Who is ready to actually talk about a real football game? Sunday we get to see the Eagles take on the Rams. 2011 has given us the strangest offseason of my lifetime, but that's in the books. We now get to focus on actual games.
Opening in St. Louis is interesting. The Rams are a team on the rise, but no one knows exactly where the team is right now. The Eagles made a huge jump from 1999 to 2000, but not all teams get good overnight. Other teams take baby steps and get gradually better.
One thing we do know is that the Rams have a great young quarterback in Sam Bradford. He started all 16 games last year and did a respectable job. Bradford completed 60 percent of his passes, had more touchdowns than interceptions (18 to 15) and almost led St. Louis to a division title. That's a good rookie year. The pressure now is on Bradford to build on that. He needs to lead the team to more points and more wins.
The obstacle Bradford faces is that he's not surrounded by elite talent. Steven Jackson is still a Pro Bowl running back. Jackson, Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood give the Rams about as good a trio of runners as anyone in the league. The problem is more based on pass catchers. Former Eagle Danny Amendola caught 85 passes last year, but gained just 689 yards. DeSean Jackson almost averaged three times more yards per catch than Amendola. Former Eagle Brandon Gibson is another good possession receiver. Mike Sims-Walker was signed as a free agent to add some size to the receiving corps. He had seven touchdown catches last year in Jacksonville. The Rams wideouts had 10 as a unit. Rookie Lance Kendricks is going to be the tight end. He's an athletic pass catcher who has shown promise this summer.
The Rams have the runners to pound the football. The normal complement to that is to go play-action and throw the ball downfield. This is where slow, possession types like Amendola and Gibson don't help as much as you'd ideally like. New offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will try to stretch the field when he can. He'll also work in passes to Kendricks. McDaniels showed in New England and Denver that he knows how to manufacture a passing game. He doesn't need speedy receivers to move the ball.
It seems a bit ironic that the Eagles spent the offseason building up the secondary and now face a set of receivers that is talented, but not exactly explosive. This is like test driving a Ferrari in a crowded parking lot. I'm still excited about finally getting to see the new defense in a real game. Juan Castillo and his guys had a good showing in the preseason, but things will be moving at a much faster pace on Sunday. This is the real deal.
The secondary won't face any dynamic receivers, but the front seven is going to be in for a tough challenge. The Rams will look to run the ball early and often. They will test the wide nine front and the linebackers. Casey Matthews has a lot to prove this year. I'm sure he's looking forward to Sunday, so that he can show fans and the media what he's capable of. Matthews knows there is a lot of pressure on him, but I think with his background he welcomes that. He's smart enough to know there will be some problems, but he's also confident enough to believe in his ability and that of his teammates.
I see the real key to shutting down the Rams running attack as getting penetration. Jackson and Williams are both big backs. Get in the backfield and make them slow down or change direction and they become much easier to stop. Let them get up a head of steam and you're in for a long day. Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson can both penetrate and be disruptive players. Jenkins specializes in that. Patterson did the same thing early in his Eagles career, but changed with some scheme adjustments. Now he's able to get back to attacking up the field. I think Patterson may surprise some people with how well he does.
Back to the secondary for a minute. It will be really interesting to see how Castillo uses his players. Nnamdi Asomugha played a lot in the slot this summer. He also covered tight ends at times. Will he do this on Sunday? Where will Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie line up? Which of the new defensive backs will be first to make his mark on the team? This is the best trio of Eagles corners in a long time, if not ever. They'll benefit from the pressure that I expect Trent Cole, Jason Babin and the defensive line to get on Bradford.
The Rams will move the ball at times. Bradford and Jackson are too good to shut down all game long. I don't think they'll have great success. One of the key areas to watch is red zone defense. That was a huge weakness last year. I don't just expect some improvement. I expect a lot of improvement.
The obvious area of focus going into Sunday's opener is the Eagles offensive line. Winston Justice, Jamaal Jackson and apparently Danny Watkins, too, will watch from the sideline. Evan Mathis will be the left guard. Kyle DeVan appears to be the right guard. Todd Herremans shifts out to right tackle and gets a chance to show what he can do on the edge. Rookie Jason Kelce mans the middle. The only player returning from last year in the same spot is Jason Peters at left tackle.
It is easy to get caught up in the questions regarding this group. They have not taken one snap together in a game. DeVan hasn't so much as played in a preseason game for the Eagles. The shuffling and lack of chemistry are very real issues that the offense will have to deal with.
I'm fascinated with how Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg will approach this. Conventional wisdom would be to run the ball and let the line jell a bit before testing them. That's not the way that Reid and Mornhinweg think, though. They like to be aggressive. At times, this works brilliantly. Other times, not so much. Justice can remind you of a Sunday night game at the Meadowlands when things were slightly less than awesome.
I do think Reid will want to attack early on. It won't surprise me in the least if the first play of the game is a downfield pass. The throws to DeSean Jackson have become obvious so maybe this time Jeremy Maclin would be the target with Jackson as a decoy. I don't think Reid will be reckless. He knows this team has the potential to contend for a Super Bowl title. He shouldn't risk Michael Vick's health.
If you remember back to last year, the Eagles had some good games with a makeshift offensive line. Reid and the coaches built the gameplan around protection. With enough time in the pocket, Vick was able to get the ball to his targets. Protecting Vick means keeping Brent Celek in to block at times. On some plays the receivers will line up close to the formation and chip pass rushers as they release off the ball. The running backs will be called on to help.
The Rams can get to the quarterback. They had 43 sacks last year. James Hall (10.5 sacks) and Chris Long (8.5 sacks) are the ends. Fred Robbins (six sacks) is the guy up the middle. The Rams also blitzed quite a bit. This will be a major test for Vick and the offense. Last year, the Giants and Vikings showed that blitzing defensive backs was one way to slow Vick down.
Vick and the coaches made handling the blitz a focal part of the offseason. The results this summer were mixed. Some people talked about the problems in the Steelers game, but those were just bad reads by Vick for the most part. He just had an off-night. The Cleveland game was where there were protection breakdowns and Vick took a pounding. Shifting Herremans to right tackle and adding DeVan should help quite a bit. Many of the problems came from the right side. Herremans and DeVan don't have experience together, but they know the NFL. They've got the skills and the experience.
I think a great start to the game would be a screen pass. You know the Rams defenders are dying to fly upfield and chase Vick. Let them do that and dump the ball to Shady McCoy. That gives him a chance to get loose and make good things happen. It also lets the offensive linemen get out in space and mash on the back seven. I'm looking forward to seeing Kelce make some great blocks out in space this year. His block on Ronnie Brown's touchdown run in the Browns preseason game was really impressive.
I do hope McCoy and Brown get 20 combined touches at the least. Those guys make a good one-two punch. Take advantage of them and limit the amount of times Vick has to deal with the blitz. The offense could be inconsistent as the new pieces all come together, but I do think they'll score a fair amount of points. The skill players are great and Vick is an electric quarterback. If the offense can slow down the blitz, the Rams will have a hard time stopping the Eagles.
Special teams is going to be a mystery. There are no questions about Jackson at punt returner or Jon Dorenbos as the long snapper, but that's it. Place kicker Alex Henery will be in his first NFL game. Ditto for punter Chas Henry. Rookie Dion Lewis will line up as the kickoff returner, but with the new rules and playing in a dome, I'm not expecting him to have any returns. Special teams coach Bobby April likes his young pupils and has faith that they can get the job done. Seeing Henery drill a 50-yard field goal to push the lead to 41-6 is my idea of a good day for the new guys.
The final score probably won't be anything close to that. The Rams are an up and coming team that thinks they've turned the corner. They expect to win, which is critical for any team trying to get out of the habit of losing. The Eagles also expect to win. Their confidence is backed up by a strong track record. No matter what happens, I'm just happy the season is finally here.
Let the adventure begin.
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