Sizing up Sundays regular season opener between the Eagles and the St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome.
When the Eagles have the ball
Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo is one of the NFLs best defensive game-planners. He is very good at identifying and attacking the soft spots in an opponents offense. That will make this league opener a telling one for the Eagles.
If the Eagles have weaknesses on offense and it appears they do Spagnuolo will exploit them. If the pairing of rookie center Jason Kelce and newly-arrived guard Kyle DeVan is not ready for prime time, Spagnuolo will expose them. If Mike Vick still has problems with blitz recognition, well see it Sunday because Spagnuolo will come after him.
It is a game of show and tell. The Eagles will show on Sunday and the Rams will tell them what they really are. This is a dicey opener for an Eagles team that has a lot of talent, but is still piecing things together. The Rams are a hungry bunch, coming off an unbeaten preseason and they would like nothing better than to take down the favored Eagles at home.
The St. Louis defense was much improved last season with Spagnuolo in charge. The Rams finished fourth in the league in fewest touchdowns allowed (32, only seven on the ground) and were seventh in sacks with 43. It still is a young defense that figures to keep getting better.
A lot of attention will be focused on the Eagles O-line, specifically Kelce and DeVan, who replaces top draft pick Danny Watkins, who was benched. Spagnuolo will test them with stunts inside and delayed blitzes. He will move his front seven around and pressure them into making decisions on the fly Who has this guy? I thought you had him? and see how well they communicate in what figures to be a very noisy dome.
Todd Herremans, in his first start at right tackle, will have to block Chris Long, the Rams best lineman. Long is coming off a big 2010 season in which he led the Rams with 8 sacks and ranked among the league leaders in quarterback hurries and knock downs (36). Long is a tireless, high-motor pass rusher, which means Herremans will have his hands full for four quarters.
The key to the game will be the pass protection because if Vick has time to stand in the pocket, he should have a good day. Spagnuolo likes to play his corners one-on-one with the wideouts and if he does, Rod Bartell and Bradley Fletcher will be tested by the speed of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. The Rams are vulnerable to the deep ball. They allowed 51 completions of 20 yards or longer last season.
Ex-Eagle Quintin Mikell is playing free safety with the Rams and while people will talk about him picking up clues from the Eagles formations, really, that stuff is overrated. It is a new season with new looks, new audibles, new everything, so there isnt a whole lot for even a shrewd customer like Q to steal.
When the Rams have the ball
The Rams will have a new look on offense with Josh McDaniels replacing ex-Eagles assistant Pat Shurmur (now Cleveland head coach) as offensive coordinator. Look for the Rams to be a more wide-open, push-the-ball-downfield team.
In Sam Bradford, they have a quarterback well suited to that style of offense. Bradford has a strong arm and a willingness to chuck it deep, but last season the Rams were limited by a lack of playmakers. Their leading receivers were two guys who were cut by the Eagles Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson.
The Rams averaged just 9.9 yards per completion last season, shamefully low for a team with a talent like Bradford at quarterback, so they used three high draft picks on receivers tight end Lance Kendricks and wideouts Austin Pettis and Greg Salas and they signed Mike Sims-Walker as a free agent. Sims-Walker had 14 touchdowns the last two seasons with Jacksonville.
Last season, defenses were able to clamp down on the Rams receivers and neutralize any threat on the perimeter, which made things harder for Bradford. This year, the Rams feel the new speed will create more opportunities and while it may not be The Greatest Show on Turf St. Louis fans still grow wistful at the memory of that Super Bowl offense it should be a more explosive and productive unit.
While the Rams clearly want to throw the ball, it will be interesting to see how they attack the Eagles. Will McDaniels have Bradford throwing into that star-studded Eagles secondary with Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Asante Samuel or will he test what appears to be a suspect defense against the run?
If the Rams want to hammer away at the Eagles smallish front seven, they have the hammer in 6-2, 240-pound Steven Jackson. He was injured most of last season (broken finger, groin pull) and still rushed for 1,241 yards. He has topped the 1,000-yard mark six years in a row, the longest active streak in the league.
The Eagles rely on speed up front with a front four of Jason Babin, Mike Patterson, Cullen Jenkins and Trent Cole with Moise Fokou, rookie Casey Matthews and Jamar Chaney at linebacker. The question is, how will that defense stand up to a team that is willing and able to pound away with the running game?
Jackson, a punishing downhill runner, is just the kind of back who could give the Eagles problems. But will McDaniels call enough running plays to find out? The most likely scenario is he will try the run early, see if it has success and go from there. If the Eagles can put the clamps on Jackson in the first series or two, McDaniels may go away from him and turn things over to Bradford.
The Rams O-line is improved with left tackle Rodger Saffold now in his second season and former Falcon Harvey Dahl, a down-and-dirty type, bringing some nastiness to the right guard position. The Rams were the second-worst offense in the league in the red zone last season and improving in that area was a point of emphasis in the preseason.
The Eagles took a big gamble going with two rookies, kicker Alex Henery and punter Chas Henry. Things did not go smoothly in the preseason. Henery was erratic and while Henry punted pretty well, his botched hold on a field goal attempt last week was cause for concern. The Eagles cant afford to have two rookies costing them points or field position in the regular season.
The Eagles will have DeSean Jackson fielding punts since he is the only one on the roster with experience in that area. The good news is Jackson is very explosive. The bad news is he could get blown up by some wild-eyed bomb squadder.
The Rams special teams are solid. Kicker Josh Brown is coming off a career year (33 field goals). He has 28 field goals of 50 yards or longer, most in the league since 2003. Donnie Jones is a very good punter, ranking third in the league in net average last season. Amendola handles punt returns and ex-Falcon Jerious Norwood is a threat on kickoffs.
Andy Reid has a losing record in regular season openers (5-7). The Rams were 5-3 at home last season. So why are the Eagles a five-point favorite? The bettors have not yet bought into the Rams. They have bought into the Eagles.
This is a tough Week 1 draw for the Eagles. The Rams are a team on the rise and probably will win their division. They will be sky high for their home opener, but the Eagles will finally open their playbook and unleash their offensive weaponry. Vick and Jackson will hit enough big plays against the aggressive Rams defense to get the W.
Eagles 23, Rams 17.
E-mail Ray Didinger at firstname.lastname@example.org.