2011 Philadelphia Eagles Week 1 Preview: Rams Present First Test by Matt Lombardo

No team was more active or dynamic during the offseason than the Philadelphia Eagles. Philadelphia added CB Nnamdi Asomugha, DT Cullen Jenkins, DE Jason Babin, backup QB Vince Young, RB Ronnie Brown and others in an offseason where the proverbial chips were pushed into the middle of the table. Beginning Sunday in St. Louis though, the talk will be finished and the dividends of those chips will begin to be seen.

The Eagles open the season in St. Louis against head coach Steve Spagnuolo’s up-and-coming Rams as a team that has garnered national attention.  But for allthe attention that the Birds have received, they are also a team that has seen some of their flaws brought to the forefront this preseason. Undoubtedly all eyes will be trained on the Eagles to see if this self proclaimed “Dream Team” — BTW Thanks Vince Young for the quote that won’t go away — is in fact built to be a juggernaut. However, after starting four new players in new positions along their offensive line and perhaps the youngest linebacking corps in the franchise’s history, this team may begin the season looking more like the little engine that could than a runaway freight train.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES at ST. LOUIS RAMS (Sunday, Fox, 1:00 PM ET)

The Eagles 2010 season came crashing down on a cold and blustery January Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field in a Wild Card loss to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers. The lasting image of Michael Vick’s first season as a starter since 2007 , is an interception in the back of the endzone that catapulted the Packers to the 2nd round of the playoffs and dashed the Eagles championship hopes for the 50th consecutive year.

Vick enters the 2011 season opener with the second $100 million contract of his career in hand, the starting job that such a deal assures, and an array of weapons at receiver and running back.  But he is playing behind a patchwork offensive line with only Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters remaining in the same position at the start of this season that he finished last. Rookie Jason Kelce starts at center, veteran journeyman Evan Mathis lines up at left guard, third-year free-agent pickup Kyle DeVan is at right guard and Pro Bowl alternate Todd Herremans moves to right tackle. Staying upright behind that line could be a difficult task even for the elusive Vick.

“We’re going to open up ready to rock,” Peters said.

For Vick and this offense’s sake, they better be.

The Eagles offensive line will be tested early not only by the near deafening noise levels of the Edward Jones Dome, but also from a young Rams front four that is anxious to make a name for itself under Spagnuolo. Undoubtedly Spagnuolo will bring pressure up the middle against the Eagles new look and untested interior offensive line. Vick’s patience in the pocket will be crucial if the Eagles hope to get the ball down the field to the likes of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin against an unproven Rams secondary that features the inconsistent tandem of Bradley Fletcher and Ron Bartell. LeSean McCoy may be the most important player on the field for the Eagles offense both in the screen game and on the ground to counteract St. Louis’s pressure.

One storyline to watch in this game is the play of DeSean Jackson. Without a contract extension, Jackson has shied away from contact several times in the preseason, the fourth year receiver is playing on the final year of his rookie contract and set to make just $600,000 dollars this season. In addition to being the team’s most dynamic deep threat, Jackson will also handle punt return duties.

The Rams offense is the reason why they have become a chiche pick to win the NFC West, and the biggest concern for the Eagles in their quest to win their first season opener in two years. Not only is Steven Jackson back and healthy at running back, but St. Louis added reinforcements Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood in the offseason. Jackson has carried the ball 72 percent of the time for St. Louis since the start of the 2008 season. Norwood is the kind of punishing short yardage running back that can extend drives and Williams provides a nice change of pace from the battering ram of Jackson.

To say the Rams present an early test for the Eagles inexperienced linebackers would be an understatement. Rookie Casey Matthews struggled against the run this preseason, particularly in the second game against Pittsburgh when the Steelers ran roughshot over the Birds for 71 yards on 14 carries against the Eagles first team. Sunday marks the first test both for the Eagles youthful linebackers and newly minted defensive coordinator Juan Castillo.

“We feel this is going to be something that comes down to our guys in the fourth quarter,” Castillo said. “The fourth quarter is going to be the key. How we play in the fourth quarter and what we do in the fourth quarter.. I think the conditioning is going to play a big role in all the games. I think across the NFL, the teams that are in t he best condition are the teams that are going to win games, at least for the first 3-4 weeks, until everybody gets into shape.”

It may come down to more than just being in shape for the Eagles defense. The front four will likely get solid pressure with a stable of lineman that includes Pro Bowlers Trent Cole and Babin on the ends with Jenkins and Mike Patterson in the middle. However, the wide nine scheme employed by Jim Washburn leaves a team succeptible against the run game. If the Eagles don’t get to Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, it could be a very long day through the air. Bradford threw for over 3,500 yards and completed 60 percent of his passes last season and will look to get the ball to speedy receivers Brandon Gibson and Danny Amendola on the outside.

The biggest key in this game will be the Eagles ability to limit St. Louis on the ground and get off the field. If the Rams can establish the run game early and produce long sustained drives against the Eagles undersized front four and young linebackers, the Birds will have to counter by doing the same and that’s simply not what they are built to do.

ML’s Pick: The Eagles offseason additions likely will ultimately put this team in a position for a playoff run. However with the wholesale holes along the offensive line, linebacking corps and safety, it is simply too early for this team to be able to withstand the multi faceted threats posed by the Rams. Not to mention, the offensive line play could be disastrous in an environment that will make communication along a newly formed line very difficult. Look for Steven Jackson to rush for over 110 yards and two scores. The Eagles are just 5-7 in season openers under Andy Reid and unfortunately, I see his struggles in openers continuing this season too.  Rams win 24-20.

 

 

Matt Lombardo is the Philadelphia Eagles beat  reporter and host for 97.3 ESPN in Atlantic City, NJ. Matt can be reached on Twitter @MattLombardoPHL or by Email at MDLombardo@yahoo.com

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