No longer are the St. Louis Rams "The Greatest Show On Turf." The offense that rang up record numbers in the late 1990s and early part of this decade is a giant-sized question mark nowadays. Injuries decimated a once-proud group last year, and the Rams basically started from scratch this year with a new offensive coordinator and the challenge of restoring lost glory.
The Eagles have all the respect in the world for St. Louis, and they know they are going to see a steady diet of running back Steven Jackson, wide receiver Torry Holt and quarterback Marc Bulger on Sunday. But they also understand that the philosophy of this offense isn't the same as it was when Marshall Faulk became the best combo deal since an Oreo cookie.
"Different team and different philosophy," said cornerback Sheldon Brown, just before a gaggle of reporters surrounded him in the locker room after Monday's 10/10/10 practice. "We've seen what their coordinator (Al Saunders) did in Kansas City and in Washington. He likes to run, run and then go up top. He's going to slam it up in there and take some shots down the field. This does not resemble that old Rams offense. This is something completely different."
Different, and still very challenging. The Rams have Jackson, one of the premier running backs in the league. He is a combination of power and speed, a likely to run over a defender as to race past a would-be tackler. Bulger is an accurate, intelligent quarterback who is one of the best in the NFL when he is hot.
The point here is that the Rams team that comes to Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday shouldn't be judged on its nightmare of a 3-13 season in 2007. The Rams should be considered armed and dangerous.
"Of course," said Pro Bowl end Trent Cole, who goes against future Hall of Fame left tackle Orlando Pace. "We respect everybody. If you let down in this league, somebody is going to catch up to you and teach you a lesson. We don't want lessons. We want to give that stuff out this year."
The 2007 Eagles defense did a lot of very good things. Points allowed was among the lowest in the league. The red zone defense was outstanding. The run defense showed great improvement, and the Eagles did a nice of getting off the field on third downs.
But after giving it some thought after the year was over, the Eagles made dramatic changes. The signed cornerback Asante Samuel and end Chris Clemons in free agency. Dan Klecko became a pleasant surprise after a failed attempt at converting from defensive tackle to fullback. Trevor Laws was drafted to help the depth at tackle.
A big move went down at linebacker, where second-year man Stewart Bradley became the middle man and the group turned into one of the youngest in franchise history almost overnight.
"The pieces are still coming together. I like to think we are still a work in progress. We have to see how all the pieces fit together when the games count," said safety Brian Dawkins. "I like what I've seen so far. But the preseason is the preseason. What we did there was just a start. Everything is different in the regular season."
"I'm excited to see what we have," said Brown. "It's a matter where we are all working hard, so now let's see what we can do."
The thinking a year ago went something like this: The young Eagles defense would need time to jell, and the offense -- experienced and explosive -- would have to carry the load on the path to the playoffs. But the offense never synced until late, too late. The defense generally played well, kept the team in games on the scoreboard, but missed that turn-the-game-around-with-a-big-play-element that had been such a trademark of Jim Johnson's groups in the last decade.
"It was frustrating at times," said linebacker Omar Gaither. "We wanted to win games, close out wins each week and it felt like we were so close. We just didn't step up enough. We need that this year. We all need to step up. Don't wait for somebody else to do it. Go make a play. That's what we are all trying to do."
There were times last year when the defense was absolutely dominating. The Jets comes to mind initially. New York failed to move the ball, couldn't make any big plays after its first drive, and then was denied by the Eagles late in the fourth quarter. A big win in Dallas against the high-powered Cowboys offense was a perfect illustration of how good the Eagles could be when everything fell into place and the pressure harassed quarterbacks and the secondary had opportunities to force turnovers.
But there were some maddening moments, too. Dallas trampled the Eagles early in the season. Chicago drove 97 yards in the final two minutes of a game to stun the Eagles.
"You have no choice but to learn from games like that," said Gaither. "You just can't let it happen again."
This defense had a terrific preseason. After allowing Pittsburgh to march 80 yards on its opening drive, the Eagles were downright stingy. They were outstanding. They pitched shutouts, as far as the preseason goes.
Now comes the true test. Week one of the regular season is here.
"You don't know what you are until the season starts. It's a week-by-week thing. Different teams are going to try to do different things against you," said Brown. "We have some pieces. We have to see how we play as a unit. It all starts Sunday for us."