j4848 BC-FBN-NFCMatchups 01-26 1080

Sunday, January 27, 2002

This one is pretty simple: QB Donovan McNabb (5) must be very creative. The one positive thing Brett Favre did last week against the speedy, aggressive Rams was escape the pass rush. But he didn't do much afterward, while McNabb is the most dangerous scrambler in the league. Look for McNabb to roll out often and for several designed runs, particularly quarterback draws.

Also look for Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith to assign a spy to McNabb, possibly S Kim Herring (20) or LB Tommy Polley (52), who intercepted Favre twice.

Philadelphia protects the ball well, which is essential against the ball-hawking Rams. All-Pro CB Aeneas Williams (35) comes off a record two touchdowns on interception returns against Green Bay and probably can handle WR James Thrash (80) one-on-one. The other Eagles receivers -- Todd Pinkston (87), rookie Freddie Mitchell (84) and Na Brown (85) -- are pedestrian.

TE Chad Lewis (89) definitely is not and will be McNabb's main outlet if Thrash gets shut down. McNabb will use Lewis for quick passes over the middle and, especially, on third down. Lewis' matchup with rookie SS Adam Archuleta (31) could be a highlight.

RBs Duce Staley (22) and Correll Buckhalter (28) present many of the challenges Green Bay brought last week. Staley is almost as versatile as the Packers' Ahman Green, Buckhalter is similar to the Pack's Dorsey Levens.

If Staley can break a few early runs, it would take a huge burden off the receivers. MLB London Fletcher (59) will key on Staley, who is an excellent target out of the backfield.

RT Jon Runyan (69) has struggled mightily, and Rams DE Leonard Little (91) was second in the NFC with 14 1/2 sacks. This could be a mismatch, so Runyan will need blocking help from Lewis or the backs, which will damage Philadelphia's overall passing game.

  • MATCHUP TO WATCH: LT Tra Thomas (72), the Eagles' best offensive lineman, against relentless DE Grant Wistrom (98). Wistrom is the most disruptive player up front, and if Thomas can neutralize him, McNabb will have more opportunities to be magical.

    n SLEEPER: Buckhalter has the ability to break long plays, and the Eagles don't lose much, if anything, when Staley leaves the field.

    Oh, boy!

    St. Louis merely has MVP Kurt Warner (13), the league's most prolific passer, and Marshall Faulk (28), who has won three straight Offensive Player of the Year awards. Warner has a superb group of receivers, from Faulk to WRs Torry Holt (88), Isaac Bruce (80), Az Hakim (81) and Ricky Proehl (87). He likes to use his tight ends, Ernie Conwell (84) and Jeff Robinson (45), near the end zone.

    A strong arm, quick release, toughness and good decisions mark Warner's game. And he will test even the best secondaries -- the Eagles have a top group, led by CB Troy Vincent (23) and safeties Brian Dawkins (20) and Damon Moore (43).

    Faulk didn't need to do much against Green Bay, but he might be the prime weapon this week. He'll get plenty of attention from MLB Jeremiah Trotter (54) and Dawkins when he runs. Philadelphia has little choice but to assign a backup DB to him in pass coverage; that's inviting trouble.

    Expect Warner to go deep almost immediately, probably to Bruce or Holt, to send a message to the Eagles. Unless he feels pressure from a solid line featuring DE Hugh Douglas (53) and DT Corey Simon (90), Warner will get the matchups he wants.

    Douglas faces All-Pro T Orlando Pace (75) and has to win that battle, or else the Eagles will need to blitz nearly every play. Simon could do well against C Andy McCollum (67) and G Adam Timmerman (62).

  • MATCHUP TO WATCH: Vincent, who has a sore groin, against Holt and Bruce. If Vincent is not 100 percent, Philadelphia will get burned.

    n SLEEPER: Proehl caught the winning touchdown in the 1999 NFC title game, a defensive battle. Warner will look for him in tight spots when he knows Proehl has single coverage on a reserve DB.

    Eagles could have a nice edge here. Brian Mitchell (30) is one of the greatest kick returners in NFL history. He still has a nice burst at age 33, and he's as rugged as they come.

    The Rams' Yo Murphy (83), Trung Canidate (24) and Dre' Bly (32) don't match Mitchell's credentials or reliability. Hakim lost his return job because he couldn't hold on to the ball.

    Philadelphia's All-Pro placekicker, David Akers (2), had a great year kicking on the league's worst surface and in the elements. He could have a big day indoors, as might 17-year veteran P Sean Landeta (7). Neither is likely to be bothered by pressure.

    St. Louis PK Jeff Wilkins (14) is dependable, but doesn't have Akers' range. P John Baker (4) ranked below Landeta. His coverage teams were OK, but the Eagles' group was outstanding against both punt and kickoff runbacks.

    It gets really interesting here. The head coaches, St. Louis' Mike Martz and Philadelphia's Andy Reid, are considered offensive gurus. Martz's brilliance -- and occasional arrogance and stubborn streak -- often is on display as the Rams run teams out of the stadium. Reid's attack in Philly hasn't been all that dangerous, but it is coming on as McNabb has taken charge in the last month.

    Both defensive coordinators should be candidates for top jobs soon. Smith was hired by Martz to put together a defense as good as the Rams' offense. He's come close, and that unit made the difference last weekend. He prefers the cover-2 scheme, but will get aggressive with Williams, Herring and some blitzes.

    Eagles coordinator Jimmy Johnson -- no, not THAT JJ -- is blitz happy, but has a solid, stingy unit. He has turned Douglas and Simon into stars on the line, Dawkins and Vincent into Pro Bowlers. Watch for Trotter, who will be a free agent, to be everywhere.

    The Rams edged the Eagles 20-17 in overtime at Philadelphia in the season opener. Both teams have gotten better since then, and not much can be learned from that early game. Many Eagles believe the public (and some Rams) wrote them off this week. Might St. Louis be overconfident? Not likely.

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