PROVIDENCE, R.I. – The starters are playing into the third quarter. The regular season is two weeks away. In a preseason that through two games has been up and down for the Eagles in many areas, Game No. 3 represents an opportunity to establish some kind of flow with an eye on September 7 and the St. Louis Rams.
As the players arrived here early Thursday evening, the mood was light, with a complete understanding of what needs to be accomplished Friday night against the Patriots: A win is what everyone wants, but playing well from start to finish is the goal. And make no doubt about it, there are some specific areas on which the Eagles can focus.
Here, then, is a Great Eight list of what to look for in New England …
1. Tony Hunt At Fullback
Here is what Andy Reid needs to see from Hunt, who earned his promotion to the starting job by simply going out and playing his tail off against Carolina: A strong effort as a lead blocker in front of Brian Westbrook/Correll Buckhalter/Lorenzo Booker. Hunt has gone down and made plays on special teams. He can do that, as long as the effort remains. Hunt has shown he can catch the football and do something with it, and maybe that aspect is the most exciting prospect of him playing the position.
Hunt is able to convert short-yardage runs and even play in a single-back set and contribute with the ball in his hands. He can run the football.
But that isn't necessarily a job requirement of the fullback spot here. Hunt must, must, must be a battering ram. He must take the ego he developed as the go-to running back at Penn State and put it away and bring with him a lunch-pail attitude and bust some skulls paving the way into and through the hole.
The Eagles haven't found their answer at fullback to date. Hunt is the fifth player to get his shot there – following Jason Davis, Dan Klecko, Luke Lawton and Jed Collins – since the spring. Hunt hasn't had much time to make the transition from halfback, but here he is, poised to make his bid to earn a starting job. He has this game to show what he can do. Beyond this game, there are no guarantees about Hunt making the team, much less earning the starting job at fullback.
2. The Wide Receivers Making Plays
One game is not going to tell the tale of a group playing without its starters, Kevin Curtis and Reggie Brown. Curtis is out for an indefinite period of time after having surgery to repair his sports hernia, while Brown is still recovering from a strained hamstring.
But there is certainly going to be a lot of attention on the wide receivers on Friday night. The Eagles want to get a feel for the group minus Curtis and Brown. Rookie DeSean Jackson starts in place of Brown, while Hank Baskett and Greg Lewis take over for Curtis, with Jason Avant in the slot area. Bam Childress should get more time and rookie Shaheer McBride is likely to play in the fourth quarter with Michael Gasperson.
There are no internal plans at the moment to add a receiver. You can go off and play fantasy football and concoct trades scenarios, but the Eagles are focusing on what they have. So, what do they have?
Jackson has been fabulous in the preseason to date and that figures to continue. He's fast, shifty and dependable catching the football. Lewis has also had a very, very good summer with a strong first game in Pittsburgh and then a beauty of a touchdown catch last week in the win over Carolina. Avant is healthy after a hamstring injury, and it is important that he makes his mark inside. Baskett has largely caught the ball, not only this summer but in his two seasons with the team.
Good enough? The Eagles think so, but that is the question looming until Curtis returns.
3. Coverage In The Secondary
Yeah, OK, so Tom Brady may not play. He practiced this week and the Patriots aren't saying if the Pro Bowl quarterback will line up under center. If Brady doesn't play, that would be kind of a disappointment, because the preseason is a time to experiment and evaluate. Still, New England is going to line up Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Chad Jackson and Jabar Gaffney. Each brings a different dimension to the field -- speed, size, quickness -- and the Eagles are going to have their cornerback depth tested.
This is the kind of matchup that allows the Eagles to see just how it will work when offenses spread the field and use four wide receivers. Asante Samuel, Sheldon Brown, Lito Sheppard and Joselio Hanson will play a lot out there at the same time. The Eagles think this foursome is as good as any in the league; Friday night will be an indication of the team's range at cornerback.
The real story isn't Samuel's return to New England, which is going to be played up during the pre- and post-game periods here. The story for the Eagles is how the defense looks in dime situations. Can the team give different looks and generate a pass rush and give the secondary a chance to force some turnovers?
4. Involving The Tight Ends
Tight end has been a quiet position for the Eagles through two preseason games. Don't expect that to be the case in this game. The Eagles need to run some plays for L.J. Smith and get him into the flow, and they need to use some two-tight end sets with Smith and Brent Celek and run and pass from that personnel package.
Smith has had a good summer, despite having just one catch in two games. He is moving well, he is strong and he is ready to make plays. It wouldn't be surprising to see the Eagles try to get him going right away in the passing game. Along with that, the Eagles would like to string some drives together and use both Smith and Celek in the run game and form a basis for the regular season.
Matt Schobel remains ahead of Kris Wilson for the No. 3 job, although Wilson has certainly gotten his legs in this offense and has had a couple of good weeks of practice. This battle for a roster spot is not over.
5. Winning The Battle On Special Teams
This is completely obvious. Quintin Demps is the starting kickoff return man and Jackson is the punt return man. The Eagles have to play way, way better around them to have a positive outcome here. There have been too many penalties and breakdowns in the return game to suit coordinator Rory Segrest and Reid. The Eagles want to have a threat every time they return the football.
The coverage groups had some miscues in Pittsburgh, and then bounced back with an outstanding effort against the Panthers. This one is a critical test for those groups.
David Akers has shown a strong leg with great kickoffs, and he needs to get into his groove from 40-49 yards after slightly pulling a 45-yard attempt last week against Carolina. Sav Rocca has been worlds better with his consistency and continues to improve.
There is some shuttling of personnel that causes breakdowns on special teams throughout the league at this time of the year, for sure. The Eagles aren't in panic mode at all about their special teams, but a good effort against New England would be a great boost.
6. Converting Red Zone Visits Into Touchdowns
This theme continues. The Eagles want to improve their red-zone efficiency. The first-team offense is one for three in the preseason -- having converted one touchdown, one field goal and then missing on an opportunity last week against the Carolina on a drive that ended on Sav Rocca's ill-fated shovel pass off a fake field goal -- and McNabb and Co. want to, obviously, be better against New England.
Understand the Eagles aren't using their complete red-zone package in the preseason, but also understand that Reid wants execution of the plays, no matter what is called.
Another game, another test. Touchdowns, not field goals. And no more fake field goals that turn into seven points the other way, please.
7. Establishing Shawn Andrews At RG
He is the starter after just a couple of days of practice. Andrews reported to the NovaCare Complex in outstanding shape and is back in the lineup. He brings athleticism, strength and the kind of complete game that makes him one of the best guards in the game.
Establishing continuity shouldn't be a problem, and it will help the Eagles greatly if the offense stays on the field and establishes the line of scrimmage. Andrews has to get back into the tempo of a game, so let's see if the Eagles run a few plays to his side early on so he can quickly become accustomed to the physical nature of the game.
Andrews, at his best, is a huge asset. He wasn't 100 percent after his injury in the presason last year, and the Packers had success up front in the opener. It is vital that Andrews emerges from this game ready for the Rams on September 7.
8. Evaluating The Roster
Oh, yeah, cuts are coming. The roster gets pared to 75 players at some point between the end of the game on Friday and Tuesday at 4 p.m. Then the Eagles have one more preseason game before the roster is trimmed to 53 players. Not everyone will play in this game if the starters are on the field deep into the third quarter. You are going to have a pretty good idea who is on the immediate bubble after Friday.
There are some good roster battles going on, specifically along the offensive line, at cornerback, linebacker and at defensive end. Tight end is also worth watching.
You can probably pick out five players who are likely to go, or at least who could go. But there is also some strategy involved. The Eagles want to make sure they have players ready for the final preseason game so the starters can watch from the sidelines. And they want to keep their eyes on the waiver wire in case there are players on the streets they like.
It is an important game on many levels. As far as preseason games go, this has a bunch of good storylines to follow.