Answering 3 Eagles questions

Andy Reid celebrates after a review of wideout Mardy Gilyard's end zone catch was ruled a touchdown in the third quarter. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)

For Eagles fans, it may have been great to see Nick Foles and several other rookies make prominent debuts, and for Trent Edwards fans it must have been great just to see him on the field for the first time since 2010.

But last night’s 24-23 victory over Pittsburgh raised a few questions—some lingering from the 2011 season.

Are the linebackers in over their heads?

I mean that literally; the Eagles have the smallest linebackers in the NFC East by far, and against the Steelers the first-team group appeared to be muscled out of play after play.

Brian Rolle (5-foot-10), DeMeco Ryans (6-1), and Mychal Kendricks (5-11) may be quick and instinctive, but if the defensive line doesn’t hold off offensive linemen who tower over the group, the Eagles are in a world of trouble similar to last season’s linebacking woes. 

Where are the big, bruising ‘backers? On other teams.

Of the 14 linebackers set to start in the NFC East , the Eagles have three of the five shortest. Every linebacker on Dallas and New York is bigger.

Granted, the Eagles were missing three-fourths of their starting defensive line due to injuries, so the top-line support wasn’t there. But Rolle, Ryans and Kendricks aren’t getting any taller this season.

And the dinking and dunking by Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, who led a 16-play drive that consumed almost 10 minutes, is a blueprint for playing the Eagles.

All but two projected starting tight ends the Eagles face this year are at least 6-foot-4, and that group includes Pro Bowl-caliber stars like New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham (99 catches), Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew (83), Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez (80), and Dallas’ Jason Witten (79).

DeMeco Ryans was asked what he and the linebackers could work on as a result of the game. “The fundamentals—getting off blocks, tackling—you can’t work enough of that,” he said.

Um, yeah. This question clearly remains unanswered.

Can the defensive line save the linebackers’ shortcomings?

Somehow, without Jason Babin, Trent Cole, and Cullen Jenkins, who combined for 34.5 of the team’s 50 sacks last year, the Eagles racked up seven sacks against Pittsburgh.

It was an impressive performance, especially since Phillip Hunt (2 sacks), Brandon Graham (1), and Cedric Thornton (1) were on the hot seat to step up their play. And Derek Landri, who had a solid game, forced another sack with his pressure on Roethlisberger.

“I thought we were playing on the other side of the ball,” said an impressed coach Andy Reid. “There were just some good things in there by the young players.”

Second-year defensive line coach Jim Washburn got a full year of teaching and Organized Team Activities after 2011’s truncated offseason, and the results could pay off this year. He also got two potentially big additions in first- and second-round picks defensive end Fletcher Cox and defensive tackle Vinny Curry.

The Eagles tied for the NFL lead in sacks last year and added talented young players to the mix. So the short answer to this question is a definite maybe.

Do the Eagles finally have a legitimate kickoff returner?

Reid doesn’t always learn his lessons quickly (time management, and drafting first-round linebackers are still on his to-do list), but he seems to have learned something about playmakers.

When you have them, you have a better chance to win. Similar to how he realized it was better to have DeSean Jackson than James Thrash, Reid drafted a potential weapon to help his kickoff return team.

Brandon Boykin wasn’t just a good returner in college—he was among the all-time best. He won the Paul Hornung Award as college football’s most versatile player, and tied the Southeastern Conference record of four career kickoff returns for touchdown (along with Willie Gault and Felix Jones).

His 46-yarder on his first return Thursday night matches the Eagles’ longest for the past two seasons. “Coach [Bobby] April told me later I was eight yards deep—but I wanted to take it,” Boykin said.

Starting field position is crucial; however, opponents have averaged more yards per return in seven of the last nine seasons and the Eagles have only one kickoff return touchdown in the last decade.

Last night, thanks to Boykin’s three returns for 89 yards, the Eagles’ kickoff return average was almost double the Steelers’ (27 yards to 14).

As DeSean Jackson has shown with his four punt returns for touchdowns in the last four years, returners can win games.

With Boykin back there, it appears Reid can check off one item on his to-do list.