Well, here’s the other side of it. As of right now, the starting right tackle, the man responsible for protecting the blindside of a quarterback who can’t seem to see blitzes, is King Dunlap. That’s not good. Former starter Winston Justice remains on the PUP list with a knee injury, and free agent acquistion Ryan Harris is still out as he deals with back issues, the same problem that have plagued him his entire career. So that leaves Dunlap, who has struggled with terrible inconsistency his entire career, including last week. If Dunlap gets turn-styled too much by Cleveland expect either recent free agent journeyman additions Evan Mathis or Reggie Wells to get a look or for chatter to increase regarding stalwart left guard Todd Herremans making a position switch.
Jamaal Jackson is in a tenuous spot. He’s a season removed from a torn ACL, which impacts his base strength, a huge part of offensive line play. He’s also coming off a torn triceps that cost him last season, an injury that could really limit his ability to use maximum strength as he uses his arms to leverage incoming pass rushers. He’s also heavier than the ideal player in Howard Mudd’s preferred blocking schemes. Add all that up and it’s not a surprise that rookie Jason Kelce took first team reps all week and will play with the ones against Cleveland. If Kelce continues to impress, it could cost Jackson his job full time, possibly even a spot on the team. The problem with that though is it mean two rookies starting shoulder to shoulder on the offensive line, with first round pick Danny Watkins looking to secure his own spot at right guard. The play of the offensive line as a whole is something that needs to be a major focus this whole game.
Nate Allen is still recovering from the ruptured patellar tendon he suffered last season, which explains why his play last week was uglier than the love child of Rosie O’Donnell and Artie Lange. In what looks like evidence that Allen may not be ready for a while, free agent veteran Jarrad Page will get the start against the Browns. Page has looked good so far and if he plays well tonight could lock up a starter’s spot. Opposite him will be Kurt Coleman, who just seems to be all over the field making tackles. He’s not the biggest guy out there or the most athletic but the guy just flat out brings it. With rookie Jaiquawn Jarrett not progressing enough (thanks lockout for wiping out the offseason), the job seems to be Coleman’s to lose.
Rookies Alex Henery at kicker and Chas Henry at punter are a major point of attention. If they don’t show enough development the Eagles will need to watch closely as other teams make their roster cuts. Bringing in veterans to these vital spots could be a real possibility. It’s not impossible to consider since kickers and punters don’t really need to learn an offense or adapt to a new scheme or anything like that. They just show up and kick. If the Eagles don’t have confidence their rookies can cut it the team shouldn’t hesitate to bring in a vet.
Other things to watch for: Can Michael Vick bounce back from an awful performance? Is he the guy who set the league on fire the first half of last season, or is he the braindead moron who can’t read a defense or pick up the blitz? Speaking of quarterbacks, can Mike Kafka really challenge Vince Young for the backup job? Can Dion Lewis secure his spot on the roster with great quickness and an ability to pick up the blitz rare in rookies? Can this finally be the end of Eldra Buckley? Is this Asante Samuel’s last game as an Eagle? What about other the other cornerback popping up in trade rumors, Joselio Hanson? Will someone actually return a kick? How soon will Andy Reid burn his timeouts?
One important note for tonight is the injury situation for the Browns. Cleveland will not have a number of starters going tonight, which will impact how the Eagles performance is judged against the backups. On the offensive side, the Browns will be missing receiver Mohamed Massaquoi (foot), guard Eric Steinbach (back) and running back Brandon Jackson (toe). Madden cover boy Peyton Hillis is dealing with a sore back and may not play either. Also, receiver and playmaker Josh Cribbs (hamstring) and tight end Evan Moore (concussion) could sit out as well.
On defense, Cleveland will be without starting safeties T.J. Ward (hamstring) and Usama Young (hamstring) as well as former Eagle and starting linebacker Chris Gocong (neck).
Regardless, tonight’s game is huge as a table-setter for the season, with position battles raging, rookies looking to show they belong, and the expectation that rust be permanently removed prior to Week 1. With the last week of the preseason likely to see the starters wearing baseball hats and the scrubs fighting for scraps, the performance of the team tonight could indicate whether this s0-called Dream Team will succeed or if the season will be a nightmare.
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