The new-look Eagles have departed from Lehigh and will descend upon the Linc tomorrow night for the first live NFL action of the 2011 preseason. All the story lines and roster moves from this ridiculous, unprecedented offseason are about to become real. Joe Flacco will be throwing passes against Nnamdi Asomugma and Asante Samuel. Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown will be on opposing sidelines. Vince Young will tossing balls to Johnny Lee Higgins and 23 year old Alex Henery will be lining up for kickoffs. Am I ready for some football? Oh yeah. I’m ready.
Before we get into what fans should keep on eye on during the game, let’s take a look at what fans won’t be seeing:
Desean Jackson, yet to practice with the team, is out. Jeremy Maclin – still undergoing treatment for his mystery illness – is also out. Personally, I’m glad they’re not playing. Both have had plenty of in-game experience with Michael Vick and don’t really have anything to prove to coaches. This game would just be a needless injury-risk, and if it were up to me I’d keep them out of the preseason entirely. They’ll play eventually, of course, but for one week at least we call all breathe easy.
Brandon Graham is out, still rehabbing last year’s knee injury. Marlin Jackson, who hasn’t played football since George Bush was in office, is out with a sports hernia. Seriously, why is this guy still on our team? Winston Justice and Trevor Laws are still out, and Dimitri Patterson is still undergoing testing for his neurological issues. Andy Reid said the team has no timeframe for his recovery yet.
Aside from that, it looks like everyone else will be a full-go. Mike Vick and the rest of the ones will play the first quarter, Vince Young and the twos will play the second, Kafka and the threes will play the third, and Texas A&M rookie Jerrod Johnson will lead whoever’s left in the fourth. The formula, of course, is subject to change. Don’t be surprised to see Vick come out if the offense has a long, successful drive early in the first quarter.
So, what to watch for. At quarterback, we’ll be looking for Vick to make some improvements over the end of last season. The December losses that cost us the second seed in the NFC were a combination of poor play, mental errors, and opposing teams “figuring out” how to stop number 7. Vick can’t simply repeat what he did last year and expect success. He needs to take the next step, in terms of his decision making and awareness. Defenses were using a lot of zone blitz packages – particularly on Vick’s strong (left) side – and forcing him to move to his right. In the final five games of the 2010 regular season (not counting week 17, when the starters sat) Vick threw six interceptions and fumbled seven times.
We all know he has a cannon and the accuracy to hit Brent Celek through four defenders from forty yards away, we all know he’s as clutch as they come and the most dangerous rushing quarterback in history. But if he can improve his poise in the pocket – if he can stand in for an extra second instead of juking or spinning in the face of strong pressure – we’ll be able to exploit the holes in the zone and make teams pay for sending extra blitzers. One or two forty yard passes to DJax and I guarantee you’ll see a lot of that pressure disappear.
Look for Vick to make more of a commitment to “pocket passing” this season, and look for signs of it tomorrow night. We won’t be seeing any super-complicated blitz packages here in the preseason, so it’s the perfect time to work on beating them.
As for VY, I’ll just be hoping for completions. He hasn’t had anywhere near enough time to learn our system and develop a rapport with the receivers yet, so the second quarter has the potential to be ugly. Look for a lot of short throws and screens, with maybe one or two deep post routes. If Young can “manage the game” and move the ball without throwing picks or fumbling, I’ll be happy.
Kafka will be interesting to watch too. Andy Reid is the quarterback whisperer of the NFL; nearly every backup he’s taken under his wing has developed into a starter and potentially lucrative trade bait. Kafka’s had enough time with the team to really understand the offense, and what he does this offseason will determine whether or not he becomes the full-time backup to Vick.
The offensive line might be the most important factor in tomorrow night’s game. Aside from Todd Herremans and Jason Peters, it’s one giant question mark. Andy Reid has only said Jamaal Jackson will be the starting center, and for the rest of the spots we’ll have to “go from there.” At right tackle, it will either be Danny Watkins or recent acquisition Ryan Harris. For most teams, issues at RT probably wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but with a left-handed quarterback the right tackle spot is arguably the most important slot on the offensive line. We need consistency there, which means we need to figure out who’s going start as soon as we can and get him as many reps as possible prior to September. Tomorrow night might be the final audition, and I’m praying it won’t end with Vick on a cart.
Without Jackson and Maclin, your starting wideouts will be Jason Avant and Riley Cooper, with Johnny Lee Higgins and Chad Hall coming in on 3- and 4-wide sets. Sinorice Moss should also get some work, while the rest of our undrafted free agents battle it out for the practice squad.
On defense, wow. I can’t wait to see how Nnamdi, Asante, and DRC work together. Might be some rust and some confusion at first, but ultimately they’ll be fine. Just pray for no injuries.
At linebacker, it looks like Casey Matthews will start in the middle, Jamar Chaney will line up at SAM and Moise Fokou will play WILL. I’m honestly not as concerned with this group as most people seem to be. Matthews needs practice and Fokou has a lot to prove, but Chaney is seriously underrated (He’s also a really nice guy). With the added talent on our D-Line (Jenkins, Babin) and the iron curtain in our secondary there won’t be a ton of pressure on the LBs to do all the work themselves this year. After a few weeks of practice together they should be fine.
The most intriguing competition to me is at free safety, where second-year player Kurt Coleman is slated to start above second-round pick Jaiqauwn Jarrett alongside second-year strong safety Nate Allen. Coaches had high expectations for Jarrett, a hard-hitting Brian Dawkins clone out of Temple, but as of right now it looks like he’s still trying to pick up the playbook. Jarrett will get a chance at some point this preseason, so Coleman will literally be playing for his job on every snap tomorrow night. One or two blown plays could be the difference between starting and sitting.
And, finally, it will be cool to finally see defensive coordinator Juan Castillo in action. For those of you who haven’t been to training camp, search Google images for “Castillo headbutt” and you’ll get an idea of the kind of coach this guy is. High energy, loud, intimidating, demanding, and hilarious, Castillo is the kind of coach who will either get 100% out of a player or force him to quit. This is his first live game as a coordinator and I expect him to bring a lot of that energy to the field and to his playcalling. I wouldn’t be surprised if we blitz on 80% of the plays tomorrow night.
Aside from all this, the main thing to watch for is team trainer Rick Burkholder. Let’s hope he has a really boring night.