The long wait is over. A mere 245 days after their season ended at Lincoln Financial Field against the Green Bay Packers, the Eagles will play their first meaningful game on September 11 as they open the 2011 season against an emerging Rams team in St. Louis. But while many of the stars from that 2010 team return, these are not the same Eagles who fell short in the playoffs against the eventual Super Bowl Champions. New to the flock are a slew of marquee additions Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cullen Jenkins, Jason Babin, Steve Smith, Vince Young and Ronnie Brown. Also changed is much of the coaching staff, with Juan Castillo installed as the new defensive coordinator, aided by renowned defensive line coach Jim Washburn, and offensive line guru Howard Mudd filling the offensive line coach void left by Castillo. Don't, however, confuse the Eagles for a team in flux. Head coach Andy Reid remains as the steady hand steering the ship. An explosive offensive is led by the newly extended Michael Vick, DeSean Jackson, LeSean McCoy and Jeremy Maclin while Pro Bowlers Trent Cole and Asante Samuel return on defense.
The Rams, for their part, welcome the Eagles to the Edward Jones Dome led by a young, superstar-in-the-making at quarterback in former No. 1 overall pick Sam Bradford. The 2010 NFL Rookie of the Year, Bradford threw for 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns in his debut and should be primed for the famed year-one-to-year-two improvement. Bradford's head coach, meanwhile, is plenty familiar to Eagles fans. Steve Spagnuolo was a Jim Johnson protégé in Philadelphia before taking over the New York Giants defense, a job that eventually catapulted him to Rams head coach in 2009. Spagnuolo has re-shaped the roster and has the Rams on an upward trajectory, taking the team from only one win his first season to seven in 2010. Now, the Rams head into 2011 with the burden of being NFC West favorite. Their performance in a marquee Week 1 matchup will say a lot about their readiness for those expectations.
Last Time They Met:
September 7, 2008: Eagles 38, Rams 3
The last time the Eagles and Rams met was also a season opener as the Eagles gave the Rams a rude welcome to the 2008 season, stomping them 38-3 at Lincoln Financial Field. The highlight play of the day was Donovan McNabb's 90-yard touchdown pass to Hank Baskett in the waning moments of the first half. Three Eagles wide receivers actually topped 100 yards receiving on the day – Baskett, Greg Lewis and, in his first NFL game, DeSean Jackson. The Eagles defense asserted their dominance by allowing only 166 total yards of offense to the visiting Rams, who would finish their season 2-14.
When The Eagles Have The Ball:
Under offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, the Eagles have set a new franchise record in points scored in three consecutive seasons. Michael Vick is back at the helm of that explosive offense, armed with perhaps the best duo of wide receivers in the league, a dynamic superstar running back in the making plus some new complementary parts like Ronnie Brown and Steve Smith. The focus, however, will be up front on the offensive line where the starting unit has yet to play together in live action. Jason Peters is the only position holdover at left tackle as his right-hand man Todd Herremans moved from left guard to right tackle. Veteran Evan Mathis slides into Herremans' place while two rookies, Jason Kelce and Danny Watkins, fill out the rest of the line. The offensive line will be challenged by opening their season with the first of two road dome games, shining a spotlight on their ability to communicate. The name of the game will be giving Vick enough time to get the ball to his playmakers. Last season, Eagles' quarterbacks were sacked 49 times, fourth-most in the league.
The Rams defense, for their part, were very effective at getting to the quarterback in 2010, as they sacked the opposing quarterback on 7.54 percent of pass attempts, the eighth-best rate in the league. That performance was due in large part to the breakout season from Chris Long, the former third overall pick, who had a career-best 8.5 sacks and helped open the way for a career-high 10.5 sacks from running mate James Hall. First-round pick Robert Quinn adds to that pass rushing talent. In the back seven, James Laurinaitis captains the linebacking corps while the Rams imported a player very familiar to the Eagles and Spagnuolo to lead the secondary – Quintin Mikell.
When The Rams Have The Ball:
Bradford announced his proverbial presence with authority in 2010, putting up one of the most impressive rookie seasons from a quarterback in recent memory. The former Oklahoma Sooner is equipped with a rocket arm, underrated mobility and impressive poise for a youngster. His weapons on offense include two former Eagles, Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, and former Jaguar Mike Sims-Walker. Bradford has also forged a connection with rookie tight end Lance Kendricks, as Kendricks tied for a league-best three receiving touchdowns in the preseason, totaling 11 catches for 155 yards. The running game, meanwhile, added some veteran reinforcements to back up Steven Jackson in Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood after a season in which the Rams were 31st in the league with a paltry 3.68 yards per rush. Perhaps the offense's biggest offseason addition was Josh McDaniels, the former Broncos head coach and Patriots offensive coordinator, who takes over the Rams defense and should infuse some creativity to a talented unit.
Speaking of coaching additions, the Eagles' addition of Jim Washburn to run the defensive line produced immediate results in the preseason as the Eagles led the NFL with 19 sacks. Last season, the Eagles were 10th in the league with 39 sacks, but the pass rush faded as the season went along – the team had 13 sacks in the first four games, 11 in the next four, eight in the third quarter of games and only seven in the final four. One of Washburn's trademarks is rotating his linemen to keep them fresh throughout the game and the season, but they'll no question be firing off the ball against the Rams. Also under the microscope will be rookie middle linebacker Casey Matthews, starting as a fourth-round pick. Matthews has the tools to succeed and the line should give him space to make plays against the Rams' pedestrian running game. And then, of course, there is the secondary, where the Eagles imported two Pro Bowl cornerbacks. Add Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to Asante Samuel and you have the makings of what looks like a mismatch in the Eagles' favor.
Players To Watch
QB Sam Bradford
Bradford set the rookie records for completions and passing attempts in 2010, breaking records previously held by Peyton Manning. And even though he took every snap from center during the Rams' 16 games, Bradford was only sacked 34 times, the fewest sacks allowed by the Rams since 1999, a testament to Bradford's awareness and mobility as well as the team's insistence on limiting his exposure to pass rushers. Protected by a solid, young tackle tandem of Rodger Saffold and Jason Smith, Bradford's time in the pocket will be something to watch against the Eagles' defensive line.
S Quintin Mikell
One of the greater success stories of the Andy Reid era, Mikell originally made the Eagles in 2003 as an undrafted rookie out of Boise St. on the strength of his special teams acumen. After several years in the system, including a rookie year in which Spagnuolo was his position coach, Mikell grew to become the team's starting strong safety, starting 58 games over the last four seasons and earning a Pro Bowl berth. The Eagles moved on from Mikell in the offseason, drafting Jaiquawn Jarrett in the second round and bringing in free agent Jarrad Page, and Mikell found a home and a big contract in St. Louis. For the last three seasons, Mikell has watched from the sidelines as DeSean Jackson has beat safeties deep throughout the league. Now, Mikell will get a taste of that speed in a live game on the turf.
LDE Chris Long vs. RT Todd Herremans
Herremans will be thrown into fire in his first NFL start at right tackle and his first start at either tackle position since 2009. Without any live preseason snaps at the position, Herremans will line up against one of the league's emerging pass rusher in Long. Not only has Long improved his sack total each of his three seasons (4.0 in 2008, 5.0 in 2009 and 8.5 in 2010), but he's coming off a year in which he led the entire NFL with 42.5 quarterback hurries. The importance of this matchup is highlighted by Vick's left-handedness, meaning that Herremans is protecting his quarterback's blind side. If Herremans can keep Long from harassing Vick, it could spell, well, a long afternoon for the Rams defense.
WR Danny Amendola vs. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha
Amendola, a former Eagle, had a breakout season in 2010, catching 85 passes for 689 yards. Mostly plying his trade over the middle of the field, Amendola was actually the league's most targeted receiver in the red zone. Because Amendola often lines up in the slot, he will test the Eagles' decision to move on from solid nickel corner Joselio Hanson with Rodgers-Cromartie and Asomugha. Neither of the two has worked much in the slot in the past, though both are certainly capable. Expect both corners to get their chances to blanket the generously-listed-as-5-11 Amendola