When the Eagles take the field against the Rams on Sunday, safety Quintin Mikell and wide receivers Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola won't be the only familiar faces. Former Eagles assistant coach Steve Spagnuolo will be on the opposite sideline from Andy Reid coaching St. Louis.
Spagnuolo began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at the University of Massachusetts and spent the next 15 years working his way up the college ranks, coaching on the defensive side of the ball in various capacities. In the spring of 1998, he was hired to be the defensive coordinator of NFL Europe's Frankfurt Galaxy. This job got him the exposure he needed to break onto the NFL scene.
The next year, the Eagles' newly hired head coach, Andy Reid, brought on Spagnuolo to serve as defensive assistant and quality-control coach. He worked in that role for two years before being promoted to defensive backs coach and later to linebackers coach. He excelled in those positions for the next six seasons before being poached by the division rival Giants, who made him their defensive coordinator.
He immediately improved a defense that ranked 24th in points allowed before his arrival, so much so that they won a Super Bowl in his first year with the club. By his second year, his defense ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed. His success in New York made him one of the top head coaching candidates in the league in 2009. That offseason, he was hired by the St. Louis Rams to be their new head coach.
Spagnuolo said that Reid is "like a brother" to him and that "you always compete your hardest when you're facing your brother." But this game is more than just Spagnuolo against Reid.
"It's about the players," Spagnuolo said. "Players win games on Sundays; coaches do their work during the rest of the week. That being said, I wouldn't say there's more pressure on this game in particular."
Under Spagnuolo, the Rams improved from 31st in points allowed in his first season as head coach to 12th last season. They hope to continue that upward trajectory this season, but have their hands full early with the Eagles' high-powered offense rolling into town.
"As I watch the tape on the Philadelphia Eagles' offense, I get headaches," said the defensive-minded head coach. "They have so many weapons, so you can't concentrate on just one or two guys. We're just going to play our brand of defense and hope that at the end of the game we have one more point on the scoreboard than they have."
Spagnuolo is right, for the Rams to compete with the Eagles, they'll need to put up points; this is not going to be a defensive battle. Steven Jackson will be involved early and often, with second-year quarterback Sam Bradford and the offense looking to attack with play-action, draws, and screens. The test for Philadelphia will be stopping the Rams from making positive short and intermediate plays in the middle of the field, since the Eagles' pass coverage should blanket the Rams' unheralded group of wide receivers.
For the Rams, their biggest challenge will be limiting quarterback Michael Vick. Spagnuolo believes that stopping the electric playmaker is easier said than done.
"We're still trying to figure out how to contain Michael Vick," he admitted. "The problem for opposing defenses is that the Eagles have so many weapons. However, we will not be successful if we don't figure out how to slow Vick down. He's a dynamic and explosive player."
With kickoff just a day away, it won't be long before Spagnuolo gets to show what he learned all of those years spent as an assistant to Reid in Philadelphia.
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