Andy Reid's Eagles, who have reached the NFC Championship game the past three seasons and won both meetings with Big Blue in 2003, are facing an unexpected dearth of depth at running back. The Birds have a once-stable stable of interchangeable quality performers decimated by the offseason defection of fan favorite Duce Staley to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the season-ending patella injury suffered by Correll Buckhalter.
On the bright side for the Birds is the free-agent signings of game-breaking wide receiver Terrell Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse. But these developments may also have a downside, however, given Owens' penchant for creating destructive in-house turmoil and Kearse's vulnerability to injury the past two seasons.
The Eagles have been hit hard by injuries. In addition to Buckhalter, the most notable loss is that of defensive end N.D. Kalu. In addition, veteran cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor have departed, although both missed considerable playing time last season because of physical problems.
The acquisition of Owens finally gives quarterback Donovan McNabb the big (6-2, 225), fleet wide receiver the Eagles have needed for so many seasons – and should provide a huge improvement in the Birds' "pass-first" offensive philosophy, which saw them throw 56 percent of the time in 2003. And with the new, stricter rules regarding downfield contact by defenders, Owens' numbers should surpass the 80 receptions he recorded last season with the San Francisco 49ers.
Big Blue, in the first year of the Tom Coughlin era, faces continuing questions regarding its offensive line – in whose uncertain hands lies the well-being of quarterbacks Eli Manning and Kurt Warner – and a totally revamped linebacker corps.
WHEN NEW YORK RUNS:
The Eagles were roundly criticized in the preseason for poor tackling, a trend the Giants hope continues on opening day. Compounding the hosts' problems is a hamstring pull suffered late in the summer by WLB Nate Wayne and a recurring ankle problem that has hampered SLB Dhani Jones, the former Giant. Eagles MLB Mark Simoneau is not a consummate run-stuffer, which led to the signing of Jeremiah Trotter, a former Eagle who played for Washington last season and is slotted for short-yardage and goal-line situations. The eye-opening summer performance of slimmed-down RB Ron Dayne was a most welcome surprise for Big Blue – especially since he was relegated to the sideline for the entire 2003 season. But Dayne's continuing shortcomings in short-yardage situations and summer fumbling problems provide a somewhat sobering balance. Regardless, Dayne and Tiki Barber – apparently cured of his own fumbling problems during Camp Coughlin – provide a much-needed changeup in styles that was lacking for much of last season. The aggressive Eagles defensive line features quickness at the tackles and speed from DE Kearse – and could be vulnerable to trap plays and counters.
THE EDGE: NEW YORK
WHEN NEW YORK PASSES:
Eagles defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson might be inclined to call more blitzes than he had this summer – a tact that could prove devastating to the still-jelling Big Blue offensive line and quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Eli Manning. When healthy, Kearse is a mobile, mad dog pass-rusher with sprinter's speed and a plethora of moves that have stymied the league's most experienced and skilled offensive tackles. Defensive tackles Corey Simon and Darwin Walker both can penetrate the pocket to create inside havoc. Last season, Simon and Walker recorded 7.5 and 6.0 sacks, respectively. RDE Jerome McDougle remains a work-in-progress after an injury-prone rookie season, and Derrick Burgess, who has only played one game since suffering an injury in 2001, may spell him. The Eagles will generate a lot of pressure up front to compensate for the loss of veteran cornerbacks Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor. The duo have been replaced by Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown, who held their own when stepping in last season, but also made their share of youthful mistakes this summer. Free safety Brian Dawkins is a perennial Pro Bowl mainstay who plays at a consistently high level, while strong safety Michael Lewis enjoyed a fine 2003 season with three interceptions and two sacks on safety blitzes.
THE EDGE: PHILADELPHIA
WHEN PHILADELPHIA RUNS:
With the loss of Duce Staley and Correll Buckhalter, the bulk of Philly's ground game will focus on Brian Westbrook, a 5-8, 200-pounder who rushed for 613 yards last season and scored 13 touchdowns. But because of his relatively small size, Westbrook's durability has been a big question mark; he missed both of Philly's playoff games in 2003 with a torn triceps muscle. The Villanova product will most likely be spelled throughout the afternoon by second-year man Reno Mahe, a special teams whiz, who is of slight build and not a strong inside runner, and rookie Thomas Tapeh, a 235-pounder slated to play both halfback and fullback because he possesses power for short yardage and speed to turn the corner. The Eagles offensive line is particularly strong on the right side with impressive rookie right guard Shawn Andrews, a 6-4, 340-pound bulldozer, and veteran right tackle Jon Runyan, matching up for much of the afternoon against his nemesis, Giants LDE Michael Strahan. Big Blue's unstable situation at middle linebacker also offers an avenue of opportunity for Philly power runs up the gut.
THE EDGE: NEW YORK
WHEN PHILADELPHIA PASSES:
The Eagles' offseason acquisition of explosive WR Terrell Owens addressed a pressing need for their inconsistent passing game. In the preseason, Owens hasn't disappointed – as evidenced by his 81-yard touchdown reception on the opening play of the exhibition game against the Baltimore Ravens. Owens is very effective in traffic and on slants and crossing routes over the middle, where he can shuck-off defenders and turn short-to-intermediate patterns into long gains. Eagles QB Donovan McNabb, who struggled in the early part of 2003, threw for 3,216 yards with 16 TDs and 11 interceptions to a less-than-stellar receiving corps often victimized by dropped balls. Owens will be the centerpiece of the receiving game, assisted by up-and-coming tight end L.J. Smith (27 catches in 2003) and mainstay WRs Todd Pinkston (36 catches, 2 TDs) and Freddie Mitchell (35, 2 TDs). The undersized Pinkston and Mitchell (who will see a lot of action in the slot) should benefit from double coverage on Owens. Fullback Jon Ritchie is a fine receiver, and one of McNabb's favorite targets in the red zone. Word out of Philly is that rookie G Shawn Andrews is having difficulty adjusting to odd-man fronts – offering a potential area of exploitation for the Big Blue defense. The Giants hope that the secondary's below-average play in the preseason, particularly by CBs Will Allen and Will Peterson, was the result of "sea legs" from coming off injuries and adjusting to defensive coordinator Tim Lewis' new schemes – and not a foreshadowing of the regular season.
THE EDGE: PHILADELPHIA
The Eagles' special teams are among the best in the NFL, keyed by kicker David Akers, who was 24-of-28 on field goals last season and is deadly from long range. Punter Dirk Johnson averaged 40.6 yards per boot. Fearful of further decimation to their running back corps, the Eagles had planned to relieve Brian Westbrook of his punt return duties – following a season in which he averaged an impressive 15.3 yards per return and scored two touchdowns, including a last-minute 84-yard backbreaker against Big Blue. Reno Mahe was expected to replace Westbrook as PR, with rookie J.R. Reed stepping in as the No. 1 kick returner. Reed has shown flashes of brilliance as a return man in the pre-season. The jury is still out on Giants' return men Willie Ponder and Mark Jones. Steady veteran punter Jeff Feagles returns, while Steve Christie was brought in to handle the Giants' kicking job.
THE EDGE: PHILADELPHIA
PREDICTION: PHILADELPHIA 31, NEW YORK 24
Game One: Giants at Eagles
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