Offensive Line still meshing – This group has been the Eagles biggest question mark throughout training camp and the preseason. Other than steady center Jamaal Jackson, the rest of the line has been a revolving door due to injuries. With the regular season opener quickly approaching, it is good to see four pieces of the team’s anticipated line (Jason Peters, Shawn Andrews, Stacy Andrews, and Jackson) practicing and working together. However all the lost repetitions in training camp and practices definitely have effect their cohesiveness – QB Donovan McNabb was running for his life at times in the preseason. Some good signs are that RG Stacy Andrews looks pretty much healed from his ACL injury back in December 2008 and offensive guard backups Max Jean-Giles and Nick Cole look more than capable of replacing injured OG Todd Herramins (foot surgery). However you have to wonder if RT Shawn Andrews’ back is healthy and if the former Pro Bowl player’s desire to play the game of football is still there — out for Week 1 against the Panthers. Also supposed “franchise” LT Peters has been slow to adapt to the Eagles blocking scheme and has looked unimpressive at times in the preseason — allowed 3 sacks that I counted. Any questions regarding Juan Castillo’s unit should be answered by the Eagles’ bye week, which comes in the fourth week of the regular season.
Brian Westbrook’s health – Arguably the team’s most important player has not even stepped foot on the football field yet other than practices. Westbrook (30) may benefit from having most of training camp and the preseason after two surgeries this offseason (knee and ankle), but you have to wonder if time is catching up with B-West. The Eagles mercurial running back is coming off a campaign where he was not as productive, due to often being bruised and battered, as his career year in 2007 – finished with numbers 233 rushes for 936 yards, 4.0 ypc, and 9 TDs in ’08. In the regular season the Eagles are hoping that the extended rest that Westbrook has received and the addition of pure fullback Leonard Weaver will serve him well. But there are issues of Westbrook not working with McNabb and his O-line in any preseason games. Behind Westbrook, rookie LeSean McCoy seems ready to step in after a preseason where he rushed 27 times for 97 yards and 2 TDs, but can he do it in the regular season. McCoy will need to improve upon his 3.3 ypr average and needs to make sure he knows his blocking assignments. After Westbrook, McCoy, and Weaver look for emerging runner Eldra Buckley to contribute.
Poor tackling – One thing that really got under late former Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson’s skin was poor tackling. I am sure new defensive coordinator Sean McDermott falls into the same boat and this preseason probably has not helped his disposition. The Eagles defense continues to have problems tackling at the point of attack. Running backs Maurice Jones-Drew, Donald Brown and Danny Woodhead – yes even the Jets small schooler looked good against the Birds – were able to break tackles and move the chains. I don’t know if it is the loss of middle linebacker Stewart Bradley (ACL), but the Eagles defense needs to get stronger against the run as the Panthers boast the two-head monster backfield of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart — combined for 2,351 yards, which is the highest total in the NFL in 24 years. The team has gone back to former starter Omar Gaither in the middle and defensive tackles Mike Patterson and Broderick Bunkley playing regularly should help, but everyone on defense must concentrate on finishing their tackles.
Secondary still having lapses – The Eagles secondary “should” be one of the best in the NFC as Pro Bowl player CB Asanti Samuel looks more comfortable than ever and the Birds consistently have applied pressure on the quarterback (48 sacks in ’08). But other than Samuel and solid SS Quintin Mikell, there are some question marks with this unit. At times during the preseason there have been coverage lapses, especially in the Colts game where Peyton Manning picked them apart. Opposite Samuel, veteran CB Sheldon Brown should be the regular season starter however he has been nursing a ribs injury. All indications are that Brown will be ready for Carolina, but if he can’t go, the jury is still out on backup Ellis Hobbs. The smallish corner that came over from the Patriots has not been physical in the preseason and has been beat when left on an island. The free safety position no longer has future Hall of Famer Brian Dawkins and it shows. 2nd year player Quintin Demps was supposed to take charge, but he has been out of position at times and has not shown up on film making tackles or big plays. The team still seems to want the athletic Demps to step forward, but a better plan might be for former Cleveland Browns veteran Sean Jones to step into the starting line-up alongside Mikell. The Eagles should be oaky in the nickel and dime with rookie Victor “Macho” Harris and Joselio Hanson stepping in to fill a variety of roles. The good or bad thing is that Eagles fans will know quickly against the Panthers and Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith if their secondary is ready for regular season action.
Special teams inconsistency – Whether it was punter Sav Rocca shanking punts, rookie Jeremy Maclin lacking explosiveness on kickoffs, the Patriots returning a punt for a touchdown, poor tackling and losing the field position battle on kickoffs, the Eagles special teams definitely need work. I know that many of the players currently on these units will not be there come the regular season, but the Eagles seem to still be struggling in football’s third phase. New special teams coordinator Ted Daisher needs to get more out of his unit other than the continued resurgence of veteran kicker David Akers. The Eagles should have one of the better return games in the NFL as Ellis Hobbs and Quintin Demps look explosive on kickoffs and NFL breakout player DeSean Jackson or Maclin will be returning punts. However the coverage units continually have allowed big plays in the preseason caused by guys not staying in their lanes and poor tackling. Hopefully Daisher will fix his coverage units once he has his regular players are out there, but this is definitely an area that has a bull’s eye on it going into the regular season. I know Eagles fans don’t want a replay of the special teams mistakes that played out in Week 1 of 2007 against the Green Bay Packers.
Lloyd Vance is a Sr. NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)