LeSean McCoy vs. Browns run defense
One of the few areas we didn't cover in our chat with WFNY's Scott Sargent earlier in the week was the Browns run defense, which ranked 30th in the NFL last season. Don't expect it to be a whole lot better right off the bat in 2012, either.
Cleveland lost defensive tackle Phil Taylor to a torn triceps over the offseason, and the promising second-year player will miss at least the first part of the season. The injury weakens a front four that even with Taylor's presence allowed 4.4 yards per carry in '11. Further compounding the issue, the injury to Chris Gocong and suspension of Scott Fujita has left the Browns with a collection of nondescript linebackers surrounding D'Qwell Jackson in the middle. Rookies will see significant action on both the defensive line and at outside linebacker.
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Meanwhile, Michael Vick did not get much playing time during the preseason, what with his injuries and all. Obviously Andy Reid will try to get him into the flow of the game, but if the quarterback shows any rust, it makes sense to lean heavily on the running game to secure this outcome. Look for a big day from LeSean McCoy, and plenty of touches for either Dion Lewis or Bryce Brown -- or both -- late in the game once the Eagles have their opponent on ice.
Jason Babin vs. Mitchell Schwartz
An area we did address with our Cleveland counterpart was the match-up of the Eagles defensive line against the Browns offensive line, and specifically Babin against Schwartz. A second-round pick out of Cal, the rookie Schwartz is starting his first game at right tackle, and right out of the gate he draws 18 sacks in 2011 as his assignment.
Schwartz could very well be a capable player, maybe even good enough to stonewall Pro Bowlers, but this is his first day, and Babin has made a fool of even the most proven commodities. The Browns will undoubtedly help Schwartz with TE Ben Watson, and the good news for them is they have perennial Pro Bowler Joe Thomas working against Trent Cole on the other side, but Babin has to be frothing at the mouth while staring across at his competition. It could be a long day for Brandon Weeden in the backfield once #93 gets going.
Eagles linebackers vs. Trent Richardson
The Browns coaching staff will be looking for some way to take the pressure off of their rookie quarterback, and they have a shiny new toy in Richardson, who is seemingly healthy after a preseason clean-up procedure on his knee. In the Eagles wide-9 scheme, it's seemingly a question of when, not if, Richardson will get into the defense's second level, which is where they struggled so much last season.
This is where we'll finally get a glimpse of what exactly the team acquired when they traded for DeMeco Ryans in the middle. Ryans didn't make a bunch of plays in the backfield or anything like that this summer, but he did show a knack for getting off of blocks -- something Eagles linebackers have really failed at in the past -- and he was always in the right position, so instead of runs breaking into the secondary for seven yards, eight yards, or more, most were ending after three or four.
And tackling is a huge part as well. Richardson is an absolute beast of a man who squats 700 lbs. like it's no big deal. Getting this guy to the ground is not easy. Again this is an area where Ryans traditionally excelled, though putting hands on such an insane athlete is no simple matter either. Mychal Kendricks demonstrated he can swarm the ball carrier, but his ability to wrap up will be put to the test against Richardson, as will Akeem Jordan's, who took over for Brian Rolle late in camp.
Eagles wide receivers vs. Sheldon Brown
Joe Haden has escaped suspension (for now), so Cleveland's second-ranked secondary remains intact for Week 1. Haden is on the verge of superstardom in this league if he can convert on a few more big plays, so don't expect DeSean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin to just go easily flying by the guy.
Sheldon Brown is another story. As we mentioned in our look back on the trade that sent the former Bird to Brown town, Sheldon has remained a mostly reliable corner for that defense, but his age is definitely beginning to show. Brown was never the guy who ran the fastest 40 time, but now that he's lost a step or two, he can be a liability in deep coverage, especially against the type of weapons Vick has.
Make no mistake, the Browns aren't likely to let Jackson or Maclin go running by their decrepit cornerback. There will be plenty of safety help over the top, as there always is whenever Djacc is on the field. Whether or not the Eagles can expose this apparent mismatch will be one of the keys to the game however -- not necessarily for big plays, but can the receivers create separation on the short and intermediate routes where Sheldon is stuck in one-on-one situations.
Brent Celek and Clay Harbor vs. Browns linebackers
Once again those outside linebackers are coming into play, only this time if they are asked to cover the Eagles' tight ends. If Vick has trouble finding targets on the outside, he may have his security blankets down the seam instead.
After a slow start in 2011, Celek turned it on down the stretch. As long as he's not required to help constantly in pass protection -- a major concern again this season with King Dunlap at left tackle -- he can be a serious weapon in the passing game. Harbor could find himself taking on a more prevalent role in the offense as well, particularly against a defense that could be prone to a two tight end attack that forces mismatches on outside linebackers. Again, the Browns were stingy against the pass last year, and we all know Andy Reid wants to throw the ball, so heavy involvement of Celek and Harbor might be a potential solution.