Carolina's season and home opener will be the first true taste of football this returning team will face - all the statements of returning 20 starters, or being the league's fourth youngest team, those won't matter. Injuries stop being a point to cover - it's time to go with what you have.
The 9-6-1 Eagles last year were a playoff team; they snuck in but went deep, playing in the NFC Championship game at Arizona. They finished the year hitting stride on both phases, got hot at the right time, and hope to carry that over to this year. Coach Andy Reid mostly stayed put in free agency, having only spent big on the offense line (money that seems, at this point, mis-spent). Like Carolina, Philadelphia seemed content to stand pat on last year's success.
The offense must carry this team, so offense will get its matchups first.
CAROLINA OFFENSE V/S PHILADELPHIA DEFENSE
Philly lost its defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson, to cancer in the offseason. They lost their young starting MLB Stewart Bradley to an ACL injury. So, this isn't the team that finished 3rd in yards given up in 2008. They didn't sign a significant free agent on defense, and 5th round pick Macho Harris was the team's highest defensive addition - he's forced into action at FS to replace long-time Eagle favorite Brian Dawkins. Some of the heart and soul has been ripped of this class defense, and it showed in preseason with numerous mistakes. It will be interesting to see how the Eagles defense will respond if they have problems against the potent Carolina offense.
In what should be the two teams' first real taste of 90-degree gametime weather, depth will be a big deal. Carolina has more offensive depth than the Eagles, but those two units of course don't face each other. Still, while the Eagles' DL is deep, it's not as experienced or as talented as hoped.
A prime matchup shows Steve Smith on storied corner Asante Samuel. The 5'10 190 lb corner and 5'9, 200 lb receiver are a Pro Bowl matchup, and both are physical players. The Eagles would certainly prefer to leave Samuel on Smith and not require a double; Smith will attempt to find ways to get free against one of the league's best corners. If the Carolina running game can force an 8th man in the box, it should force the Eagles into a lot more man - cover situations.
So, with that in play, the Panthers must distribute the ball more freely. They got significant experience with this in preseason, using the TEs and backs more to sustain drives, which allows more carries for the RBs. TEs Jeff King and Dante Rosario have both weight and height on safeties Harris and Quentin Mikell, and on the Eagles undersized linebackers. Omar Gaither, the replacement MLB, isn't the playmaker Bradley is, and he's not the cover man Bradley is. The Eagles were 19th best in the league covering the tight end, their worst ranking against any position, and are missing some of their key components, so the tight end should be worth some tough receptions at the sidelines and up the middle of the field.
Muhsin Muhammad matches up against corner Sheldon Brown, another high energy, physical DB. The hard hitting Brown is a solid matchup, but gives up height. Ellis Hobbs is the nickel, coming over from the Patriots, and has a definite experience advantage over Kenny Moore. The team may be better served to use Carolina RBs in space to spread the Eagles' base defense instead of going to 3 WR and getting the Eagles into 3 WR.
The Eagles bring a lot of players, so screens may be in play. If the Eagles are in nickel and are looking to bring pressure, this is a good counter - getting DBs trying to tackle backs and being blocked out by OL.
In the trenches, Carolina's matchups are favorable on the edges; Carolina only gave up 20 sacks last year. Eagles RDE Trent Cole had 9 sacks last year, and has some speed on the edge; he doesn't give up much to Gross physically, but Gross shouldn't need help. Jeff Otah and left end Victor Abiamiri are a more odd match - at 6'2, 265, Abiamiri is a speed rusher, who may require a chip occasionally but is generally harmless. The third year end has only started one game, and only two sacks. They liberally rotate in Darren Howard, the former Saints star rusher, and Jason Babin, a former first round pick; Howard had 10 sacks in limited time in 2008.
Inside, Mike Patterson and Brodrick Bunkley are good one-gap run stoppers, but Patterson hasn't become the rusher they expected. Last year's second round pick, Trevor Laws, rotates in but hasn't fully developed. Each of the three are built as generic one-gap DTs - 6'3, 300, good first step, strong. Of the three, Bunkley is the most able, facing Carolina's best guard, Travelle Wharton. Patterson faces Keydrick Vincent, who struggled a bit in pass protection in preseason.
Center Ryan Kalil, of course, faces an open spot against the Eagles' 4-3, but will have keys calling the defense against a very aggressive Eagles' blitzing front. Still, young OLBs Chris Gocong (6'3, 260) and Akeem Jordan (6'1, 230) don't have a lot of experience and two career sacks apiece. Still, the Eagles bring a little of everything - stunts, twists, overloads, corners, safeties. Carolina can build in a little more to the TEs if the RBs are blocking, and vice versa. Leaving at least one hot read open will keep Delhomme at the ready.
Carolina gets Jonathan Stewart back for the first time since last season, and will need him. Philadelphia's defense struggled in preseason, but it would be a mistake to suggest that will continue. Philadelphia was 3rd against the run last year, and 9th against power running. They were 7th in stops behind the line of scrimmage. They were top ten in outside runs and against the right end; they were 24th against left end and 21st between the DTs, leaving a bit of a weakness in the middle. With Bradley out, that shouldn't change. Carolina will attack the middle to attempt to catch Philadelphia in stunts and blitzes, and will continue to do plenty of lead runs with FB Brad Hoover.
Carolina runs the least of any team in the league out of 3+ WR, and in this case there's no reason to. While they do block well on the edges, the team is more suited to power running. They can block better one on one and win those matchups, but should only consider running in 3 WR if the Eagles consistently bring the SS up.
EAGLES OFFENSE V/S PANTHERS DEFENSE
The Eagles are, as always, a pass first team. The WCO based team doesn't have a significant run threat despite solid vetern RB Brian Westbrook. Their attempts at adding beef and experience to the OL failed due to injuries; consequently, the first team line hasn't worked together in preseason. It will start inexperienced backups at LG and RT and have two others nursing injuries to play. Since the Eagles' OL is banged up, Carolina will have a decent shot at getting to McNabb if coverage holds up. As always, with running QBs, there's a problem with losing contain and letting him run free. The Eagles only gave up 23 sacks last year, but their revamped line isn't totally in place.
With RT Winston Justice in, Carolina has a legitimate shot at making dents in McNabb. Justice's last start, against the Giants, saw him getting rocked for four sacks. He'll face Tyler Brayton, rookie Everette Brown, and most likely a bit of Julius Peppers as well. Left tackle Jason Peters nursed injuries throughout camp; he's a Pro Bowl player but gave up over ten sacks last year. Peppers can certainly pace Peters throughout the game. LG Todd Herremanns gives way to Nick Cole; Stacy Andrews has been banged up at RG. This may actually be a situation where Carolina's strength at DE, and lack of strength at DT, won't hurt them.
McNabb's still got a deep arm, but in this offense, his reads are more often inside-out. He's going to start with the shorter reads first. Carolina was #4 in the league covering RBs, and hopefully that passes along to 2009. Westbrook finished 2nd on the Eagles in 2008 with 54 catches, and led the team with 5 receiving TDs. He's almost always on the field in passing situations, giving way to rookie Lesean McCoy for base snaps. The Eagles were 22nd in rushing offense last year, don't do well in power situations, and don't rely on the run much at all. A quarter of their runs are draws; they definitely set up the run using the pass, but even then only somewhat well.
Desean Jackson is their playmaker at WR; they don't have much else. The speedy Jackson is going to require press at the line and a trailing safety. Otherwise? They cut Kevin Curtis, they kept Reggie Brown but don't plan to activate him; that leaves Hank Baskett, Jason Avant, and rookie Jeremy Maclin looking for the scraps. Don't leave them uncovered and you shouldn't hear from them. TE Brent Celek should take on a larger role without LJ Smith on staff; that could push him toward 5+ receptions per game. Of course, with the Eagles' short passing game, tackling is a must, and the Panthers haven't done that well.
Improvement there is a must.