Nail, meet the hammer.
The St. Louis Rams came to Philadelphia with a team that looked OK on paper, but turned out to be held together by duct tape, hope and a fresh coat of paint. The Eagles dominated that team in every facet of the game for four quarters. That was about as good as a season opener can get.
The thing I liked most was how the team played. They looked crisp, ready. This wasn't the typical early season slopfest. There wasn't confusion at the line of scrimmage. Players were on the field, in place, and ready to go. The Eagles had a total of four penalties. The team also played aggressive, physical football. Which team tackled better? Which team hit harder? Which team attacked more on offense and defense? Which team won the battle at the line of scrimmage? For those playing at home, ""the Eagles"" is the correct answer to each question.
We can't make too much of the game because it is just one win. At the same time, you have to be very happy with the result. We won and won big. When you play a marginal or poor team your job is to beat them soundly. Mission accomplished. The last time the Eagles played anything close to this on opening day was back in 2000 in the Pickle Juice Game.
Some people will think back to last year's 56-21 win over Detroit. The team looked very good in that game, but it turned out to be fool's gold. We scored 56 that day, then 58 combined points in the next four weeks. The Lions defense was so bad that it basically gave us big play after big play. While that game and the win over the Rams are similar, there are some differences.
In the Lions game we had touchdowns of 25, 43, 43 and 68 yards. Kevin Curtis had a huge game (11 catches for 221 yards). He just ran free in the Lions secondary for much of the game. We got lucky on a couple of plays Sunday due to blown coverages, but some of the pass plays were well covered or the receiver was open because he ran a good route. We also didn't get a bunch of long touchdowns. The Rams made us march into the red zone and score. The big plays moved us down the field, but not into the end zone.
The offense went 4-of-5 in the red zone. They got in a sixth chance at the end of the game, but just downed the ball and ran out the clock. Those weren't easy touchdowns. They had to work to get into the end zone. I know people were concerned because the red zone offense was ineffective at times in the preseason. There was a big difference Sunday. The playbook opened up. In the preseason, the Eagles ran basic plays. They looked like plays from Madden 1992 (am I old or what?). That changed against the Rams. The first touchdown came on an audible at the line. Donovan McNabb saw a soft middle in the Rams defense and called for the shovel pass to Brian Westbrook. Touchdown. The next score came on a play where we flooded the right side of the field.
When the middle linebacker bit on DeSean Jackson's crossing route, L.J. Smith came wide open at the back of the end zone. Good plays and good execution.
The other key difference between the Lions game of 2006 and Sunday was the defense. The Eagles gave up 432 yards and 21 points to Detroit. The defense looked dominant for much of the win over the Rams. St. Louis finished with only 166 yards. They were shut out for three quarters. This wasn't just a flashy win. This was one team dominating another.
Jim Johnson blitzed early and often. He kept a lot of pressure on Marc Bulger and never let Bulger get into a good rhythm. The front seven played the run very well. The Rams were held to only 36 yards rushing. When you can do that and keep a lot of pressure on the quarterback, the opposing offense simply doesn't stand much of a chance.
We also won the kicking game. Over the summer, special teams coordinator Rory Segrest and the special teams unit took a lot of heat. Mistakes and sloppy play were abundant. That was not the case on Sunday. Special teams coordinator Rory Segrest had his guys well-prepared and they played a terrific game. David Akers had seven kickoffs. He got good depth on all of them. Two were touchbacks. The longest return was only 22 yards. Sav Rocca had a terrific game. He looks worlds better than last year. His touch and directional kicking are a lot better than last year. He helped pin the Rams inside the 5-yard line twice with excellent punts. The Rams finished with -2 return yards on punts. That is good kicking and good coverage. Rookie Quintin Demps had two outstanding plays on punt coverage. He grabbed a ball headed for the end zone and threw it back into the field to be downed. He later downed a punt. Both plays pinned the Rams deep in their own territory.
Demps didn't get much of a chance as the kickoff returner. The opening kickoff was a touchback where the ball was close to the sideline. Demps was smart to not pick that kick up. He did have one 15-yard return late in the game. DeSean Jackson benefited from the good play of the defense. He was able to return eight punts. Among those efforts were an 18-yard run and a spectacular 60-yard return inside the Rams' 10-yard line. Jackson finished the game with 97 punt return yards. To keep that number in perspective, Reno Mahe finished the 2007 season with 249 punt return yards. Jackson does have to learn not to go backwards on returns. When he does get a seam he has the speed to make the other team pay. That's what happened on his long return. The key block on that play was thrown by Chris Clemons. He took out the initial defender and gave Jackson space to run.
Jackson had a great overall game. He provided impact as a returner and receiver. He caught six passes for 106 yards. By my count, McNabb threw 10 passes to Jackson. This is no ordinary rookie. It sure looks like he is going to be an integral part of our passing attack this year.
There is a certain symmetry needed to have a good passing attack. The quarterback needs time to throw. He has to make good reads and get the ball out on time and on target. The receivers have to get open and catch the ball when it comes to them. McNabb, the offensive line and the receivers all played very well. Each phase worked. We saw an explosive passing game, made even more impressive by the fact that both starters were out. I like the fact that Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg didn't just dink and dunk and play it safe. They attacked vertically and threw the ball downfield. Receivers Greg Lewis, Hank Baskett and Jason Avant stepped up. They combined for 10 catches, 251 yards and a touchdown.
I have barely mentioned Brian Westbrook. He ran for 91 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns. It seems crazy to think that we were able to pile up 522 yards of offense and score 38 points without him having a monster game. A big part of that is due to the fact that McNabb played so well. He threw for 361 yards and looked masterful running the offense. He threw the ball well. He audibled at the line a couple of times. He was nimble in the pocket on the few plays where he was pressured. Great game by McNabb.
This brings us back to the Lions game from last year. McNabb was great in that game. The week after the win over Detroit was the 12-sack debacle in New York. All the great play from one week was washed away immediately. The stagnant offense returned. Can that happen this year? Will that happen this year?
I think the team is much better this season. The offense will have some subpar games. That happens to every unit on every team. I can't guarantee 500 yards and 38 points every week, but I can tell you that the Eagles are not going to struggle to score like they did last year. Barring a rash of injuries, scoring will not be a problem.
• Tony Hunt was solid at fullback. He mostly used cut blocks. He still has a lot of work to do, but that was an okay start.
• Late in the game Todd Herremans slid out to left tackle and Shawn Andrews to right tackle. That could be a preview of 2009.
• Darren Howard had a good game. He notched half a sack and a tackle-for-loss. He hit Bulger a couple of times just as he threw the ball.
• Stewart Bradley played really well. He led the team in tackles and helped to shut down the inside running game. He also blitzed up the middle quite a bit. He deflected a pass, had a sack and had a tackle-for-loss. Decent first start, don't ya think?
• Asante Samuel broke up three passes. He dropped one potential interception. Heck, that was going to be a pick six.
• We didn't force any turnovers. The Rams only ran 45 offensive plays, but I still wanted to come up with some takeaways.
• Our screen game needs some work. We didn't run many, but that is a key part of our offense. You never like to see that area look sloppy.