By Chris Murray
For the NFC'Easter
After being a listed as an odds-on favorite to win the NFC East based on their free agent acquisitions and the draft, the clouds of doubt are starting to gather around the City of Brotherly Love.
And those who picked the Birds are now having second thoughts.
Perhaps the biggest concern is their patchwork offensive line. Guard Todd Herremans is out with a foot injury and Shawn Andrews, who didn't play at all during the pre-season, is still nursing that bad back that kept him out of last season.
So that means a pair relatively inexperienced lineman—Winston Justice (right tackle) and Nick Cole (left guard) will open the season on the road against the Carolina Panthers, who have an All-Pro defensive end named Julius Peppers.
The big worry for Birds fans is how will Justice fare against Peppers who likely line up on his side. Still fresh in the minds of Eagles fans everywhere is Justice's experience against New York Giants Osi Umenyiora, who burned him for six sacks in a game back in 2007. In that game, the Giants tied a league record with 12 sacks of quarterback Donovan McNabb.
But Eagles head coach Andy Reid is confident that Justice will be up to the challenge of handling the onslaught of Peppers and the Carolina defense. Hopefully for the Eagles, Justice will come out with something to prove.
“I thought one of the real positives coming out of camp was Winston Justice and how he played. I thought it was valuable, valuable experience that he got in there. He will have an opportunity Sunday to play against two good football players and I just look forward to seeing him out there competing,” Reid said on Friday.
In any event, Justice will no doubt be motivated to prove fans wrong and what better way to battle the demons of his last start by slowing down a player of Pepper's caliber.
How Justice will handle the pressure of the Panthers defense is only one part of the story with the offensive line. With all the injuries in the offensive line, the real issue is whether they can establish enough chemistry to go up against a tough Carolina defense.
If they can protect McNabb, guys like Brian Westbrook, bum knee and all, and DeSean Jackson could have a big day against the Panthers defense.
And speaking of defense, the Eagles definitely have some uncertainty there, especially at the middle linebacker spot. Omar Gaither will anchor the middle for the Birds in place of Stewart Bradley who suffered a season-ending injury at the beginning of training camp.
It was just two years ago that Gaither replaced Jeremiah Trotter at the middle linebacker spot only to replaced by Bradley later in 2007. Gaither also played at the outside linebacker spot last season and eventually lost his job to Akeem Jordan.
Gaither hasn't necessarily wowed the Eagles coaching staff because of his inability to be a force against the run. His demotions over the last two years gives you a reason to worry.
Another thing for the Eagles to worry about on Sunday is the Carolina Panthers running game that was among the best in the NFL in 2008. The tandem of DeAngelo Williams (1,515 yards) and Jonathan Stewart (818 yards) combined to gain 2,333 yards. Both runners averaged over 4.5 yards per carry. As a team, the Panthers ranked third in the NFL in rushing.
In the Eagles secondary, you have to wonder how rookie and former Virginia Tech star Victor “Macho” Harris will do at the free safety position in place of the legendary Brian Dawkins. Harris' new teammates are saying the right things in public, but deep down inside there has to be a little bit of angst.
“It's a different territory; usually I'm the new guy. It's going to be a little different but I think what Macho showed, he came in, he was very mature and he learned the defense and took the starting job to task,” said Eagles strong safety Quintin Mikell. “He really wanted it. He was out there making plays, doing what he was suppose to do; being ready to play. And I'm not saying anything about anybody else, but he had the hot hand and he really showed up.”
Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme could have a field day playing pitch and catch with Steve Smith, especially if the Panthers can run the ball effectively. If Carolina is averaging four and five yards per carry, look for Delhomme to have a field day against the Birds defense when they go to play-action passes.
If the Eagles can come away with a tough road win Sunday, all their doubters and naysayers will be back on the Bandwagon. If not, well, listen to Philadelphia sports talk radio immediately after the game to hear the doom and gloom.