Finally we get to talk about a real game. The Rams come to town on Sunday for the season opener. No more talk of rosters and guys making the team. The focus now shifts to winning and losing.
Real football is back.
Season openers are tough games to figure out. You can't read too much into what happened in the preseason. On paper, the Eagles sure look like the better team. The Rams are coming off a 3-13 season where the offense couldn't score and the defense couldn't stop anyone.
The beauty of the NFL is that each new season wipes the slate clean and allows every team a chance to have a fresh start. Cleveland and Tampa Bay each won only four games in 2006. The Buccaneers turned around and won the NFC South in 2007. The Browns won 10 games and barely missed the playoffs.
So what do we make of the Rams? They still have some excellent skill players. Marc Bulger is a quality quarterback. He struggled last year, but that had an awful lot to do with injuries to his supporting cast. Steven Jackson is one of the best running backs in the entire league. He's got size, speed, power and is elusive for a bigger guy. Jackson is a good receiver also. He is really the key to the Rams offense. Wide receiver Torry Holt is the old man of the bunch. He only had seven touchdown catches last year, but he is still a great route runner and can be a playmaker.
The Rams offense was special in the past because of the fact they had multiple high-quality wide receivers. It started with Holt, Isaac Bruce, Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl back in 1999. Hakim and Proehl were replaced by Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald a few years later. Now Holt is the only one left. Rookie Donnie Avery and veteran Drew Bennett are being counted on to help the passing game. Bennett offers size and experience. Avery brings speed - lots of speed. He was the first receiver chosen in the draft and has a lot of potential.
The biggest problem for the team last year was the offensive line. Left tackle Orlando Pace got hurt early on and missed the rest of the season. He was the anchor for the group and without him they had a lot of problems. The Rams struggled with pass protection, allowing 48 sacks. The line had trouble opening holes in the running game as well. Running backs averaged only 3.8 yards per carry (by contrast the Eagles averaged 4.7 per carry).
Pace is back at left tackle. The team added guard Jacob Bell in free agency. The left side of the line should be pretty strong, as long as Pace stays healthy. He missed a lot of time in both 2006 and 2007. His shoulder acted up a bit this summer, but he's reportedly good to go at this point.
If the Rams can block and one of the other receivers steps up, the offense could be vastly improved. We know that Steven Jackson will be able to run the ball. Bulger is a smart, accurate passer when given time. He's just one of those quarterbacks who needs a strong supporting cast. He's not going to make dynamic plays with his legs. I expect to see improvement, but I'm not sure how much.
The defense should also be better this year. Rookie defensive end Chris Long had a quiet preseason, but he's the type of player who is more likely to come alive when the games are for real. Leonard Little is healthy at the other end spot. Those two should help the pass rush a lot. The Rams have a solid trio at defensive tackle. Adam Carriker is in his second season and should be more of a playmaker.
The linebackers are led by Will Witherspoon. They call him a middle linebacker, but he is used creatively and makes plays all over the field. He led the team in tackles, tackles-for-loss and sacks last year. The Rams love to blitz him up the middle. They even line him up at end and let him rush the passer. He's very athletic and at his best on the move.
O.J. Atogwe is the best safety. He had eight interceptions last year. The cornerbacks are in a state of flux. The Rams have been talking to free agents this week in hopes of improving the secondary. They signed Ricky Manning and he should play a lot in the opener. Tye Hill is back from last year. Fakhir Brown isn't healthy right now.
You can bet that Andy Reid will want to test the Rams secondary because of the questions they have. I wouldn't be surprised to see a deep ball to Reggie Brown, Greg Lewis or DeSean Jackson on the opening series. The Rams know the Eagles will want to pass. You can bet defensive coordinator Jim Haslett will try to counter by bringing pressure. He loves to blitz. That concerns me a bit. The offensive line didn't face much blitzing in the last couple of preseason games. One mistake, either physical or mental, can lead to a busted play. Donovan McNabb also didn't have a ton of pressure on him in the preseason. Suddenly he's going to have to deal with an athletic front four and fast set of linebackers. If given time, he should be able to pick the Rams apart.
Brian Westbrook will be huge, of course. Blitzing teams leave holes and gaps in the defense. If Westbrook gets the ball in an area like that he could turn a solid gain into a big play or long touchdown. I also think the Eagles could run at the left side of the Rams defense. They have smaller guys at left end and the left linebacker spot. Good blocks from Jon Runyan and L.J. Smith could seal the edge and give Westbrook a chance to get outside for a good gain. The question we all have in the running game is how Tony Hunt will do at fullback. He catches a break in the opener. The Rams don't have huge linebackers. Hunt needs to show he can get the job done against a group this size.
The key to the offense is going to be scoring touchdowns. That's the one area we're all unsure about. We know the Eagles can get into the red zone. Can they put seven on the board? I expect the offense to be much better in this area.
The Eagles defense has the talent to handle the Rams offense. The key here is to control their running game so that you can put Bulger in known passing situations and really attack him. Our run defense was greatly improved last year. I think the front seven will handle the run well this year, but Jackson is a big test to start the season. It wouldn't surprise me to see the Rams throw screens to Jackson to start the game. That would get him the ball in space and loosen up the defense.
The focus on defense will be the pass rush and forcing turnovers. They go hand in hand. If you get to the quarterback you can knock the ball loose. If you pressure him, he will put the ball up for grabs. As much as I like our starting defensive line, I'm actually interested to see what the backups can do. Can Chris Clemons bring pressure off the left side? Is Darren Howard really improved? Can Dan Klecko be disruptive inside?
I think all Eagles fans are excited to see what the linebackers can do. Stewart Bradley takes over in the middle. Facing Jackson is a good way for him to start. Bradley gets the challenge of a big, talented runner. Shutting him down would set a good tone for the early part of the season. Bradley will also be challenged by the Rams' play-action passes. Bulger is excellent on fakes. Bradley has to get good depth on his pass drops to clog the middle of the field. Chris Gocong and Omar Gaither need to rally to the football and make plays. We got next to nothing from the linebackers last year when it came to turnovers. The guys have to knock the ball loose more often this year.
The secondary has an advantage on the Rams receivers because that group is banged up. Still, any time you face Torry Holt you better be ready. Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard will all get chances to cover him. I'm excited to see what Samuel can do in a full game. He's being counted on to really help in the turnover department. The guy I'm most excited about is Quintin Mikell. He had an outstanding preseason. If he plays like that this year, he'll challenge for a Pro Bowl spot. It will also be good to see Brian Dawkins going full speed. If Dawkins is all the way back, we might just have the best secondary in the league.
The Rams primary kick returner is Dante Hall. You remember him, right? Hall electrified the NFL for a couple of years. He was the mini-version of Devin Hester. Hall has fallen from that level, but still can be dangerous. The Rams should feel nervous about trying to handle DeSean Jackson and Quintin Demps. I haven't been this excited about seeing our returners in a long time. They'll make some rookie mistakes, but their speed will deliver some big plays this year.
I expect the Eagles to win this game. We're the better team. Do remember that this is opening weekend and anything can happen. One team comes out sluggish, the other one crisp. One team is rusty, the other is ready. That kind of stuff. I think Andy Reid knows it is important to get out of the gate with a win this year and is going to do everything he can to make sure the guys are ready.