The 2008 season opens at Lincoln Financial Field for the first time since the '04 campaign. After winning their final three games of 2007, the Eagles want to continue that momentum and get off to a good start in this campaign. St. Louis suffered through the misery of a 3-13 2007, but welcomes back some key players. We break it down in our Countdown to Kickoff ...
*The Eagles' wide receiving corps will likely be the most watched and scrutinized unit in Sunday's game, and for good reason. Kevin Curtis is definitely out after sports hernia surgery, and Reggie Brown is listed as doubtful with a hamstring strain he suffered on the first play of the Carolina preseason game. This leaves the Eagles without their top two receivers from a season ago. Ouch.
So expect Hank Baskett and Jason Avant, especially, to get more looks than you're used to seeing. Running backs Lorenzo Booker and Brian Westbrook could see some time split out wide, also, with Correll Buckhalter manning the load from the backfield.
But the big story here is rookie DeSean Jackson, who will likely start at flanker, making him the first Eagles rookie receiver to start Week 1 in 18 years (Calvin Williams). As tough as losing the top two wideouts is, Jackson's performance in preseason has at least quelled the panic a little bit. He caught 16 balls for 189 yards, and returned a punt for a touchdown, while taking reps with the first, second and third-team offensive units. Not too shabby.
Another thing to look out for is this weekend's impending rain, in conjunction with Saturday's Temple game at Lincoln Financial Field. Director of grounds Tony Leonard said his staff will be working around the clock to ensure the field is in top condition come 1 p.m. Sunday.
Players To Watch
Rams RB Steven Jackson: After an injury-plagued 2007 campaign, he is back with a lucrative six-year contract. Jackson has had three straight years with more than 1,000 rushing yards, and in 2006 he gained 1,528 rushing yards and added 90 receptions and another 806 yards. If the Rams offensive line can win the battle in the trenches, Jackson could have a big day.
Rams DE Chris Long: The second overall pick in the 2008 draft, Howie Long's son makes his NFL debut. Despite playing in a 3-4 scheme at the University of Virginia, Long will play opposite Leonard Little in the Rams' 4-3 defense. Long recorded just two solo tackles and two assists in the preseason.
Eagles WR DeSean Jackson: The first Eagles rookie wide receiver to start the opening game since Calvin Williams in 1990, Jackson enters his first game with the spotlight shining directly upon him. The Eagles' second-round draft choice had a tremendous preseason, but can he carry it over when everything counts and when coordinators actually have game plans in place?
Eagles' CBs: After all the hype, Eagles fans will finally get the chance to see how the defense will rotate its three stud corners. Asante Samuel makes his regular-season debut, while Sheldon Brown makes his 97th consecutive start. Lito Sheppard will work in as the nickel back, but will likely play a ton against a St. Louis team that likes to utilize multiple-receiver sets.
*From The Coach's Desk
Remember last year's season opener at Green Bay? It wasn't pretty. Philadelphia's trouble with ball security on special teams likely cost them a win, and the impending results are hard to argue.
The Packers finished 13-3 and was mere minutes from the Super Bowl, while the Eagles puttered to an 8-8 mark despite a blazing hot finish to the season. A victory in Week 1 and, who knows? Roles might have been reversed.
"After that first game, we didn't have any ball security issues. It was a situation where we probably didn't have the most explosive return game; we were just solid in what we were doing," special teams coordinator Rory Segrest said. "This year, we feel like we've got guys who are going to be solid in terms of both ball security and being able to create some big plays for us. Right now, we're here at this point ready to go forward and we feel good about what we've got."
What the Eagles do have now are two rookies, DeSean Jackson and Quintin Demps, who both returned kicks for touchdowns during the preseason. Also, they protected the ball well, while providing what is seemingly a significant upgrade to Reno Mahe in the big-play department, an area Segrest has expressed a desire to improve. Mahe was signed to sure up the return game after the problems in the 2007 opener.
But with seeing significant time at wide receiver, too, will Jackson have too much on his plate?
"I think he's in great shape. He's been working on his conditioning there and I think he's going to be able to do both jobs there," Segrest said. "Right now, we're planning on using him as the primary punt returner."
*Keep An Eye On ... Eagles MLB Stewart Bradley
The second-year player makes his debut as the full-time starter at middle linebacker. The question is whether Bradley can follow in the footsteps of a long line of great middle linebackers to play in Philadelphia -- from Chuck Bednarik and Bill Bergey to Jerry Robinson and Jeremiah Trotter. The fast and physical Bradley played so well at the end of the 2007 season that the Eagles decided they had to get him on the field in 2008.
Bradley has more than enough size to handle the position (6-4, 255 pounds) and his athleticism allows him to be a factor in pass coverage. Bradley will have his hands full in the season opener against the St. Louis Rams. Quarterback Marc Bulger is a smart and accurate quarterback - when he has the time to throw. Bulger is not a threat to take off with the football. But if Bulger has time, and Bradley doesn't read the opposing offense well, Bulger could pick the Eagles apart in the middle of the field.
Bradley's biggest challenge, however, will come in the form of Steven Jackson. The physically bruising tailback battled through injuries last season and still manufactured over 1,000 rushing yards in just 12 games. He's also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield. Just two years ago, he pulled in a Westbrook-like 90 receptions.
The Rams may not have the weapons from the "Greatest Show on Turf," but they have one of the orchestrators in offensive coordinator Al Saunders, who returned to the team after spending the last two years with the Redskins. Saunders was an assistant coach during the Rams' run to the Super Bowl in the 1999 season. Saunders' complicated offensive scheme, based on the "Air Coryell" offense, has the essential pieces in place - an accurate quarterback in Bulger, a power back in Jackson and a receiver who can stretch the field vertically in Torry Holt.
Bradley is fortunate that he was able to learn what Saunders likes to do in game planning for the Redskins last season. But as the signal caller for the defense, Bradley will have to watch for the movement and shifting that comes along with an Al Saunders offense.
* First And Long ...
- The Eagles have missed the playoffs in two of the last three seasons after making five consecutive appearances from 2000-04.
- Eagles QB Donovan McNabb has not played all 16 games in a season since 2003.
- Head coach Andy Reid and QB Donovan McNabb are entering their 10th season together in Philadelphia. Reid is one of only 18 first-time head coaches in NFL history to last over 9 years with the same team, while McNabb (1999-present) is the second-longest tenured active starting QB behind the Colts' Peyton Manning (1998-present). Reid and McNabb join Bill Walsh and Joe Montana as the only first-time head coaches and rookie QBs to join a team at the same time and last over 9 seasons as a tandem.
- With a 96-62 overall record, Andy Reid needs 4 wins to reach 100 for his career.
- The Rams have not had a winning season since going 12-4 in 2003.
- Rams RB Steven Jackson has three-straight 1,000-yard campaigns.
- Since 1937, the Rams own a 38-32 opening game record, winning eight of the last 13 openers since moving to St. Louis in 1995, and 10 of their last 16 overall. The Rams .543 opening day winning percentage ranks seventh in the NFC.
- All NFL players this season will wear a jersey patch in honor of Gene Upshaw, the late Pro Football Hall of Famer and executive director of the NFL Players Association.