Eagles Six for Sunday : Week 1 vs. Rams by Matt Lombardo

Each week as the Eagles game draws near, Taking It to The House will put the focus on six storylines to watch. This week, the Eagles offensive line and the Rams running game are put under the microscope. However, maybe the biggest question mark for the Eagles today is: Will Desean Jackson’s contract situation cloud his effort today? 

The Eagles have struggled in season openers under Andy Reid, going just 5-7 in those games. This season the Eagles enter as five point favorites against the Rams, but asking for a team that features four new starters on the offensive line, three linebackers with less than three years NFL experience between them and new philosophies and coaching staffs on both sides of the ball to come together in the span of the first 60 minutes of the season will be difficult.

6. Play of Eagles wide receivers: The Eagles enter this season with one of the deepest receiving corps in the league. Last season DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant combined for 2,593 yards and 17 touchdowns. This year all three are healthy but there are questions about the Eagles top two. Will Jackson play with any tentativeness today without an extension and being asked to add punt return duties to his repertoire? How effective will Jeremy Maclin be in his first regular season game after missing all of training camp and the preseason battling a mystery illness? The Eagles third year wideout will have 1,000 friends and family members in attendance at the game in his native St. Louis, which should provide extra motivation.

5. Steve Smith: When the Eagles signed Steve Smith as a free agent, it was believed that he was a long-term project who would not be ready until mid season at the earliest. After all, the New York Giants chose not to re up the fifth year receiver after he underwent surgery for an articular cartiliage injury in his knee nine months ago. The Giants believed he would not be ready until November, but he’ll be in the lineup wearing midnight green in today’s season opener. Look for Smith to have an impact in four wide receiver sets.

4. Eagles pass rush against Sam Bradford: Rams quarterback Sam Bradford is the reason why many believe St. Louis has a legitimate chance at winning the NFC West. The second year starter completed 60 percent of his passes a year ago and this season seems poised to surpass the 3,500 yards he threw for a year ago. It’s no secret that the foundation of the Eagles defense is it’s pass rush from the front four. Trent Cole, Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson must get into the backfield in order for this team to be successful and allow it’s all-world secondary to have the advantage of a quarterback making decisions under duress. Bradford is one of the brightest minded young signal callers in the league and the Rams offensive line is suspect, so if the Eagles can force Bradford to throw the ball early on, this plays right into the Eagles hands. However, if Bradford is afforded the time to survey the field, the effectiveness of Nnamdi Asomugha and Asante Samuel will be compromised.

3. Rams running game: Steven Jackson has been a machine for the Rams throughout his career. Last season Jackson rushed for 1,241 yards and six touchdowns with a 3.8 yards per carry average in what many believe to be a down year in 2010. This year with Danny Amendola on the outside, who was targeted in the red zone more than any other receiver last year and coming into his own this season, and reinforcements in Cadillac Williams and Jerrious Norwood, Jackson can be the battering ram but not have to shoulder the load every down. The Eagles play a wide nine defensive front which spreads the lineman out along the line of scrimmage giving them a leg up in the pass rush, but creates gaps that leave them susceptible against the run. The play of Jackson will go a long way towards determining the tempo of this game. If the Rams can ground it out against the Eagles and chew up the clock, it will be difficult for the Eagles to overcome that kind of gashing if the offense sputters.

2. Eagles offensive line: Four new starters in new positions. A newly minted offensive line coach with a different philosophy. A rookie center. Playing in the noise of one of the loudest domes in the NFL against a crowd that believes it’s team is on the rise. That is what the Eagles offensive line is up against. It is difficult to imagine any unit coming together under that kind of duress, but that is what the Eagles will need to do in order to sustain drives, not to mention keep Vick upright. The Eagles struggled with pressure up the middle last season, so the play of rookie Jason Kelce, Evan Mathis and Kyle DeVan will be especially crucial against St. Louis.

1. Eagles linebackers: Fourth round pick Casey Matthews is in the middle of a linebacking corps that has less than three years of NFL experience between them and makes a combined $1.6 million. Hard to believe this is what the Eagles believe is adequate to enter a season with, but that is what lies in front of this defense. They’ll be tested in this game by Jackson and Bradford. Matthews must avoid being swallowed up by interior lineman both in the run game but also on short passes over the middle of the field. Meanwhile Jamar Chaney had 42 tackles a year ago playing in the middle, he’ll be charged with covering running backs out of the backfield and tight ends while playing on the outside. The play of this unit could very well hold the keys to the Eagles winning or losing the season opener.

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 atMDLombardo@yahoo.com

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