Forgive the Philadelphia Eagles if they seem a bit distracted tonight. It's obviously been a tough week in Bethlehem, and now the Eagles have to kick off the preseason against the same squad that embarrassed the "Dream Team" in exhibition play one year ago.
In light of the tragic and sudden death of head coach Andy Reid's son Garrett, expect tonight's game to be quite emotional for a preseason affair. Here are some other things to keep an eye on.
Demetress Bell makes his debut at left tackle
Bell was brought in late in the free-agency period to replace Jason Peters, the All-World tackle who tore his Achilles.
While Peters was the best tackle in the game last year, Bell is the best possible replacement the Eagles could have found on short notice. He surrendered only one sack on 400 snaps last season, earning a ranking as the sixth-most efficient pass-blocker in the league from ProFootballFocus.
The problem is that the four-year veteran has had trouble staying healthy through his four-year career. Thus far in camp, he's holding up (knock on wood), though. Tonight, he'll get his first game action in green, protecting Michael Vick for the entire first quarter against the Steelers.
"Every day he has gotten better," Reid said of Bell this week (via the Courier-Post). "He looks like he is picking things up mentally and we have thrown a ton at him. He's been able to handle that and physically he has gotten better every day out here."
We'll be introduced to the second-team defensive line much earlier than usual
With Mike Patterson (brain sugery) out long term and Jason Babin (calf), Trent Cole (shoulder) and Cullen Jenkins (hamstring) out short term, we'll see plenty of Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Derek Landri, Darryl Tapp, Antonio Dixon, Phillip Hunt and Vinny Curry tonight.
The Eagles are extremely deep up front on defense, but we'll begin to get a real indication of who's ready to work into the rotation right off the bat.
Cox will likely play quite a lot regardless this year, but this is a particularly big opportunity for Graham. The former first-round pick is supposed to take a big leap in his third season, and he's looked healthy and strong in camp.
This'll be only his fourth game since Dec. 2010.
Rookies handle the return duties
The Eagles are looking for a new spark this year in the return game after DeSean Jackson and Dion Lewis struggled to make big plays last year. This year, they're beginning the preseason with two rookies fielding kicks and punts.
Brandon Boykin, a fourth-round cornerback out of Georgia, will return kickoffs early on tonight. He's also competing for reps at corner, so there are very few players who should be watched more closely than him.
Returning punts from the get-go will be Damaris Johnson, who went undrafted out of Tulsa but has impressed the coaches and the media thus far in camp. He holds the NCAA's all-time record for all-purpose yardage, so the Eagles might have found something here.
It's a given, too, that you should keep a close eye on the backup quarterbacks. All four pivots on the roster are expected to play tonight, and there's a clear order: Vick is the top gun, Mike Kafka is the No. 2, rookie Nick Foles is slated to be the third QB and Trent Edwards has work to do.
Inevitably, at some point this year, one of these guys will have to step in and take snaps that matter in place of Vick. The Eagles have to be sure that the right guy is in that second spot.
Check back later tonight for a review.
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