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Offensive Line Faces Another Stern Test

They have studied the Green Bay defense all week. They see a swarming group, one that head coach Andy Reid says is relentless as it pursues the football. There is star power, with cornerback Charles Woodson and linebacker Clay Matthews leading the way. There is a 3-4 scheme that is as varied and multiple as any in football.

The Eagles have seen all there is to see from the Packers defense, one that allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL this season.

"They are really good. They play well together," said center Mike McGlynn. "They come after you from a lot of different angles."

The Eagles' offensive line has been a study all season and, quite honestly, it has been a difficult year up front. There has been almost no continuity because of injuries. The right guard position was a glaring hole through the spring and summer as Stacy Andrews failed to win the job. Veteran center Jamaal Jackson played less than one half of one game of the season. At various times during the year, every one of the five starters has had an injury. Todd Herremans, the lone full-season starter up front, rested through the preseason with a foot injury and is just now battling a calf injury.

And yet, the Eagles have hung in there up front. At times early in the season, the offensive line was battered by the blitz. Then the pieces came together and the offense soared. Lately, of course, the blitz has again been effective, slowing the potent Eagles offense.

The expectation is that the Packers are going to provide a stiff test on Sunday with their blitz package, with their speed, and with the veteran cohesiveness they possess.

Juan Castillo, the outstanding offensive line coach of the Eagles, is earning his money this week. He is responsible for drawing up the blocking scheme and devising the running game for the offense. He knows better than anybody how stingy Green Bay's defense is.

It's going to take a titanic effort from the Eagles' offensive line -- and the backs, tight ends and wide receivers, along with quarterback Michael Vick -- to defeat Green Bay's defense. The Eagles aren't sure that starting right guard Max Jean-Gilles will play -- he is listed as questionable and hasn't practiced with an ankle injury suffered last week against Dallas -- and Herremans missed a couple of days of work during the week because of a calf injury.

There were days early in the decade when the Eagles trotted out the same five linemen week after week after week. All of that familiarity made for successful times up front. But since the Eagles moved on from tackles Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan, the line has been unstable. Jackson has been hurt the last two playoff seasons. Herremans has battled a foot injury for a couple of seasons. Right guard has been a sore spot, literally. Both Stacy and Shawn Andrews were unable to provide any kind of stability up front after the Eagles counted on them so much.

Fortunately, Castillo has done a whale of a job coaching up his players. Winston Justice blossomed last year stepping in at right tackle. McGlynn has improved every week at center. Jean-Gilles is a completely different player from what he was prior to his Lap-Band surgery. Left tackle Jason Peters has made two Pro Bowls. Herremans is a Pro Bowl-caliber left guard. And Nick Cole, who would start at right guard should Jean-Gilles not play, is a dependable swing player at both guard spots and at center.

What do the Eagles do to keep Green Bay's defense on its heels on Sunday? Do they play some smash-mouth football behind that big line? Do they spread the Packers out and rely on the speed of the skill-position players? How can the Eagles keep the Packers off of Vick. He is the focal point, naturally, and Green Bay has been plotting and scheming all week to contain his speed and hurry his passing comfort zone.

In a game of matchups, the offensive line's positioning and ability to adjust is the most important one of all.

"We know what we have to do," said Justice, who is going to see a lot of Matthews, who dominated the Eagles in the first game of the season. "They move guys around a lot and they disguise what they want to do very well. We've put in a good week of work. We have a good feeling about what we want to do. It's a matter now of going out and playing our best game."

That's what it is going to require. The Eagles can't have breakdowns up front and expect to defeat Green Bay. They know Green Bay is going to press the line of scrimmage. What do the Eagles put together to knock the Packers off balance?

The story within the story is the offensive line. It always is. The big men up front and the coach who runs that group, Castillo, hold the key to success.

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