Commentary

First & 10: Eagles feeling early urgency

Originally Published: September 9, 2009
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Donovan McNabbJim McIsaac/Getty ImagesThe Eagles' offensive line is starting to get healthy, good news for Donovan McNabb.

The Eagles and quarterback Donovan McNabb won't have to worry about Michael Vick for the next two weeks.

After serving nearly two years in prison for running a dogfighting ring, Vick now must serve a two-week suspension before he's eligible to play Sept. 27. You could see in Vick's first preseason appearance as an Eagle that his presence, specifically in the Wildcat formation, affected McNabb's rhythm.

McNabb will need everything to be in sync heading into the season because the Eagles play tough opening games against the Panthers on Sunday in Charlotte and the Saints at home in Week 2. There is a sense of urgency with the Eagles because they want to establish early that they are one of the best teams in the conference.

It has been a tough offseason for the Eagles. They lost popular defensive coordinator Jim Johnson to cancer. Middle linebacker Stewart Bradley (knee) was lost for the season. The offensive line has battled injuries. Star RB Brian Westbrook also has had offseason injury concerns.

The good news for McNabb is the offensive line is starting to get healthy, and Westbrook will be on the field to open the season.

The Eagles face a Panthers team that has serious concerns about its run-stopping abilities. Carolina coach John Fox has been scrambling to improve the team's play at defensive tackle. The Panthers gave up 4.5 yards per run attempt during the preseason. Fox knows it will be hard to stop the run with Maake Kemoeatu (Achilles tendon) out for the season.

Fortunately for Fox, Eagles coach Andy Reid isn't a run-oriented coach, but the Panthers' problems might make Reid consider more running plays early.

Here's the debut First and 10 column for 2009:

1. Chicago Bears at Green Bay Packers: The NFC North arms race gets off to a great start with Jay Cutler of the Bears going against Aaron Rodgers of the Packers. Although Cutler bears all the pressure of taking the Bears to the playoffs this season, Rodgers has all the pressure on him for this particular game. Rodgers was the hottest quarterback of the preseason, completing 70.7 percent of his passes and averaging 11.3 yards per attempt.

Coach Mike McCarthy and Packers fans are thinking playoffs and a possible NFC North title. What the Packers can't afford is to lose a home divisional game. The pressure will be on Rodgers to win this game if it's close. He admitted he didn't do well in the final minutes of games as a first-year starter, and McCarthy has said he could have done better in final-minute play calling.

[+] EnlargeAlbert Haynesworth
Chris Gardner/US PresswireAlbert Haynesworth will bolster a Redskins defense that was already among the league's best.

2. Washington Redskins at New York Giants: If you are looking for a playoff sleeper, don't look past the Redskins. The schedule breaks right for them because it's the easiest in the NFC East. They play six winnable games against the Buccaneers, Broncos, Chiefs, Raiders, Lions and Rams. If they can do anything positive in division play, they could be a playoff team. The defense, which was good last season, is better with the additions of Albert Haynesworth and Brian Orakpo. Quarterback Jason Campbell looks better now that Redskins coach Jim Zorn is letting him go downfield more.

Meanwhile, Giants coach Tom Coughlin seems a little worried. He has one of the best offensive lines in football, but it has aged a little. The defensive line is just now starting to get healthy, but it hasn't had a chance to come together during the preseason. Sunday will be a big test.

3. Minnesota Vikings at Cleveland Browns: This matchup might not have made First and 10 without the presence of Brett Favre, but No. 4 will be a frequent resident of this space. Just like it was last season when he was with the Jets, the Favre story is compelling drama. Against the Browns, Favre will test his conditioning because he showed up in Minnesota after training camp broke. This will be his first three-hour game since his latest unretirement, as opposed to controlled situations in two preseason games.

Favre and the Vikings will benefit from several things in their first five games. They open against teams with a combined 2008 record of 19-61, giving Favre almost an extra preseason. The other benefit is that the defense will have Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. The StarCaps case is still dragging through the court system, so it is still unknown whether they must serve four-game suspensions for violating the league's banned-substances policy.

Browns coach Eric Mangini's mystery regarding his starting quarterback has been a hot topic, and he's still not saying who will start. Everyone figures it will be Brady Quinn, but no one will know for sure until the first snap Sunday afternoon.

4. Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots: Patriots coach Bill Belichick apparently is confident about quarterback Tom Brady's health because he's going into the opener with an undrafted rookie (Brian Hoyer) as the backup quarterback. Belichick also was willing to deal his best defensive lineman during his team's Super Bowl runs (Richard Seymour). Somehow, Brady's right shoulder survived Haynesworth's 330-pound body in a jarring preseason hit.

The Patriots face a Bills team that is a mess heading into the opener. Owner Ralph Wilson forced the purging of offensive coordinator Turk Schonert after five preseason games. Marshawn Lynch, the team's best running back, is suspended for the first three games. Coach Dick Jauron cut starting left tackle Langston Walker six days before the opener and is going with two rookie guards who were overmatched at times during the preseason. Oh, and we haven't forgotten that Terrell Owens could blow up at any time. The Pats are facing the Bills at exactly the right time.

5. San Diego Chargers at Oakland Raiders: All summer, opponents ran through the Raiders' defense without much of a fight. In response, owner Al Davis gave up a 2011 first-round draft pick for Seymour and dumped defensive tackles Terdell Sands and William Joseph. This drama only makes things easier for Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson, who has made a living rushing through the Raiders' defense. In 16 career games against the Raiders, Tomlinson has rushed for 1,906 yards and 19 touchdowns.

The Chargers' offense is in great shape heading into the season. Tomlinson, Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates haven't been this healthy in years. With Tomlinson and Darren Sproles, the Chargers could run wild Monday night.

6. Jacksonville Jaguars at Indianapolis Colts: Coach Jack Del Rio and the Jaguars underwent a major change during the offseason. First, Del Rio lost control of picking the 53-man roster when owner Wayne Weaver gave the task to new general manager Gene Smith. After earning the job in January, Smith had a great draft, and it appears Del Rio will go ahead and start four rookies -- offensive tackles Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton, defensive tackle Terrance Knighton and cornerback Derek Cox. That's a lot to ask of a team going against a perennial 12-game winner like the Colts.

The Colts underwent their own changes. Jim Caldwell replaced Tony Dungy as head coach. Marvin Harrison was cut and remains unsigned. But the Colts still have Peyton Manning, who had a great preseason and seems as sharp as ever. Joseph Addai seems set to bounce back to his near-Pro Bowl level of production and is further supported by Donald Brown, a first-round choice who could start for most teams in the league.

7. Miami Dolphins at Atlanta Falcons: The Dolphins and Falcons were the surprise teams of 2008, so it's only fitting that they meet in the opener. Each team went 11-5 last season. The Dolphins passed on the chance to take Matt Ryan and selected offensive tackle Jake Long with the first pick in the 2008 draft. Long had a Pro Bowl-caliber rookie season and helped Miami re-establish dominance along the offensive line. Ryan might end up being the quarterback steal of the decade if he can carry over his success from his rookie season in Atlanta.

The Falcons and Dolphins both have tough schedules, but the best way to avoid record drop-offs under those circumstances is to get great play from the quarterback. Ryan should be able to handle that task. Chad Pennington, meanwhile, has to make sure the Dolphins don't experience the three-game drop-off that typically follows a team that went from worst to first in one season.

8. New York Jets at Houston Texans: Coach Rex Ryan doesn't plan to back down against any team, but this will be the first true test to see how good the Jets are. Rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez continues to show great poise in the pocket, but the success or failure of the Jets will hinge upon their running attack. As Joe Flacco and Ryan learned last season, a rookie quarterback can succeed if he has a good running attack behind him. Sanchez hopes to get more than 30 carries a game from Thomas Jones and Leon Washington. The defense will be aggressive.

For the Texans, Matt Schaub has to show he can stay healthy. It was scary when the quarterback hurt his ankle in the team's third preseason game. Schaub is fine, but he can't shake the concerns about his health. The Jets plan to play a violent style of defense, which doesn't bode well for Schaub.

9. San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals: Coach Ken Whisenhunt doesn't seem concerned about the Cardinals' poor play during the preseason. Kurt Warner didn't look sharp, and the defense seemed to grow sloppy with its tackling as the summer progressed.

49ers coach Mike Singletary believes in a no-nonsense approach on the field. He plans to run the ball with Frank Gore and operate a hard-hitting defense. Get ready for a physical game.

10. Denver Broncos at Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals may have been television stars on HBO's "Hard Knocks", but Josh McDaniels had his version of a soap opera this offseason. Hired by Denver from Bill Belichick's staff, McDaniels chased away Jay Cutler and is just trying to see where Brandon Marshall's mind is after a two-week suspension for insubordination in practice. Things have been a mess for the Broncos. The defense is making a tough conversion to a 3-4. It won't help opening the season against a Bengals offense that can put up big numbers with the healthy Carson Palmer. Watch for Chad Ochocinco to have a great day against the Broncos' secondary.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer