Kickoff, finally. At 1 p.m. today, the Linc rocks. The Eagles are back. Can you feel it?
1. Is Orlando Pace Healthy?
No player is more vital to the Rams success than Pace, not Steven Jackson, not even Marc Bulger. The All-Pro left tackle suffered a season-ending injury in the opener last year, leaving the offense in shambles. While Jackson's production remained steady, the loss severely crippled their passing attack. Despite missing 4 games, only three quarterbacks were sacked more often than Bulger, and his completion percentage was 5 points lower than his career average.
Pace already aggravated his bum shoulder in practice and skipped the final two preseason games, so it will be interesting to see if he is ready. When he is healthy, the pass protection instantly becomes better, and the QB suddenly has time to stretch the field.
2. Eagles Pass Rush
Whether or not the Eagles can take advantage of the Rams potential weakness is another story. The biggest question mark heading into this season is the front four's ability to rush the passer. Jim Johnson's schemes are always able to generate pressure, but often leave the secondary vulnerable against a veteran quarterback.
Someone needs to step up along the defensive line and expose the Rams Achilles' heel. If that group is able to get to the QB on its own, the Eagles can sit back and eliminate vertical threats Torry Holt and Randy McMichael. Once the big plays are taken away from the passing game, the cornerbacks can take some chances and make plays on the ball.
3. Eagles Passing Game
The good news for the Birds is the Rams secondary is not a strength, and even without Curtis and Brown, Donovan McNabb should be able to find open targets. Andy Reid will use Westbrook, Buck, and Booker in the passing game to spread the linebackers in coverage and open up the middle of the field. The Eagles will likely call L.J. Smith's number early and often, while the receivers work the slot for a few nice gainers.
The Rams must also keep a close eye on DeSean Jackson. The rookie figures to be heavily involved in the Eagles attack, and where he is on the field will dictate much of the coverage. It's up to the other receivers to take advantage of one-on-one situations and find holes in the zone.
4. How Many Touches For Steven Jackson?
Jackson is one of the league's elite runners, a big bruiser who will pick up tough yards between the tackles, and at the same time, a do-it-all weapon who can catch the ball and get into the open field. The Eagles run defense should be up to the test, but there is no way they are going to shut down a back this good. The question is whether he will be involved enough in the contest to alter the final. Jackson held out most of training camp, and some teams will ease a "rusty" player back into the lineup.
I expect Jackson to see plenty of work early on, but if the game starts to slip away, his day might end in the 3rd quarter. Obviously, in a close game he could see a full load upwards of 30 touches, so it's important the Eagles get on top and stay on top.
Even though they are coming off a 3-13 season, the Rams are not to be taken lightly. The offense has the playmakers to put points on the board, and if the line improved, they could conceivably compete for a playoff spot in the West.
Unfortunately for St. Louis, they start the season against a much more well-rounded team. The Eagles have the personnel to limit the Rams in the passing game, who really only have one good receiver at the moment. Steven Jackson is going to pick up his yards, but as long as they keep him from taking over the game, it's not enough.
The offense, even without both starting wide receivers, has too many weapons for the Rams to match up with. The key to the game will be the Eagles dynamic trio of runners. They will flex the defense and create space for the receivers to work against a set of average corners.
And then they will run the ball. The Rams have done a nice job of beginning to rebuild their front four, but the bigger offensive line of the Eagles can still dominate them at the point of attack. Look for Brian Westbrook to get off to a great start, running for 100 yards on fewer than 20 carries, and leading the team to a big victory on opening day.
Final: Rams 17, Eagles 34