A few years ago I was hanging out with a good friend who was a grad student at Villanova. We went out with his roommates to a UPenn frat party. It was memorable for its ridiculousness, such as a frat brother wanting to show off his new pool stick but not actually wanting to play pool with it. Another frat brother asked my friend’s roommate a very simple and honest question, but one you never hear at a keg party:
Do you want to play chess?
He said yes and we gave him grief for that one for a while.
What does this have to do with football? Simple: coaches and analysts sometimes say that football is like a chess match, and they’re right. In chess there are scripted opening moves, and in football teams often script their first dozen or plays. In chess each piece has certain movements, in football each player has certain responsibilities. You have a plan of attack and defense, as does your opponent, as the game goes on you each make adjustments and counters. When someone makes a mistake you need to capitalize on it. You can out think yourself and you can cause your opponent to out think himself. But in chess you only play one game at a time, in football you play a few different boards at once. Sunday’s game against the Rams has a couple of intriguing chess matches.
So when everyone else is asking each other “are you ready for some football?” instead ask “do you want to play chess?” Because that’s what coaches are essentially doing.
When the Rams have the ball
This is the chess game that we know the least about. Both teams changed their respective coordinators and the Eagles completely transformed their defensive personnel. From a coaching standpoint, the Rams have a significant advantage. Josh McDaniels was a terrible head coach, but he is an outstanding offensive coordinator. The problem in Denver wasn’t scoring points, despite McDaniels’ best efforts to get rid of everyone they had that was good. Juan Castillo has been a coach on the defensive side of the ball in the NFL for a matter of months, a move that could really backfire. He might turn out to be a good defensive coordinator, but out of the gate McDaniels is the superior coach. Adjustments will be made. Counter adjustments will be made. Repeat the cycle.
But coaching only gets you so far, you have to have the talent as well. And in that department, it is Castillo who has the significant advantage. The obvious place to start is that the Rams have a poor group of WRs: ex-Eagles Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson shouldn’t be higher than third on any depth chart, last year they were the Rams’ leaders in receptions. Mike Sims-Walker and Mark Clayton (who is on the PUP list) are trying to rebound from injuries, Danario Alexander (their only WR with notable size) and Dominique Curry haven’t proven themselves and rookies Austin Pettis and Greg Salas are very raw. There’s upside, and St. Louis should get more production out of their wideouts than last year just on scheme alone, not to mention a year’s improvement from Sam Bradford. But I’m sure Castillo didn’t have any long nights thinking about them, in no small part because the Eagles have the best corners in the league. Yeah, I feel pretty confident in this particular match-up.
The Eagles do have a weakness in coverage though, and it’s once again their inability to cover tight ends. Rookie TE Lance Kendricks could have a nice day against the Birds D, this is something to pay attention to as an early test before the facing Tony Gonzalez and Vernon Davis in the coming weeks. Jamar Chaney looked nice in the pre-season as the strong side linebacker, he wasn’t great in coverage but he was good enough. Safeties Jarrad Page and Kurt Coleman are underwhelming. If Kendricks is any good he’ll have something like 3 catches for 55 yards, maybe even a TD.
The Eagles pass rush will face an improving Rams offensive line, tackles Roger Saffold and Jason Smith did a nice job keeping Sam Bradford upright, Jason Brown is a good center, and guard Harvey Dahl from the Falcons is a nice addition. It’s a solid group of talent, and Bradford’s shown himself to be good at handling the pass rush, a trait that will likely improve as he gains experience. Trent Cole, Jason Babin, Juqua Parker, Darryl Tapp and Cullen Jenkins will have their hands full but should prevail against a team that gave up an average amount of sacks last year. I’ll predict 3 sacks and a dozen or so hurries.
Of course this overlooks the very good Sam Bradford. Bradford had a very nice rookie year, but it was over hyped due to a soft schedule and the incredibly low expectations the Rams had last season. He dinked and dunked out of necessity, or so it seems. With McDaniels calling the plays and not the unimpressive Fritz Shurmur (how did he get a head coaching gig?) the Rams will be taking more shots down the field, and the offense will rely a little more on him (. Bradford will have a tough time finding the open receivers this week though. Luckily for the Rams they have a good punter.
The Rams do have another large piece, and it could cause the Eagles problems: Steven Jackson, the Rams excellent running back. Jackson though is coming off a poor season. In 2009 he had 324 carries, in 2010 330. That is taking its toll on him, as his yards per carry dropped from a very good 4.4 to a paltry 3.8. The Rams as a team were the second least productive running team with a 3.7 ypc last season, but have upgraded their backups so that number figures to rise. But that won’t stop them from trying to grind out a win. In the Rams favor the Eagles defense is not a defense built to stop the run, never has been, and under Reid never will be. St. Louis isn’t dumb, they know the best way to stop the high powered Eagles from scoring is to keep the ball out of their hands, and the best way to do that is to run the ball. So this is going to be another pretty good early test for the revamped Eagles D, how it can handle the run. With undersized linebackers and pass rushing defensive tackles, expectations should be low. To further complicate things, Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood are good backups that can spell Jackson effectively, Norwood is also a very good pass catcher out of the backfield. Making matters even worse, Jim Washburn’s “wide 9″ technique for his defensive ends leaves sizable gaps on the defensive line. The Eagles LBs just haven’t shown they can consistently plug the gaps. It looks like Brian Rolle is going to be on the field in nickle packages. Generously listed at 5’8”, he’s going to get run at until either he shows he can stop the run or the Eagles take him out.
Jackson will give them problems in one of two ways. The first way is he rebounds from a down year and punishes the Eagles front seven. The other is his expiration date has come and he has a poor performance, but because he’s a recognizable name we’re fooled into thinking that the Eagles defense was effective when it wasn’t. Process and results matter.
In the passing game, major advantage Eagles, in the running game, advantage Rams.
When the Eagles Have the Ball
The Rams defense is another pretty good test out of the gate. From a coaching perspective, the Eagles have the advantage. I like Steve Spagnuolo, but he’s no Andy Reid. Reid knows what Spags likes to do, both from being the defensive coordinator for the Giants and from being Reid’s linebacker coach under Jim Johnson. There’s a bit of student vs the master going on here. I think a win for the Rams would be extra sweet for Spagnuolo, because when Brad Childress went from Eagles offensive coordinator to Vikings head coach, he wanted to take Spagnuolo with him as his DC. But Reid said “get your own guys” and told Spags he would let him leave for the next job he got offered. Which just happened to be up the road in New York, where he engineered the defense that stopped the Patriots from having a perfect season. Childress meanwhile hired Mike Tomlin, and was eventually replaced as head coach by Tomlin’s replacement, Lezlie Frazier… who was Reid’s original defensive backs coach. How’s that for a series of events?
So the Eagles have a coaching advantage, but what about a talent advantage? The thing the Rams do best is rush the passer, which is the thing the Eagles will struggle with the most. The Rams can bring it, they were 7th in the league in sacks in 2010 and they spent their first round pick on stud defensive end Robert Quinn. He, DE Chris Long (8.5 sacks), DE James Hall (10.5 sacks) and DT Fred Robbins (6 sacks) will be foaming at the mouth. And Spagnuolo, who as Giants defensive coordinator was at the forefront of the pass rushing DT look that is the latest craze (see Jenkins, Cullen) is going to have all kinds of goodies for the Eagles raw interior line. Mike Vick is going to have a long day. It won’t be an overreaction to gauge the quality of the offensive line after this game.
Expect a lot of screens to cause the defense to hesitate just enough. Except that Spagnuolo knows that Reid will do this, and Reid knows that Spagnuolo. Gotta love game theory. Adjustments, counter adjustments. Chess match.
But the pass rush is the only advantage the Rams have. Their corners are so weak they brought in Al Harris, who’s career is hanging by the thread his knee ligaments have become. The secondary managed only 13 interceptions last year, and they played some pretty terrible QBs. Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher are no match for DeSean Jackson, Jason Avant and Jeremy Maclin. Maclin will be pretty fired up for this game. First, because he’s back on the field after a lymphoma scare, and second because he’s from the St. Louis suburbs. Eagles fans don’t need to be told that Quintin Mikell is a good safety, but he’s not enough to make the Rams secondary formidable, and he’s replacing the very good OJ Atogwe, so he’s not even upgrading the defense, just keeping it on the same level. Even if Maclin is only at 80% and Steve Smith is only good for half a dozen plays, the wide receivers should run circles around the Rams defense. The only question in the passing game is will Mike Vick have the time to throw to them.
Because the offensive line is of course a mess. Jason Peters hasn’t lived up to his price tag, but A) it’s not my money and B) he’s probably their best lineman right now, which is saying something. Todd Herremans was an excellent left guard, but now he’s the right tackle. He should be at least average, which is a massive upgrade over the woeful Winston Justice, but the Eagles are going to need better than average to protect Vick’s blindside for a full season. At least the two best lineman are at the tackle position now, which hopefully will give Vick more time and allow him to better see the oncoming defenders. If you can funnel the weak links to particular portions of the field, then you can more effectively game plan for them. Evan Mathis hasn’t started in two years, Jason Kelce is a rookie and Kyle DeVan has been on the team a week. This is your starting interior line, and this is the key to the Eagles winning the Super Bowl. If the Eagles can’t keep their QBs upright, it’s going to be a short postseason if they get there at all. It would help quite a bit if the Eagles had a very good blocking TE, but they don’t, Clay Harbor isn’t there yet and Celek’s blocking leaves a lot to be desired.
At the linebacker level, James Lauranitis is outstanding, the addition of Ben Leber should give the Rams an upgrade, but at 32 and with a lot of miles on him he may not be as advertised. Look for Shady McCoy and Ronnie Brown to run effectively, the Rams run defense was inefficient with a 4.7 yards per carry against, 2nd worst in the league. Brent Celek could have a nice day from Vick dumping it off due to the pass rush he’ll face.
Passing game: major advantage Eagles, running game: even.
The Eagles head into the season with no dedicated punt or kick returner. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The Rams have a very good punter in Donnie Jones, Josh Brown is your average fungible kicker. Meanwhile the Eagles have a rookie punter and kicker, which has been talked about too much in the local media. Kickers and punters are the 2nd easiest things to replace in sports, the 1st being sports writers. Danny Amendola is a good punt and kick returner who will give the Rams reliable yardage.
The Bottom Line
This game reminds me a lot of the Lions game from last year. The Eagles are the more talented team and they have the edge in coaching. They’re playing a team on the rise on the road in a dome, with a defensive line that is going to create problems all day long for the Eagles over-matched offensive line. The Rams can’t run with the Eagles skill position players, so someone is going to have a big day. The easy choice is DeSean Jackson, I’m tapping Jason Avant. Like the Lions, the Rams are fairly predictable on offense, and like the Lions the things they do well are the things the Eagles defense doesn’t, so this is no pushover. The Detroit game was a lot closer than it needed to be, and Mike Vick was running around for his life due to disastrous protection. This has the makings of a similar contest. If this game was in the middle of the season it would the classic “trap game,” but it isn’t. I like the Eagles, but I don’t like them big.
Prediction: Eagles 27, Rams 20