That just about says it. It's the time of year when two oddly colored animals stare at each other with disdain and fury in their eyes. It's time for football. Week 1 breakdown after the fold.
(For Eagles news leading up the game, check Bleeding Green Nation, our SBN brother here)
Finally, the regular season is upon us, which means more speculation, or at least more meaningful speculation. It means relevance and a complete lack of pragmatism. It means emotion, devotion and everything else we love about the NFL. For me, it means the 3k series, your game-by-game breakdown of the matchups, storylines, and everything else to look for going into each clash.
To open the season, the Rams travel to Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field to take on the Eagles. Philadelphia has a solid team this year, but certainly is going into the season as an afterthought in the NFC East behind Dallas and the Giants. Chip on their shoulder? Not really. At least not until week 2 when they head to Dallas. But game 1 is a tone game; this week sets the tone for the opening of the season. A bad week 1 can push the season towards abysmal failure (see '2007 St. Louis Rams') or can propel them through a tough early stretch of games towards locking up a playoff berth (see '2007 Tennessee Titans'). With that in mind, let's look at the position battles this weekend to start this year's 3k series...
STL pass v. PHI pass D: Marc Bulger got off to a shaky start this preseason, but seemed to level out in game 3 calming some of the St. Louis faithful. He'll have to build on that game 3 performance because the Philadelphia secondary is no joke. Philly already sported a solid CB tandem after last season in Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard, but the addition of Asante Samuel makes this an elite group. Add in safeties Brian Dawkins (who in all likelihood will play on Sunday) and Quintin Mikell and you have one of the best secondaries in the league, hands down. ESPN and Scouts Inc. ranked the Eagles' secondary the third best in the league behind the Cowboys and Raiders here which is definitely debatable if you're an Eagles fan. In short, Bulger is going to have his work cut out for him and IMO, it's a great way to start the season and force the offense up to speed immediately.
STL run v. PHI run D: Steven Jackson is a horse. The Eagles have a young, quick linebacker corps, but that youth infers inexperience which is something SJ will have to capitalize on if the Rams are to have a chance on Sunday. With the passing defense the Eagles have, the running game will determine whether or not the Rams can move the ball and control field position at all.
STL O-line v. PHI D-line: Philly boasts a solid group up front that can both attack the run and put pressure on QB's. Trent Cole is one of the most underrated DE's in the league. DT's Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley do a good job of stopping up gaps, but have trouble getting beyond the first push and disrupting the pocket. This will be a solid test for the Rams' newly formed line and especially interesting will be Orlando Pace's performance. If he can limit Cole's presence on the pass, it might allow Jackson to run some effective screens and soften up the middle of the field for Bulger & Co.
PHI pass v. STL pass D: As areas of concern for both teams, this is an interesting area where both teams will be looking for bright spots. WIth Kevin Curtis out for at least the first 4 weeks, the Eagles have Reggie Brown, L.J. Smith and rookie DeSean Jackson as their only downfield options, with Westbrook a serious threat on the screen. If St. Louis' cornerbacks can use their speed effectively (and count on the safeties covering down), the Rams could have a solid game against Donovan McNabb. Keep an eye on Jackson. He had a standout preseason and I loved his skills in college at Cal. In the NFL, his speed will be his best asset and early in his career, he's going to have to sharpen up his route-running to compensate for his lack of size (just 5'10"). He does force teams to lighten the coverage on Brown, but can these two play the possession role in the center of the field, or are they just downfield options leaving L.J. to do the yeoman's work in the middle?
PHI run v. STL run D: Westbrook is as versatile as they come: fast and quick (yes, there is a difference), agile, and capable of running through the middle or the outside, not to mention his threat as a backfield receiver. The Rams' LB corps will have a lot to deal with, especially if L.J. Smith links up with McNabb early and softens up the middle of the field. Quinton Culberson will get his first real test in the NFL as a full-time starter, and he doesn't have the luxury of a poor running game to launch his starting career with.
PHI O-line v. STL D-line: This is where the Rams are likely to have trouble. While the Eagles front five are getting old, they still have the strength to push the line up creating space for Donovan McNabb and Westbrook. The right side especially is an advantage which will make for some great football as Adam Carriker and Chris Long will pair up on that side. It's the classic battle of proven veterans versus the potential Pro-Bowlers. Rams fans will either be very excited about the development of their future D-line or seroiusly worried.
Top 3 storylines:
1.) Defensive futures: St. Louis' defensive line will have to perform if the defense is to stymie McNabb; much of that performance will rely on the two most recent top draftees for the Rams, Carriker and Long. With so much potential in these two (and so much money invested), the fans and the front office will want to see this pair develop quickly into an elite right side that the team can rely on for the long-term. An equally interesting pairing to watch this season will be the defensive ends. Long and Leonard Little's seasons will have a lot to do with how this defense shakes out over 16 games. In this game specifically, Long and Little will have to put pressure on Donovan to limit Reggie Brown's downfield effectiveness. Even more, they have to force Westbrook to the inside. Westbrook is most effective when he can escape to the sides and use his agility to shed tacklers. If St. Louis' DE's can combine with the OLB's and CB's to force Westbrook to the middle, St. Louis will have a chance. If not, the dual threat of Westbrook and McNabb will make it tough for the Rams to stay in this one. You could stretch that to describe the season as well: containment will be huge this year.
2.) Steven Jackson versus the world: After an emotional preseason holdout, Steven Jackson has to prove what we all know - he's an elite running back in the NFL with an incredible combination of skills as a power back, speedster, and passing option. After some comments that Jackson made concerning the difficulty of playing on a team that has lost the enthusiasm of its fan base (combined with some fans' reaction to the holdout) Jackson has to win back the Rams faithful. It shouldn't be hard with his talent; nevertheless, actions speak louder than words. Jackson needs to start off his new contract loudly.
3.) Wide-eyed receivers: With so much expected of Steven Jackson this year, Bulger will have to use his receiving options to open up the defense for Jackson to use his skills. Bulger and Torry Holt have proven their skills in years past; the rest of the WR corps, not so much. Donnie Avery and Keenan Burton have gotten a ton of scrutiny here TST, but they're completely unknown to the average football fan around the country. For that to change, they'll not only have to get a grasp of the Al Saunders offense, but also hit their routes and hope Marc eyes them and makes catchable throws. As for Drew Bennett, his preseason certainly didn't provide Rams fans with a ton of optimism, but maybe by lowering the bar he's opened the door for some level of success. In any case, this group will have to play at a high enough caliber to take the pressure off of the running game. As for Sunday, they're going to have it tough. Philadelphia can cover the pass as well as any team in the NFL. If the Rams can make a couple solid plays early, it may force the Eagles to respect the pass enough to soften up the front seven. If not, the Rams defense will have a lot of work to do.
And so it begins...