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In Carolina, A Game On My Mind

CHARLOTTE, N.C. --As the line of buses carrying the team toward its downtown hotel rolled along, I couldn't help but notice a digital temperature alert on a marquee outside a local bank: 90 degrees in the sun. The heat is on, ladies and gentlemen, and depth is going to be tested when the Eagles open the season against the Panthers. Both teams are going to have to empty the rosters, with temperatures of 80-85 expected.

And so I wonder what this means from a strategy perspective. Yeah, Brian Westbrook is going to get his carries and touch the ball a lot, but rookie LeSean McCoy will be needed to provide quality production. Carolina has talent with DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in the backfield, and the Eagles have to match those numbers. They have to match that reliability.

That's the way it goes across the board, really. Defensively, the Eagles are going to have to rely on players like Trevor Laws to play a lot of snaps and play very well at defensive tackle. They need the linebackers to chip in and play good football. They need all of their cornerbacks to step on the field and cover and tackle and make plays.

Oh, the excitement. We passed Carolina's stadium and craned our necks and looked at it, quietly. And then dozens of Eagles fans crammed the team hotel and got the juices going again.

It all starts on Sunday. How do the Eagles beat Carolina? Here are some steps to do just that and open the season the right way ...



Can't emphasize it enough, but it is the basic theme of every football game. The Eagles start two players who are reserves when everyone is healthy: Nick Cole at left guard and Winston Justice at right tackle. Carolina's front four is led by star end Julius Peppers, who moves from one end to the other and can even line up over the "A" gap. The Eagles must be aware of Peppers. Carolina also has Tyler Brayton and second-round draft pick Everette Brown and good linebackers and a new scheme that will throw some wrinkles at the offense.

On defense, you know the deal. Carolina runs the ball as well as any team in the NFL. They will run it up the gut and they will run it at the edges. They will run when they are leading. They will run when they are behind. They will run, run, run. The Eagles' front four is on the spot, and with that, the linebackers have to tackle well and play downhill football and everybody on the defense must run to the football.



Steve Smith is a great wide receiver. Don't kid yourself into thinking otherwise. He is small, fast, tough and fearless. He is a home-run hitter. So Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown and the entire secondary must blanket Smith. Oh, he isn't the only weapon -- Carolina has a veteran who knows how to do it in Muhsin Muhammad, a great red zone threat and a third-down piece -- and they have other pieces they will move around and get the ball to -- but the Eagles can't let Smith go crazy with 9 catches for 150 yards and have a big day that way.

Jim Johnson rarely had one cornerback follow a star wide receiver. Instead, he kept his cornerbacks on their sides and played his coverage that way. It remains to be seen if Sean McDermott will do the same thing, but it's going to bear some watching.



Guess what? The Eagles go into every game with an advantage in the return game. DeSean Jackson is primed to be one of the best return men in the punt game. Ellis Hobbs averaged nearly 28 yards per kickoff return last year in New England. That is a serious amount of firepower and the Eagles have to take advantage with new coordinator Ted Dasher running the show.

Reports from Carolina indicated that Smith might handle the duties in the punt game for the Panthers, and if that's the case Sav Rocca needs to pin him on the sidelines. Rocca is huge in this game, as is David Akers. Win the battle of field position and make Carolina drive 70 yards every time it has the ball.



I can tell you that Brian Westbrook looked great in the days of practice since he was cleared to resume on-field work. I'm expecting Westbrook to be 100 percent for this game, which is exciting news for the Eagles. I also expect them to line him up all over the formation and find good matchups. If the Eagles can get the ball to Westbrook as a receiver five or six times, they're going to make big plays with No. 36.

Yes, McCoy is a vital piece. He has to be good in reserve. But the Eagles need more than 100 yards of offense from Westbrook if they hope to score big points. He'll get 20-25 touches and make some plays for this offense.



Is there anything scarier than when Donovan McNabb has one of those struggling first quarters and has to fight back from behind? We've seen it before. We've also seen McNabb come right out the chute in a groove, and that is the goal for this game. For every game, really. Maybe Marty Mornhinweg uses some high-percentage throws to get McNabb untracked quickly. Maybe some three-step drops to keep the pass rush nullified early.

Whatever, it's important that McNabb plays well in the first quarter and that the Eagles get a jump on Carolina. Playing from behind is not the way to open a season.



This is really intended for rookie free safety Macho Harris, who is going to be amped up and excited to play a great game. He needs to stay within himself and play a smart game on every snap and not be so anxious to come up and support the run. Harris has to provide good cover help over the top and make sure Smith doesn't get deep. He has to be sure in his mental responsibilities. The kid just has to play as he played in the preseason when he won the starting job.

Of course, all of this wishful thinking for Harris is predicated on the notion that the Eagles will stop -- or at least contain -- the Panthers on the ground. If the Panthers have success on the ground, all bets are off. Then the Eagles' defense is in serious trouble.



There are always surprises in the first week of the season. There are new formations, new concepts and a new approach or two from every team. What if the Panthers come out throwing the football and do it well? Then McDermott needs to adjust accordingly. Watching how McDermott changes on the fly is one way to gauge his success on the day.

Same with the offense. Had the Eagles come in here with all of their starters, it might be a different story. But there are two starters out up front, and the Panthers are going to pressure the line of scrimmage in a big way. How does the offense offset the pressure?

These are just a few of the ways the Eagles can win. They need a good bounce or two, too. They need to limit penalties. They need to play smart football and take advantage when there are chances to make big plays.

Everything matters now. The season is here.

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