As much as I enjoy discussing the strategic and statistical sides to the game, I was getting anxious for the Eagles’ season to start. In a moment, I’ll go through a few things to watch for Monday Night. First, though, let me just highlight what has been the best development of the offseason. Eagles fans, no matter how cynical or pessimistic, must be feeling at least a bit hopeful and not just for a decent season. Chip Kelly might fail spectacularly, but it sure feels like we could be looking at the start of something special. It’s been a while since any Philadelphia team has had similar circumstances, and I encourage everyone to enjoy it while they can.
As far as Game 1 goes…
– Watch Isaac Sopoaga. If he’s terrible, it’s going to be very difficult for the Eagles to field at least a mediocre defense. The problem here, is that the two defensive players with the most potential (Cox and Kendricks) both need an adequate NT. If Sopoaga can’t hold his ground in the run game, Kendricks’ speed won’t mean much. Similarly, as far as the D-Line goes, we have to assume that Cox will draw to bulk of opposing attention. Sopoaga, Thornton, and whichever LB rushes need to take advantage of that. Complicating matters is that the only other NT on the roster is a rookie, and we’re not yet sure if he can even play the position.
– Is the offensive line good, or great? If the team is going to challenge for a playoff spot this year (or even mediocrity), the offensive line has to be better than “good”. Jason Peters is healthy. The team just spent its #4 overall pick on Lane Johnson, the other OT. If that doesn’t translate to one of the better O-Lines in the league, the team’s in trouble. Specifically, watch for Peters getting to the second level (can he still dominate?).
– Play-action defense. The Eagles were among the worst defenses last year against Play-Action passes. Granted they were among the worst defenses against pretty much every type of play, but still. The combination of the wide-9, below-average LB play, and terrible S play led to the repeated victimization of the team with the play-fake. The wide-9 is gone, so that should help a bit (Ss don’t have as much run responsibility). If the Safeties don’t play it better, though, we’re going to see a lot of deep completions by the opposing team.
– Chip Kelly’s playbook. The team, and the coach, have certainly intimated that we haven’t yet seen anything close to the whole playbook. I expect to see a lot more multi-TE sets as well as a big emphasis on the run game with McCoy. We don’t yet know how often the team will run no huddle, or how fundamental the read-option will be, but this game should quickly lay out what we should expect the offense to look like.
– Chip Kelly’s Play-Calling. Here, I’m mostly talking about FG/Punt/Go-for-it decisions on 4th down as well as run/pass play selection on 3rd down. I’ve covered this in detail, but NFL coaches do not go for it on 4th and 1-2 yards nearly as often as they should. I’m hopeful that Chip Kelly, man of “science”, will hew more closely to “optimal” play-calling. Forget the offense, this is where Chip Kelly can really make his mark. The math is there, the concept is well-understood. The only question remaining is whether Chip truly has the guts to go against conventional wisdom when it counts.
Obviously there are a lot of other interesting things/players to watch, but that’s my focus. Also, remember that this game is essentially a bonus. Opening on the road, on Monday night, against the presumed division favorite (regardless of what Vegas said recently) is a very tough matchup. The Redskins have one of the best rushing attacks in the league, which will be a huge challenge for a defense still learning the new alignment.
In short, don’t freak out if the Eagles lose, even if they lose big. They’re supposed to. This game is more about putting the pieces together and setting the stage for a good season.