Eagles at Steelers - 4 Things to Watch for

The team will finally get its first test against real competition tonight, as the Eagles are set to open their preseason schedule with a match up against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here are four things to watch for in the game.

Eagles at Steelers

Gametime: 7:30 pm EST

TV/Radio: 6ABC; WIP-AM (610); WYSP-FM (94.1)

- Will the Eagles' special teams units be special?

An area that has been a non-factor for the Eagles in recent years could turn out to be one of the team's strengths in 2008. After poor special teams play cost them a win in the season opener at Green Bay last year and hurt them in a few other games, the Eagles made a commitment to improve in that facet of the game in the off-season. The team drafted speedster DeSean Jackson in the second-round out of California, and he is expected to do big things as a punt returner. Jackson returned six punts for scores in his college career and was the fastest receiver at the annual scouting combine, where he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds.

Lorenzo Booker, who the team acquired in a draft day trade with Miami, will upgrade the kick return spot also. Last year's combination of J.R. Reed and Correll Buckhalter failed to get the offense good field position consistently, and neither returner was much of a threat, as they both averaged under 23-yards per attempt. The 5-foot-10, 191-pound Booker is fast in the open field, and with good agility to go along with solid cut back instincts, he could be the home-run hitter the Eagles have been lacking.

- Evaluating the Newcomers

Tonight's game will be a chance for people to see what the free agents the Eagles signed in the offseason are capable of. Although the team's biggest signing, Asante Samuel, will not play because he is nursing an injury, there will still be plenty of chances to evaluate defensive end Chris Clemons, linebacker Rocky Boiman, defensive tackle Dan Klecko, and tight end Kris Wilson.

Clemons, Boiman, and Klecko will all play more than a full quarter against Pittsburgh with the second-team defense. Wilson is currently listed as the fourth tight end on the depth chart, and he will likely see most of his reps in the fourth-quarter.

- Receivers Battling for Position

Even though Kevin Curtis and Reggie Brown are listed a top the depth chart at wide receiver for now, things could change by the time the regular season starts. Brown has had a mediocre training camp so far, while Hank Baskett and Jason Avant have both been making big plays in practice.

While they have yet to post break out seasons as professionals, Baskett and Avant both have the size to become the kind of possession receiver that the Eagles lack, and either one could serve as a valuable red zone target. Both will see at least a full quarter of action tonight.

Rookie WR DeSean Jackson will get a chance to find a role in the Eagles' offense during the preseason.
(Marcio Sanchez/AP)

The rookie Jackson will also try to establish a role in the Eagles offense, and if he can live up to his play-making potential, expect him to bump somebody down the depth chart. Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg thinks Jackson is up to the task.

"He's done a good job up to date," Mornhinweg said after the Eagles off-season mini-camps. "There is a long way to go, and a lot of hard work left for him. However, he does play the game in a natural manner. He's got gut instincts, he's very smart, so he learns very quickly, those things aid him in being able to get on the field. If he keeps progressing, he's got a chance to be a factor with us."

- MJG in the Starting Lineup

Highly touted third-year guard Max Jean-Gilles has filled in for Shawn Andrews during training camp as the pro bowler deals with a bout of depression, and he has a chance make a meaningful impression on the coaching staff in the preseason. Jean-Gilles performed well in place of Andrews last season at times, and although he has received a great deal of praise for his improvement during the off-season, tonight's game could serve as a proving ground for him against a talented Steelers' defense.

"I want to see how he handles it," head coach Andy Reid said about Jean-Gilles playing with the first-team. "I had a chance, though, to see him last year against New Orleans and he did very well. But there were certain things that he could work on and improve on, and he's kind of attacked that this off-season. I'll be curious to see how he does in this situation here."

Andrew Pluta can be reached at ajp8231@gmail.com

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