Eagles Open Season At Browns, Spotlight on Vick and Rookies
The Eagles open their regular season today at 1 p.m. EST as they take on the Browns in Cleveland Browns Stadium. While the Eagles are heavy favorites and most of the matchups do favor the Birds, Philadelphia doesn’t enter the game or the season without questions.
After sustaining a pair of preseason injuries, Eagles quarterback Michael Vick will be in the spotlight as he tries to avoid injury. While Vick and his coaches have downplayed worries about his health, some teammates have expressed concern.
“On his side, just being smart, knowing that he doesn’t have to make every play by himself,” said Eagles running back LeSean McCoy. “Same with myself, trusting the play, knowing I’ve got guys blocking for me, guys making catches, you know, and making plays. I think we just have to depend on each other – it’s more of a team thing now.”
Vick played only 12 preseason snaps due to his bruised ribs and bruised thumb, so there are also questions about whether the Eagles offense will be able to quickly find his rhythm.
“I have no concerns at all, because we have great confidence in each other,” said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. “Now, strange things tend to happen in openers, so you’re always a little concerned about that. So, we do everything we can to avoid all these strange things that happen in opening games and we rely on our hard work and our preparation.”
Vick also came into this preseason hoping to cut down on turnovers and improve his decision making as a quarterback.
“[It’s] Just learning to play quarterback within yourself,” Vick said. “I could sit here and talk all day about the little nuances that I’ve learned but we’ve talked about that before.
“It’s all about going out there and putting it all together on the football field. The most important thing is to take it one play at a time regardless of the situation and go out and play football.”
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Vick will face a tougher Browns defense than he expected earlier this week. Joe Haden, Cleveland’s best cornerback, is appealing his suspension for a positive drug test and since no ruling has come down from the NFL, he’s expected to play this week.
Browns linebacker Scott Fujita caught a similar break, as he was one of the former Saints who had his suspension for his connection to the bounty scandal overturned this week. While Fujita is eligible to lpay, a leg injury is likely to keep him out according to The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
While the Eagles won their last four games to finish 8-8 last year, they know the perils of getting off to a slow start and hope to come out rolling in 2012. Philadelphia went 4-0 in the preseason.
Cleveland went 2-2 in the preseason, including a 27-10 loss to the Eagles, after a 4-12 season a year ago. The Browns addressed their offense with a pair of first round picks: running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden.
Richardson, the third overall pick behind quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, missed the entire preseason after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery on August 9, but he’s listed as probable and the Eagles expect a heavy dose of the powerful runner.
“I know [defensive coordinator] Juan [Castillo] has gone back and looked at the college stuff and made sure that he’s got a good feel on what they did there,” said Eagles head coach Andy Reid. “He’s a good football player and we know that and so we’ve got to be ready for him. He’s very tough and quick and strong and everything. He’s a good running back.”
While there’s no film to be had of Richardson operating in the Browns offense, Castillo says the scheme wasn’t too different when Richardson was playing his college football at Alabama.
“With the scheme that they run it is basically the same scheme he ran at Alabama,” Castillo said. “So really what we try to do [and] what we’re working on is just taking care of our gaps and being gap sound. When he gets through that gap we have to make the tackles.”
As far as Weeden goes, even Eagles offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was impressed enough to chime in on the 22nd overall pick.
“I think highly of Brandon Weeden,” said Mornhinweg. “He was one of the just pure passers coming out. I thought he just throws the ball effortlessly. He’s got a big arm. He’s just a natural passer and I can understand why Cleveland took him.
“Won a lot of ballgames there at Oklahoma State. Fantastic player coming out, no question.”
Weeden faces the challenge of avoiding the Eagles lethal pass rush, which racked up 50 sacks, tied with the Vikings for the highest total in the league.
Defensive end Jason Babin, who had a team best 18 sacks last year, dealt with a calf strain in the preseason but is near 100 percent for the opener. Across from Babin, Trent Cole hopes to improve on last year’s total of 11 sacks in a season in which he missed two games and was banged up in others.
While the Browns are young on offense, the Eagles will have three rookies playing prominent roles on defense. Mychal Kendricks, a second round pick from Cal, is the starting strong side linebacker.
“Mychal is a smart, athletic and relentless linebacker,” said Castillo. “I think we’ve all seen [the rookies] make the plays during preseason and practices and so now they are getting all of the reps so they’ll be ready.”
Kendricks starts alongside veteran newcomer DeMeco Ryans, who the Eagles acquired from the Texans in the spring. Ryans is expected to add leadership and talent to the Birds defense despite a lackluster preseason.
“I think that DeMeco did make plays,” said Castillo. “He made plays in practice. He did things. He got everybody lined up. He’s been a leader for our group. He’s done some good things that we see and sometimes I think it’s not always judged on tackles.”
Despite the talent upgrade at linebacker with the additions of Ryans and Kendrick, the Eagles plan to rotate all of their linebackers into the game situationally. Akeem Jordan is the weak side starter, but Jamar Chaney, Brian Rolle and Casey Matthews will find their way onto the field as well.
While Kendricks is the only rookie in the starting lineup, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and cornerback Brandon Boykin should see significant playing time.
Cox, the Eagles first round pick from Mississippi State, is a key part of the Eagles rotation at defensive tackle, where they consider all four players to be starting caliber.
“Well, I mean, Fletcher has just gotten better and better and getting more comfortable with our system,” said Castillo. “Again, Fletcher will end up being in that rotation.”
Cox made it onto the injury report with knee problems this week, but is expected to be fine by game time. The last key rookie is Boykin, who should make his way onto the field for significant playing time after beating out veteran Joselio Hanson to be the Eagles top slot corner.
“Just through camp and preseason I think [with] Brandon Boykin you see he is a playmaker,” Castillo said. “An athletic and tough kid and smart kid.”
Boykin will also contribute on special teams, where he’s the Eagles top kick returner. Fellow rookie Damaris Johnson, an undrafted wide receiver from Tulsa, will be the Birds top punt returner and should get onto the field as a wide receiver as well.
The two rookies are expected to give the Eagles a much more dynamic return tandem after Philadelphia struggled to create much explosiveness on special teams in 2011.
Offensively, the Eagles could give seventh round pick Bryce Brown, a running back from Kansas State, a decent share of the workload today as he seems to have supplanted Dion Lewis as LeSean McCoy’s backup.
With such a long list of rookies playing key roles today, it should come as no surprise that the Eagles and Browns are two of the top three youngest teams in the NFL.
The difference is that the Eagles have that youth surrounded with talented veterans and have their eyes set on a Super Bowl, while the Browns are hoping to take the first step in turning things around after last year’s dismal showing.
Eagles Injury Report
Out: Wide receiver Riley Cooper (broken collarbone) and safety Colt Anderson (left knee) are both out on Sunday. Anderson said this week that he hoped to be on the field Sunday, but it’s more likely that he returns in a few weeks as he continues to recover from surgery to repair a torn ACL on December 8, 2011.
Questionable: Running back Dion Lewis (hamstring) is questionable, but appears to have lost his backup job to seventh round draft pick Bryce Brown, anyway. Lewis did practice yesterday.
Probable: Safety Nate Allen (hamstring), defensive end Jason Babin (calf), linebacker Jamar Chaney (hamstring), defensive tackle Fletcher Cox (knee), linebacker Casey Matthews (ankle) and offensive tackle Nate Menkin (shoulder) are all expected to be available. All participated in practice yesterday. Cox was limited in practice on Thursday, but did return yesterday.
Browns Injury Report
Out: Starting linebacker James-Michael Johnson will not play due to injureis to his ribs and oblique and did not practice all week.
Doubtful: Offensive lineman Oniel Cousins (ankle) is doubtful and did not practice all week.
Questionable: Running back Trent Richardson (knee), tight end Benjamin Watson (thigh), tight end Jordan Cameron (groin), offensive lineman John Greco (calf), quarterback Thaddeus Lewis (right thumb) and running back Chris Ogbonnaya (ankle). Richardson, Watson, Cameron, Lewis and Ogbonnaya were limited practice participants all week. Greco returned to practice yesterday in a limited role after missing practice on Wednesday and Thursday.
Probable: Cornerback Dimitri Patterson (knee), defensive back Eric Hagg (illness), defensive back Ray Ventrone (hamstring) and defensive back Usama Young (thigh) are all expected to be available. Patterson, Hagg, Ventrone and Young were all limited in practice on Wednesday but participated fully yesterday and Thursday.
Ryan Messick covers the Eagles for 97.3 ESPN FM and PCP Sports. Follow him on Twitter.