Eagles vs. Steelers: Three things to watch

Demetress Bell will see his first game action with the Eagles on Thursday. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

The death of coach Andy Reid’s son, Garrett, will impact the tenor of the Eagles’ first preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday night, particularly if Reid does coach, as expected, and when Eagles fans show him their support, as is certain.

Still, the game is a big first test for several Eagles, even though it’s only the first preseason game and it’s likely that most of the regular-season starters will be out of the game before all the tailgaters finally find their seats.

Here are three things to watch as the Eagles take the field for the first time in 2012:

1. The new veterans 

New middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and new left tackle Demetress Bell are the only veteran starters new to the offense or defense. It’s vital they fit in quickly with their units, especially since the Eagles play six 2011 playoff teams in their first eight games.

Ryans’ performance throughout the preseason will be the more scrutinized of the two. He’s known as an instinctive linebacker, and since he’s learning a new defensive scheme, he’ll need to show he understands the concepts and is reacting on the field rather than thinking.

It’s hard to gauge how quickly Ryans is learning the system simply by watching drills and 11-on-11s, but games will be the real tests.

As for Bell, it’s hard to replace a five-time Pro Bowler like Jason Peters, who’s out for the year with an Achilles injury. But the offensive line was capable last year with two rookies, so the addition of a veteran shouldn’t be a concern.

2. The backup quarterbacks

Unless Reid and the coaching staff are the best poker players not on the World Series of Poker circuit, there is no quarterback competition in camp.

Mike Kafka, the only backup holdover from last year’s team and the guy getting the large majority of backup reps, is No. 2 behind Michael Vick. Third-round pick Nick Foles is on the third team, as the depth chart shows, and Trent Edwards is biding time until he starts golfing.

But Vick has yet to play a full 16-game season with the Eagles and has done so only once, in 2006, in his nine-year career. So Kafka needs to show he can pull a 2002 A.J. Feeley or a 2006 Jeff Garcia when he’s called on.

In camp, Kafka has shown he knows the system and can hit the short and intermediate passes. Sure, his arm strength won’t let the Eagles stretch the field, but if he can limit turnovers and move the chains, that’s all you can ask from a backup. 

3. The rookies

The young guys will see their largest chunk of preseason playing time in the first game, so those border-line hopefuls looking to make the team need to stand out.

However, the three Eagles rookies under the biggest spotlight Thursday will be starting strongside linebacker Mychal Kendricks and top returners Damaris Johnson and Brandon Boykin.

Last season’s experiment with rookie linebacker Casey Matthews is still fresh in the minds of Eagles fans, so Kendricks needs to transfer the speed and quickness he’s shown in camp into game action. Unlike Matthews, Kendricks isn’t the middle linebacker, so having a veteran like Ryans will help his development.

Johnson and Boykin have the talent to make an impact this season, but there’s a reason there are no rookies on the Eagles late-game “Hands Team.” Special teams coordinator Bobby April loathes turnovers.

April has emphasized to his group how the punt and kick teams can impact a game, even mentioning last year’s NFC Championship miscues by Kyle Williams that kept San Francisco from the Super Bowl. It’ll be a long walk to the sideline for Johnson or Boykin if they mishandle a kick in the first game.