Pinch me. Seriously, pinch me. Football’s back? It seems like so long ago that we were all in panic mode over the CBA negotiations. Everyone was questioning if the season would start on time. Oh how the times have changed. Football. Is. Back.
Every week, I’ll be giving you wonderful people a very long and in depth preview of the Eagles upcoming match-up. So take a seat, grab a beverage of your choice, relax, and read on!
The Eagles offense was explosive last season. The Eagles offense was stagnant last season. Both are true. That leads to figuring out what to expect from this team very frustrating. Many of the questions start up front with the offensive line.
Needless to say, the line was filled with issues last season. The right side was incredibly weak. Center was up and down. The left side was very strong. In the offseason the Eagles added right guard Danny Watkins into the mix. Todd Herremans was moved from left guard to right tackle after Ryan Harris failed to pan out. A late round rookie, Jason Kelce, won the starting center job. The previously mentioned Watkins failed to lock up the starting right guard job, which now goes to the recently signed Kyle DeVan. Nervous? You should be. There are a ton of questions. The only certainty is that Jason Peters will continue to anchor the left side of the line. They now face the tougher than you might think task of taking on the St. Louis Rams defensive front. The Rams were 7th in the league last year with 43 sacks. That was a mere 5 sacks behind the season leading Pittsburgh Steelers. This is a ferocious defensive front that’s been given new life under head coach Steve Spagnuolo. Now, there is good news. The right side of the offensive line will be much improved solely by the addition of Todd Herremans. This is important because Vick is left handed, making the right side his blind side. Great movie by the way. Go see it. I didn’t get paid to write that. However, the Rams will be able to get past this line at times, make no mistake. The center three slots of the line will be weaker, which will eliminate the ability for Vick to step up in the pocket. Given the uncertainty of the offensive line, the Rams get the edge here.
Behind the offensive line stands LeSean McCoy. I always get excited when I think about him being our running back because I remember watching him back in high school days. Back then he was fantastic. Today he’s on the rise to being one of the top backs in the league. He’s very Westbrook-like. He can do everything you need for a running back to do. He can rush the ball, catch the ball, set up blocks, and make blocks. Late last season the Rams were very susceptible to the run. Meanwhile, the Eagles had an effective rushing attack all season despite having an up and down offensive line. The Rams have signed themselves a nice run stopping safety in Quintin Mikell (remember him?), however I do not believe that ultimately makes them much better at shutting down the run. Until they prove they can stop a rushing attack, I’ve got to give the edge to the Eagles here.
At tight end, I’m not sure what the Eagles have. Brent Celek has shown flashes of brilliance and mediocrity. Now, last season much of lack of production was a direct result of being forced to block more than he ever had so far in his NFL career. His unfortunate case of the “dropsies” could also have been linked to the thumb injury he dealt with the majority of the season. Whatever the reason, it’s a fresh start for Celek. He faces the challenge of a Rams defense which was very tough against tight ends late last season. They feature a linebacking core which has been completely revamped with Ben Leber coming in from Minnesota and Brady Poppinga from Green Bay. The core will be led by third year man James Laurinaitis, one of the defenses most productive players.
The St. Louis pass defense is entirely opposite of their run defense from last season. While the run defense was stout, the passing defense could be exploited easily. The Rams starting cornerbacks are second year man Bradley Fletcher, who led the team in interceptions last season, and Ron Bartell. Fletcher is a solid up and coming player. Bartell is a decent starter, but nothing special. They also didn’t face too many wide receiving cores as deep at the Eagles have last season. The Eagles already had one of the better cores in the league with DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, and Jason Avant leading the way. In the offseason they added Steve Smith, formerly of the Giants, to make the passing attack all the more powerful. The Rams will be forced to use their safeties over the top this weekend to give their fairly weak corners as much help as they can. The Eagles explosive passing attack will keep at least two men out of the box and allow LeSean McCoy and Ronnie Brown to run wild.
Of course, that also leaves room for Michael Vick to run wild as well. I’ll spare you the story you already know. Vick had a remarkable season last year. But, it wasn’t without downfalls. His style of play did open him up to many unnecessary hits. The horrendous blind side protection didn’t help either. The Rams previously mentioned fierce pass rush will be a problem. Fortunately, Vick is a master escape artist. It would make sense to me that the Eagles use guys like Jackson and Maclin as “distractions” down the field and that Vick makes a lot of short, quick throws to targets running over the middle. Vick proved last season he can be a very smart quarterback. There’s no reason to believe that will unravel this weekend. This is another Eagles edge.
The Eagles made a move in the offseason that will prove to be the most crucial move made. It wasn’t signing Nnamdi Asomugha or trading for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. It was bringing in defensive line coach Jim Washburn from Tennessee. For the past few seasons the Eagles defensive line has been embarrassing outside of Trent Cole and even he would fade down the stretch. No more. The Eagles brought in the best defensive line coach in the NFL and gave him a few toys to play with. First was defensive end Jason Babin who’s coming off a Pro Bowl year with the Titans after recording 12.5 sacks. Then they signed Cullen Jenkins, the former Green Bay defensive tackle. It’s that move that I believe will prove to be the most important player transaction of the offseason. It all starts in the trenches. Now, the Rams offensive line is in a similar situation to the Eagles. They’re simply not that good. Last season they gave up only 34 sacks, which isn’t bad. But, they also gave up 79 quarterback hits. In the offseason they did sign guard Harvey Dahl from Atlanta in the offseason to take over the right guard position. They have an excellent left tackle in Roger Saffold, a rookie who made the All-Rookie Pro Team last season and the only rookie to start all 16 games at left tackle. It should be fun to watch he and Trent Cole battle it out. However, the rest of the line is still fairly weak. Washburn is sure to have figured out a rotation that will prove too much for the Rams line to handle for the entire game. The Edge goes to the Eagles here.
But before you get too excited about this defensive line, bear in mind the Eagles are facing a tremendous running back in Steven Jackson and a good defensive line will not be enough to shut him down. At least, not for a full game. You need good linebackers too. Gulp. The Eagles were 15th in the NFL last year in rush yards given up with 110 per game. That number is much lower than it could be due to a fairly weak set of rushers the Eagles faced most of the season. Good running backs had their way with the Eagles last season. Much of that was due to weak linebackers last season. Guess what, the Eagles again have weak linebackers. Moses Fokou and Jamar Chaney return to man the outside slots and rookie Casey “I wish he was Clay” Matthews takes over at middle linebacker. Now, Chaney and Fokou had nice seasons by Philadelphia standards. Unfortunately the standards for a linebacker in Philly have been low for several seasons now. The key to stopping Steven Jackson is ultimately simple, however. Score points. Lots of them. Force the Rams to take to the air and make them one dimensional. Of course, that’s so simple to say on paper. Actually doing it is a whole different matter. From a simple matchup view, the Rams have the edge here. Hands down.
The Eagles linebackers are about to catch a break, however. They are facing a group of tight ends who do…well…not much. Billy Bajema leads to group of 4 tight ends (Yes, 4.) and he would likely back up Clay Harbor on the Eagles. You likely know by now that the Eagles struggle to cover the tight end. However, Chaney has also shown that he could possibly be an excellent coverage linebacker. The potential is there. Potential is also the most dangerous word in sports. I fully expect Sam Bradford to look to his tight ends early and often to test the young Eagles linebackers. Fortunately, the Eagles corners are more than good enough to allow the safeties to help out in coverage over the middle. All in all, I’d call this a tie.
Now, about those corners. Hee hee. About….those….corners. Oh man. Those corners that happen to make up the best trio of corners in the NFL. Nnamdi Asomugha. Asante Samuel. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Yes, I’m giddy. Now, obviously they still need to gel some. That’s to be expected after the prolonged lockout. Fortunately, they get to test the waters this week against a weak wide receiving core. The top two receivers may look very familiar to Eagles fans as well. Perhaps you remember Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson. Both were formers Eagles wide receivers who found a nice home in St. Louis. They’re perfectly fine wide receivers. But all in all, noting too special. Certainly nothing that this fantastic cornerback trio can’t handle. If you haven’t noticed, I’m pretty excited about this group. This is the biggest edge of the game and it goes to the Eagles.
Finally, the man who makes the Rams offense go. Sam Bradford. The rookie phoneme last season is a great quarterback in the making. However, it’s still in the making. He’s not great just yet. He will be. Just not yet. The Eagles boast one of the best secondaries that Bradford will have seen yet as an NFL player and you can be sure they will be throwing all kinds of coverages at him to try and confuse the young man. Now don’t get me wrong, Bradford is going to make some very nice plays. At the end of the day, the game will rest on his shoulders for the Rams. However, I feel that the combination of him still being a young player, almost no offseason for him to work with his team, and the Eagles strong secondary will lead him to making some huge mistakes. Eagles get the edge.
I want you to know that comparing special teams at this point is darn near impossible. The Eagles have complete uncertainty at both punter and placekicker. The Rams have a solid placekicker and punter. The Eagles have one of the best punt returns in the league in DeSean Jackson and a rookie kick return in Dion Lewis who looks pretty good based on the preseason. The Rams return men are more than capable. So, I’ll give the Rams the edge here. But understand that this is a shot in the dark. There’s no real way to judge special teams at this point in the season. We have no idea what to expect.
Comparing coaches is far easier. We already know what we get in Andy Reid. He puts together a fine product each season and will make at least one or two calls each week that are mind boggling. Steve Spagnuolo of the Rams has put together a team that will truly compete for the NFC West. He is certainly a more defensive minded coach and Reid is a more offensive minded coach. Spagnuolo, as previously mentioned, comes from the Andy Reid tree which means both coaches know each other fairly well. I also never really buy into that making a difference. At the end of the day, both are very good coaches. I’ll give Reid the edge simply because he has the experience and more to work with.
How I See It
The Eagles win this game my friends. There’s one element I didn’t discuss yet that really puts it over the top for me and that’s the stadium. The Rams play in a dome with turf. Why does that matter? The Eagles offense is built on speed. Turf plus speed is a beautiful combination. At the end of the game, the Rams will simply not be able to keep up. They are a team that’s on the rise and I have them winning their division. But this Sunday, the Eagles will prove to be the superior team finish week one with a win.