Every step Brian Westbrook took, every movement he made, during the week of waiting was studied closely, scrutinized and then analyzed even more deeply. For two days, Westbrook practiced and did what the Eagles wanted him to do, and then took off and sought treatment in the athletic training room. On day three, Westbrook went the distance in practice, soothing some anxiety and raising hopes that when kickoff comes, No. 36 will be on the field for the Eagles and as whole as he can possibly be.
The health of Westbrook is certainly one of the primary stories as this game closes in. Without Westbrook last week, the Eagles had their moments of moving up and down the field, but when they really needed offense, when they really needed to put the ball into the end zone, the offense failed to deliver.
And whle the failure to convert in the red zone was without a team a team effort, missing Westbrook from the field was easily the largest absence. So, of course, having Westbrook on the field and healthy enough to make his magic is a huge plus for the Eagles. There is still an "if" attached to that scenario, but the week of practice and the progress Westbrook seemed to make at least provides the hope that he can play and do so at a high level against a good, and inspired, and confident Washington defense.
Should Westbrook do what he does on Sunday doesn't guarantee anything, of course. There are absolutely no guarantees about this game. The simple fact that the Eagles are coming off a brutal loss in Chicago and Washington is coming off a gigantic win in Dallas doesn't necessarily mean that the Eagles are going to have more "hunger" on Sunday.
But it should.
If this is not a desperate, focused, extremely physical team in a crucial NFC East game, then you can wonder about the Eagles. You can question how much they want it, how much they want to push back to the top of the division. In a lot of ways, you can gauge just how good the Eagles are based on this game against Washington.
The defense faces the challenge of going against an offense that features the greatness of running back Clinton Portis, a good line and a strong-armed, maturing player in quarterback Jason Campbell. Washington's pass catchers are good -- wide receiver Santana Moss is great -- and the scheme is secure. Donovan McNabb has to score points against an aggressive Washington defense that is going to man up against the receivers. It could very well be that the Eagles are going to have to lean heavily on the run more than they have done in the first four games this year.
I think the Eagles potentially have a large advantage on special teams, so Rory Segrest's group has to be aggressive and go after it.
Hey, the Eagles have to take that approach from the jump. They took too long to play with urgency in Chicago and it cost them a game on the road. This one is different. The Redskins are winners of three straight games. The Eagles are already 0-1 in the division. There is a lot of pressure on the Eagles to win the afternoon.
Three matchups are key for the Eagles in this game. Let's examine briefly ...
- Containing WR Moss
He is a game-breaker, a receiver who catches the ball well in traffic and then runs extremely well. Moss is likely to get a lot of quick hitches, bubble screens and crossing routes. Moss gets in and out of his routes tremendously well and he has the patience needed to find a crease in the coverage. He is Campbell's go-to receiver.
How will the Eagles cover Moss? Do they play it straight and keep the cornerbacks on the same side and let Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard take their turns on Moss? Or do they have Moss or Sheppard follow Moss around the field?
Defensive coordinator Jim Johnson will have his plan in place. And while the Eagles have to work hard against tight end Chris Cooley and the rest of the Redskins offense, they can't let Moss make big plays.
- Protecting McNabb
Even without end Jason Taylor, the Redsknis got to Tony Romo enough last week to disrupt his rhythm. And then the Washington secondary clamped down on the Cowboys receivers and, well, you have read all about it during the week. Taylor isn't playing in this game. Washington knows it can't let McNabb hang out in the pocket and scan the field and wait for his receivers, because no matter how good the Washington secondary is, the Eagles will have success if the Redskins are pushed away at the line of scrimmage.
Do the Eagles spread the field and go after the secondary, which could be missing starting cornerback Shawn Springs? Or do the Eagles use some two-tight end sets and provide more maximum protection looks for McNabb? Or is there going to be a lot of motion and quick throws to get the ball out of McNabb's hands?
The Eagles have an advantage here, even without Shawn Andrews. They've had success in the past working against Washington, and they need to have another big effort here.
McNabb can't be touched. He can't run for his life. He needs to have time to set his feet and throw and find targets. Yeah, the Eagles must run the football and have some balance, but they have to be explosive in the passing game, too.
- Stewart Bradley Must Be Big
The young middle linebacker has already shown that he is a standout in the making. He has taken control of the defense and is part of one of the best linebacker groups in the league. Bradley's assignment here is a difficult one. He has to be aggressive, but he can't over-pursue running back Clinton Portis, who excels in the cutback game. Bradley has to play downhill, fight through traffic and get to Portis and be sure in his tackling.
There is a lot for Bradley to consider here. Washington's offense isn't filled with the motion it had in past years, but the Redskins make up for that with great efficiency. They aren't going to give up on the running game, no matter what. Campbell is not going to be ruffled. Bradley has to do his best to disrupt and play the kind of ball he has played through four games.
Let's see if Bradley and the defense can set the tempo early in this game and get the crowd going and put the Eagles into a good situation. This isn't a "must-win" game, because it is just too early in the season for that. But this is a game the Eagles need to win, and they have to put together 60 minutes of excellent football to do so.