Those who have read my columns regularly or listened to my pre-draft Eagles Live! appearances know that I have been a huge fan of Brian Rolle for quite a while. He caught my eye when watching Ohio State. As I studied tape for the draft, he grew on me even more. I very much wanted the Eagles to draft him. He was undersized, but he was also tough and productive. He didn't play like he was undersized.
I was ecstatic when the Eagles drafted Rolle. I kept my expectations realistic. Rolle was a player I really liked, but I didn't overrate him as some game-changing force. He was a very good college player with some pro potential, but he was far from a sure thing. He could come in as a rookie and hopefully be a good special teams player. Maybe he could develop a role on the nickel defense or some other sub-package.
Rolle had a strong showing at Lehigh. He played well in the preseason. He earned a role in the nickel defense. Rolle wasn't on the field a lot in the first two games, but looked good when he was in there. He got some reps in the base defense last week and looked pretty good. Now, Rolle is the starting weakside linebacker. Cool.
I'm really happy with the way Rolle has worked out so far, but we do need to avoid building up expectations. I'd love to tell you that Rolle will be the next William Thomas or Shawn Barber, but for now the Eagles just need him to be a solid player. He is a good tackler. He might be small, but ask Rams center Jason Brown if Rolle is easy to handle. Rolle put Brown on the ground on a run play in the season opener. Rolle then grabbed the running back and made the tackle. Rolle also runs well and plays well in space. He should be fine in coverage. He broke up a downfield pass last week, one that was very similar to the play where Casey Matthews was burned for a touchdown.
Rolle is still a rookie. He will make mistakes. What makes him different than Matthews is that Rolle does things at full speed. You don't see him hesitating. One of the reasons that NFL people liked Matthews so much at Oregon is that he played with reckless abandon. He flew around the field. He wanted to be in on every tackle. He was physical. He played with confidence and aggression. The Eagles haven't seen that side of Matthews so far. There are hints of it, but too often he's a half-second late because you can see he's thinking too much. Rolle looks much more natural right now. He just goes out there and plays. I'm excited to see what he can do as a starter. Don't write off Matthews. He improved each week. I think he'll be a good player down the road. Rolle is the better player for now so he gets the call.
LOOKING AT THE 49ERS
The Eagles defense gets an interesting test this Sunday. San Francisco comes to town with the worst offense in the NFL. The Niners average just 214 yards per game. As a point of comparison, the Eagles have gained at least 214 yards in the first half of each game so far this year. Watch the tape and you can see why the group is struggling. The offensive line is off to a very bad start, in both pass protection and run blocking. Quarterback Alex Smith has been sacked 11 times so far. The team averages less than 3.0 yards per carry and the long run on the season is just 16 yards. The Niners are losing the battle up front.
They can't make up for that with big plays because they simply don't have the kind of impact skill players needed to do that. Tight end Vernon Davis is a special player and is the one guy that the Eagles must focus on. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree has the talent to be an impact player, but isn't off to a good start this year. He made a couple of critical mistakes last week that hurt the Niners. One thing that would help is more consistent quarterback play. Smith throws a lot of short passes and that makes it less difficult to defend San Francisco's offense. They aren't going to stretch the field.
Juan Castillo and the defense have taken a lot of heat recently. They've allowed 64 points in the last two weeks. They now get a struggling opponent that doesn't match up well. Castillo and the defense should control the game. The players don't have to do anything special. I'm sure Castillo will tell his guys to beat the man across from them and handle their assignment. If they do that, the Niners are in for a long day.
I am curious to see what Castillo does to handle Davis. You don't want to put a linebacker on him all game long. Davis will win that matchup. At least twice last week he caught passes when covered by a safety. I think we'd all like to see Nnamdi Asomugha get a chance to cover Davis. The Niners don't have great wideouts to start with. Let Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie take care of them. Use Asomugha creatively and have him cover Davis from time to time. You don't need to do that every snap, but mix in the look to keep the Niners confused.
Trent Cole should be in for a good game. Remember how he just overwhelmed Sam Baker of the Falcons? San Francisco's left tackle Joe Staley has a similar build to Baker. Cole will bullrush him to death and should get good movement. The Niners right guard Chilo Rachal might get benched. He was awful last week. I'm sure Cullen Jenkins is licking his chops.
SO WHAT ABOUT THE EAGLES OFFENSE?
It is great that Mike Vick and Jeremy Maclin are going to be healthy enough to start. The offense has been very inconsistent this year. The starting players need to be on the field together to work out the kinks and get things going. The big pass play has disappeared the last couple of weeks. It would not shock me at all to see Vick go deep to DeSean Jackson on the first play. Jackson hasn't gotten enough passes in the last two games. He's so good you almost need to force the ball to him at times.
The Niners run defense has been outstanding this year. I'm not sure if they really are that good or if they've simply played three teams that don't run well. Cincinnati is below average, while Dallas and Seattle are among the worst running teams in the league. Shady McCoy is second in the NFL in rushing. San Francisco hasn't faced a runner like him. They haven't faced a player like Vick.
The Niners do have a pair of outstanding inside linebackers in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. They must get blocked in order for runs and screens to work. Rookie center Jason Kelce has the skill set to handle them. He's got to deal with nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga first, but Kelce's biggest impact could come up at the linebacker level. Make sure to keep an eye on him.
One area where San Francisco has a definite advantage is special teams. The Eagles have been fine so far this year, but the Niners are outstanding. Punter Andy Lee averages almost 53 yards per punt. Ted Ginn is one of the most explosive returners in the NFL. Old friend David Akers is the kicker. He's having a great year with his new team. I have no problem with him kicking a few long field goals on Sunday. I just hope that those kicks follow possessions where the Eagles score touchdowns.
IN THE END
The Eagles are the better team and should win this game. They can't turn the ball over, especially in the red zone. The offense must score touchdowns and keep Alex Henery a spectator. The defense needs to just be in the right place and tackle well. Do those things and win the battle of field position and the Niners are in for a long day.
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