Welcome to the rest of the 2010 Eagles season. It brings with it great anticipation and uncertainty. In the wide-open NFC, and in a division that has imploded in Dallas and could be close in Washington, the opportunity for the playoffs and beyond is there for the Eagles. If ... If ... if ... some key questions are answered in the weeks ahead.
Players and coached returned to the NovaCare Complex on Monday for a relatively brief, closed, practice. Presumably, some, if not all, of these issues are top of mind for the team ...
HOW IS THE HEALTH OF THE EAGLES?
Michael Vick is the starting quarterback and he is healthy. He is whole. He feels great. Now Vick has to immediately get into the flow of things in the offense and play at the level he enjoyed prior to his rib injury. If Vick can do that, well, the offense is going to be outstanding. The line has improved greatly since early in the season. Vick should have time to set up and throw the football, and the threat of his escaping the pocket could really drive defenses crazy.
The big question is DeSean Jackson, who is returning from the nasty concussion suffered against Atlanta. Jackson's status is very much unknown and without media coverage of Monday's practice, and with no Andy Reid media availability until Wednesday, there isn't a great deal of knowledge about Jackson and his status for Sunday afternoon. He says he feels good and he has passed all of the tests given to him. But will he play?
Same deal with left tackle Jason Peters, who is critical for this offense. With Dwight Freeney coming into Lincoln Financial Field, the Eagles need to be sound at the offensive tackle positions. King Dunlap is battling a knee injury and is a question mark for Sunday. Peters had his surgery and is rehabbing the injury. If neither of them can play, Todd Herremans slides to left tackle and the consistency of the line is thrown into a bit of chaos.
Brodrick Bunkley is coming back from his injured elbow and he has some work to do there. He could be available this week, which would add some depth. In the meantime, Antonio Dixon has played outstanding football as the starter.
IS THE RED ZONE A WORRY?
The Eagles were just 3 of 10 on touchdown efficiency in the three games Vick missed, and that is probably a reason Andy Reid had no deliberation going back to Vick as the starting quarterback. The fault didn't lie on Kevin Kolb's shoulders, but Vick is extraordinary in the red zone (the Eagles led the league in red-zone efficiency before his injury) and his running skills clearly add a dimension to the offense.
There is more to it than just Vick, though. The Eagles need to run more effectively inside the 20-yard line, and they have to get some receivers open. Tight end Brent Celek needs to be more of a threat scoring touchdowns.
And this much is certain: The Eagles need touchdowns to beat Indianapolis, not field goals. The coaches worked hard during the bye week examining the red zone and what worked and what did not work in the opening seven games of the season.
WHAT CAN BE DONE ABOUT THE PASS DEFENSE?
Three strong performances against elite running backs have eased some of the concerns about the run defense, but the passing defense still has some leaks to plug. And while a lot of critics are pointing at cornerback Ellis Hobbs as a question mark -- a fair question, for sure -- the best way to improve the pass defense is to make the pass rush more devastating.
The Eagles didn't get home against Kerry Collins in the second half of the game in Tennessee. He set up and had time to throw the ball down the field to wide receiver Kenny Britt, who had a career afternoon in the comeback win over the Eagles. So, Sean McDermott has to hope players like Juqua Parker and Brandon Graham and Darryl Tapp come back strong after a week off. The Eagles need more than Trent Cole to reach the quarterback.
McDermott is going to tinker with the scheme and he is going to find out what works and go with it. This defense shows great promise, but at the same time there are some holes and you know that Peyton Manning will find those holes and try to exploit them.
McDermott is likely to stay with Hobbs and, at the same time, bring along rookie Trevard Lindley and the rest of the cornerback group. He expects rookie safety Nate Allen to bounce back in a big way after the tough outing in Tennessee. Communication and execution are the keys against Manning, and then at Washington and home with the powerful Giants and then in Chicago, etc.
The second half of the schedule is not easy at all. It may not be quite as daunting as it looked in August, not with Dallas struggling, with the quarterback woes in Washington, with Chicago up and down and with Minnesota teetering on the brink. Still, there are no gimmes on the schedule. The Eagles have to play great football to win every week.
WHICH PLAYERS MIGHT EMERGE IN THE FINAL 9 GAMES?
Well, good question. The Eagles got great contributions from players like Dunlap and Dixon and even fullback Owen Schmitt through seven games. Who steps up now? It could be running back Jerome Harrison, acquired in the trade with Cleveland a few weeks ago. Maybe it is Riley Cooper, who came on as a wide receiver and helped with 3 catches against Tennessee.
There could be help on the way on defense from a Tapp, or a cornerback or, well, who knows? Hey, did anybody think back in August that Jorrick Calvin would be the return man for this football team? Things change very quickly. Speaking of special teams ...
WHAT DOES BOBBY APRIL HAVE UP HIS SLEEVE TO IMPROVE SPECIAL TEAMS?
No question there has been a lot of improvement here. But there is still a ways to go for April, who wants to change games for the better with his special teams. The Eagles are still waiting to take a return to the house for a touchdown. Calvin had a fumble in Tennessee, but he had done a good job prior to that on both kickoffs and punts. Will Jackson return punts when he returns to the lineup? Are there other scheme changes April can make to improve special teams?
Stay tuned. This is the time of the year when the contenders separate from the pretenders. The contenders minimize mistakes, commit fewer penalties and start to peak. The pretenders fade away like the warmth of the fall sun, not to be seen again until next year.