The St. Louis Rams’ defense was ranked No. 7 in the NFL last season in sacks. The Atlanta Falcons were No. 20. The New York Giants were No. 5. That is how the Eagles’ regular-season schedule opens.
At the Rams, at the Falcons, home for the semi-annual bloodsport against the Giants. That is what awaits quarterback Michael Vick and the unsettled, unsettling right side of his offensive line -- two killers in the first three weeks, and also two dome games where the noise has a chance to shake the continuity of a shaky group of pass protectors.
The best news for the line, after the Eagles rolled over the not-very-good Cleveland Browns Thursday night, 24-14, is that the September 11th season opener is still more than 2 weeks away. The next-best news is that the right side of the line against the Browns -- rookie center Jason Kelce, rookie right guard Danny Watkins and stopgap right tackle King Dunlap -- did appear to play better as their time on the field wore on.
But they were somewhere between pretty bad and godawful at the start, and that is the concern that will keep Andy Reid awake in the coming nights. Vick is still holding the ball a little bit too long, and getting clobbered accordingly, and that will just add to the insomnia.
It cannot be stated often enough how important it will be this season for the quarterback and the line to conspire to find a way to keep Vick from getting killed in the same way that he was in 2010. Well, maybe “killed” is too strong -- because Vick survived so many of the hits and thrived so often amid the chaotic crush of bodies.
But whatever the appropriate verbiage, the point has been made and agreed to by everyone -- Vick included.
And now we have this game to chew on.
Kelce was getting his first start at center in place of Jamaal Jackson, who was the established starter before getting hurt last season. It is obvious that they like Kelce, that he is in the smaller, athletic mold favored by new offensive line coach Howard Mudd.
The organizational body language suggests that they are really hoping Kelce wins the job. Based on last night, though, he remains a work in progress. He had a nice downfield block on Ronnie Brown’s 13-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, but he had his hands quite full in pass protection.
Next to him was Watkins, the first-round draft choice. He, like Kelce, had no minicamps and other spring training work, and he also missed several days of the abbreviated training camp because his agent and the club couldn’t agree on a contract, and it has not been a seamless transition into the big leagues.
Watkins has the job, and that is not even a topic of conversation. But he struggled at times last night in pass protection, really in everything, and he needs more work. Reid has never put his starters out there in the final exhibition game, but this season might be the exception. Both Watkins and Kelce need the reps.
Finally, there is Dunlap at right tackle, there by default because Winston Justice has not yet practiced because of a 2010 knee injury and free-agent acquisition Ryan Harris has not practiced since injuring his oft-injured back in the first exhibition game. Harris now apparently is going to see some kind of back specialist. This doesn’t sound like a signing that is going to work out.
The thought is that Justice could practice this week. In the past, when he’s been good, he’s been good enough. To be fair to Dunlap, he shows flashes of good enough, too. But this is a team that is talking about winning a Super Bowl, which begs the question: is good enough good enough?
This is the decision they will have to make, and everyone knows it: to go with Dunlap or Justice at right tackle, and hope, or to move Todd Herremans over from left guard and then insert, say, Jamaal Jackson into Herremans’ old spot. Jackson is a pro and would be a stable player, and Herremans would settle down a right side desperately in need of some settling.
That’s the move.
After last night, it would seem to be time to make it.