The Rams defense made strides in their second season under head coach Steve Spagnuolo. The former Eagles' assistant and disciple of the late, great Jim Johnson believes in the same blitz-heavy philosophies, which is precisely the area where Michael Vick struggled the most last season. St. Louis ranked seventh in the NFL with 43 sacks in 2010, so this will be a huge test for an offensive line that has undergone major renovations.
LDE Chris Long
When the Rams selected Long second overall in the 2008 Draft, they were hoping on a player who would come in and instantly give their defense credibility. It wound up taking a few years, but it appears the son of the great Howie Long is finally ready to take the next step.
After disappointing four and five sack campaigns in his first two seasons, the Virginia product stepped it up last year with 8.5. He got off to another slow start, but racked up eight of those quarterback takedowns over the final 12 games, not to mention all three of his forced fumbles.
Long will be matched up on Todd Herremans, who is making his first start at right tackle this season. While Herremans was a tackle in college, and has played on the outside a handful of times at the pro level, many are expecting it to be a big adjustment for the longtime left guard. He'll have his hands full with Long, who is a tenacious attacker just now coming into his own.
RDE James Hall
Of course, it would be remiss not to bring up the Rams' leader in sacks last season. The former Detroit Lion has been an afterthought for much of his 11-year career, but is coming off his best season since '04. Hall came from nowhere to collect 10.5 sacks and five forced fumbles in 2010. It will be interesting to see whether he can pick up where he left off against Jason Peters on Sunday.
Hall is 34 years old, and is battling a back issue. He is listed as probable this week, but we should also see some of Robert Quinn, the Rams' first round pick out of North Carolina. Peters has been a force at left tackle, so it should be a learning experience for the rookie defensive end.
DT Fred Robbins
With all the changes along the Eagles' offensive line, particularly on the interior, at least one of the St. Louis defensive tackles figures to be a factor. That would most likely be Robbins, as the rest of the group combined for one sack in 2010.
If Robbins' name sounds familiar, that would be because he spent six seasons with the Giants from 2004 to '09, which included some of his best efforts. He may only be getting better with age though, setting a career high in sacks with six last season. As long as the O-line can contain Robbins, the rest of the unit doesn't pose much of a threat, so figure plenty of Jason Kelce-Kyle DeVan double teams for the 34 year old.
MLB James Laurinaitas
Laurinaitas may be the best middle linebacker nobody is talking about. Entering his third season, the second rounder out of Ohio State is a consistent tackler who has the size and athleticism to make plays both when rushing the passer or in coverage. With so many quality MIKEs in the NFC (Patrick Willis and Brian Urlacher the most visible), it could be awhile before Lauinaitas gets his proper due from league observers. His opponents cannot afford to make the same mistake.
CBs Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher
If Vick has time to set up in the pocket, the Rams could be in serious trouble. While he's been the starter for the last four years, Bartell has failed to record an interception since the 2008 season. Nnamdi Asomugha doesn't put up big numbers either, but Bartell doesn't exactly have the same reputation. Fletcher, a third-year player out of Iowa, had four picks last season starting opposite Bartell.
St. Louis obviously was not thrilled with the unit as a whole, going out and adding Al Harris off of the scrap heap after nickel corner Jerome Murphy hit IR. Harris was on his last leg two years ago, which tells us the situation must be getting dire. When DeSean Jackson and this deep group of wide receivers comes to town, the defense better bring some quality DBs to the party.
FS Quintin Mikell
I'm actually sort of happy for Q. He landed in a system he's familiar with, on an up-and-coming team that will compete for a playoff spot. He has a chance to put up some nice seasons in St. Louis. What I'm not as happy for is Q lining up for the Eagles' Week 1 opponent. He had the advantage of practicing against the Birds' offense for the past eight years, so you better believe he knows some of its tendencies, and will create his share of opportunities to make big plays.
We also know what Mikell's weaknesses are though, specifically in coverage. He's simply not super-athletic, and relies more on recognition and putting himself in good positions. That can be difficult when the passing attack operates more like a track meet. Expect Mikell to roam the middle of the field and aggressively fly to the ball, but Michael Vick will be able to take his shots deep.