Eagles/Giants Preview: Part Two

The Eagles and Giants meet in a key early season matchup. The game will present the Eagles with a much bigger test than their opener, while the Giants continue a tough stretch of games to start their season.

The View From Philly...

Westbrook hurt again?

Brian Westbrook had a busy Week One.

The Eagles' 5-9, 200-pound running back rushed for 71 yards on 17 carries, caught 4 passes for 61 yards, including one for a 31-yard TD and averaged a respectable 8.3 yards on three punt returns.

That's 24 touches for Westbrook. It's just the eighth time in his five seasons with the Eagles that he's had more than 21 touches in a game. Coach Andy Reid doesn't figure to let that number reach nine on Sunday against the New York Giants.

In fact, there is a question as to exactly how much Westbrook will be able to play or do for the Eagles offense after he left practice early on Thursday because of what was termed inflammation in his knee. The Birds have downplayed the injury, but with Westbrook's injury plagued past, including an injury in the pre-season opener that cost him the rest of training camp, that question mark continues to hang right around Westbrook's neck.

"He had a lot of touches," Reid said of his frequently injured back. "I don't know what his total yardage was, but he didn't need all those touches," admitted Reid.

With the exception of quarterback Donovan McNabb, the versatile Westbrook is the key to the Eagles' offense. Aside from the Giants' Tiki Barber, who Reid often has compared him to, Westbrook probably is the best all-purpose back in the league - when he's on the field. Reid likes to line him up all over the formation and get him matched up on linebackers and safeties in the passing game.

But it's a delicate balancing act trying to maximize his talent and still keep him healthy. He's already had a number of injuries in his career. Last year, he had 22-plus touches in three straight games, then suffered a Lisfranc sprain in his foot that sidelined him for the season's final four games.

This summer, on the first series of the first pre-season game, Westbrook stretched ligaments in his other foot and didn't carry the ball again until last Sunday. So it's easy to see why Reid's a little nervous.

The Eagles acknowledged his talent last November when, faced with the prospect of him becoming an unrestricted free agent after the season, they gave him a five-year, $25 million deal that included a $9 million signing bonus. But it's unlikely they'll ever be able to make full use of Westbrook's talent because of the injury fear.

The Eagles hadn't planned on using Westbrook as a punt returner this season. But their regular punt returner, Reno Mahe, has been sidelined with an ankle injury. His replacement, cornerback Lito Sheppard, injured his ankle on the first series of the game Sunday. That left Westbrook. Mahe practiced late this week and it's hopeful that he'll be able to return punts against the Giants. Even if he can't go, rest assured that Westbrook won't be returning punts.

While Westbrook clearly is the Eagles' most dangerous punt returner, Reid is unlikely to use him in that capacity because of the injury potential. If Mahe doesn't return this Sunday, look for cornerback Rod Hood, who has replaced Sheppard in the starting lineup, or backup corner Dexter Wynn to return punts rather than Westbrook.

Last week's game was only the sixth time in his career that Westbrook has had 17 or more carries. Reid would give more of the ball-carrying load to backup Correll Buckhalter, but he's not exactly Mr. Durable either. He's missed three of the last four seasons with major knee injuries, and it's a minor miracle that he's even playing again.

But Buckhalter looked impressive against the Texans, rushing for 50 yards on 8 carries and with Westbrook's latest concerns, Buckhalter's load could be increased.

"I have full confidence in him that he can carry the ball more than he did Sunday," Reid said of Buckhalter. "Some weeks it will be more than others if his plays get dialed up or Brian needs a blow."

The Lito Shuffle

The loss of CB Lito Sheppard shouldn't be a problem in the Eagles' base defense. His replacement, Rod Hood, is probably a better cover man, though doesn't play the run quite as well. Where Sheppard's injury weakens the defense is in their nickel, when third corner, Joselio Hanson comes into the game.

Sheppard's loss as a punt returner won't be filled by Brian Westbrook. Instead, Hood or Dexter Wynn will take over those duties if starter Reno Mahe doesn't return from an injury. Mahe practiced late this week and could be in the lineup for the Birds.

Eagles' Game Plan: The Eagles gave Donovan McNabb outstanding protection in Week One. He was sacked just once and usually had all day to throw. But that task will be a little more difficult this week against Giants defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. Veteran offensive tackles William Thomas and Jon Runyan must keep the duo away from McNabb. The Eagles likely will use the run game and quicker throws to the running backs and tight ends to offset the Giants' pass rush.

The View From New York...

As Eli Manning said last week, there are no extra bonuses to this game against Philadelphia. No brother against brother pressure. No opening night pressure.

It's just football. And, oh yeah, it's the 0-1 Giants' first divisional contest against a team that stood last week as the only NFC East squad to collect a win.

This is always a physical game, as witnessed by the number of injuries that came with the teams' final matchup last year. The Giants lost left tackle Luke Petitgout and right tackle Kareem McKenzie during the game. But middle linebacker Antonio Pierce received the worst injury, an ankle sprain that knocked him out of the final three games of the season and the playoffs.

Good or bad health aside, a lot of how this one goes will depend on field position. That's one area the Giants must improve, having allowed the Colts to return kickoffs at a 27.8-yard rate, compared to the Giants' 18.7-yard average. They saw last week what happens when you put Peyton Manning on a short field. Donovan McNabb can be just as deadly, especially now that he has a Terrell Owens-type replacement in Donte' Stallworth.

If the Giants are to improve, Pro Bowler David Tyree will have to free himself from the various holds and double teams he'll encounter on his way downfield because of his notoriety. He had no special teams tackles last week.

But as Tyree noted, it's hard to cover kickoffs when kicker Jay Feely is hitting line drives. The Giants had few kickoffs that had five-second hang times, meaning the coverage unit never got a chance to penetrate the wedge.

Stopping returner Dexter Wynn, signed this week after the Eagles released Bruce Perry following a sub-par kickoff return performance, will be of the utmost importance.

If the Giants do get their special teams straightened out, other problems from last week figure to loom large. The 10 penalties, five committed by offensive linemen jumping offside, will have to vanish if they expect to score with McNabb. The offensive line will have to be super-sensitive, but disciplined, to face the constant blitzing of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson's defense that sacked Houston's David Carr five times last week.

That won't be easy since Lincoln Financial Field can be a tough, noisy place to play, especially when the Eagles are winning. And the Giants' offensive linemen have proven themselves susceptible to the critical illegal procedure call.

Defensively, there is first the matter of controlling a deepened backfield of Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter, the latter of whom is healthy for the first time in two years. The duo combined for 121 yards last week, and Westbrook caught a touchdown pass. So middle linebacker Antonio Pierce will have to step up his game, as will the starting inside front of Barry Cofield and Fred Robbins.

Then, there's generating a pass rush, which was ineffective, at best, last week. This would be a good time for LaVar Arrington to record his first sack as a Giant after an ineffectual opening game.

After going 3-4 away from Giants Stadium last year - the road game in New Orleans was moved to Giants Stadium because of Hurricane Katrina - the Giants would love to get something positive going immediately.

The Coughlin Challenge:

Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has issued a challenge to his team after its 26-21 loss to Indianapolis last week in the nationally-viewed Manning Bowl.

"Stop talking about being a good team and just be a good team," is his message. If they don't play well against the Eagles, the Giants have a serious chance of being the best 0-2 team in the NFL - with a trip to Seattle coming up next.

All during training camp and the undefeated summer pre-season schedule of games, the Giants convinced themselves that they were the best team in the NFC East and that defending their division title this year would not be difficult.

But now, thanks to a grueling schedule and the opening-night loss, they are in danger of falling out of early contention - which will demand a great deal more of them later on in the season.

"Coach is right," said Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Strahan. "We can talk about how great we are, look how good we are on paper and while we do have a lot of great players, if we don't play well together and don't make the plays we should make, then we're going to be home in January watching some other teams in the playoffs."

Giants' Game Plan: The Giants will have to become reacquainted quickly with Donovan McNabb after not having seen him at all in 2005. McNabb missed both Giants games with a sports hernia that ended his season after nine games.

The biggest problem will come in a secondary that continues to drop interceptions. The Colts made them pay last week by converting all three blown opportunities into points. If Corey Webster and the rest of the defensive backs and linebackers don't start hanging onto catchable balls this week, McNabb could torment them deep all day with Donte' Stallworth and Reggie Brown.

Offensively, the Giants would be well-served to do what they did last week and keep the ball on the ground. Running the clock with Tiki Barber will help keep McNabb off the field, and also open up passing opportunities that Eli Manning showed last week he's ready to capitalize on.

Key Matchups:

  • TE Jeremy Shockey, who loves contact, against S Brian Dawkins, who is noted as one of the league's hardest hitters. This ought to be a fun matchup, as always. Truth be told, Shockey has generally gotten the better of Dawkins in their matchups. He has three touchdowns and 36 catches for 368 yards in seven career games against the Eagles, including a 10-for-107 effort in their last meeting in Philadelphia. Shockey caught five passes for 59 yards and a touchdown against the Colts, and was especially effective in the second-half once Eli Manning found his passing stride.

    It will be interesting to see how the Eagles' new 4-1-6 Defense works in the battle between Shockey and Dawkins.

  • QB Donovan McNabb, who is 7-3 lifetime against the Giants, against DE Michael Strahan, the Giants' active sack leader with 129 1/2 who should pass franchise record-holder Lawrence Taylor's 132 1/2 this year. McNabb is Strahan's favorite sack target in the entire league, having put him down 11 1/2 times. But McNabb showed last week against Houston that he has the running ability that an abdominal hernia, that eventually ended his season last November, took away from him last season. He can elude pass rushers again, which makes him a danger in the air. Strahan will be looking for his first sack after missing a good opportunity last week against the surprisingly elusive Peyton Manning.

    The Giants' secondary, which missed three interception opportunities against the Colts, will have to hang on to some balls this time to get McNabb and his new deep threat, Donte' Stallworth, off the field. If they don't short-circuit that duo, the secondary could see a repeat of their six-catch, 141-yard performance of last week.

  • Eagles OTs William Thomas and Jon Runyan vs. Giants DEs Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. Strahan and Umenyiora combined for 26 sacks last season. Thomas and Runyan have been playing together for seven years.
  • Eagles WLB Matt McCoy vs. Giants RB Tiki Barber. The elusive Barber is dangerous as both a runner and receiver. McCoy's ability to get off blocks and contain him in both the running and passing game will be crucial.

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