What We Learned
Three things we know after the Rams' 20-17 OT victory
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
PHILADELPHIA -- In a first-week showdown that lived up to its hype, the Rams' new-look defense prevailed against an Eagles offense that was once again almost exclusively reliant on quarterback Donovan McNabb. Here are three observations from St. Louis' 20-17 overtime victory at Veterans Stadium:
1. The comeback of Eagles running back Duce Staley is a work still very much in progress.
Staley's first regular-season appearance since Oct. 1 was the very definition of a mixed bag. In the Eagles' passing game, he was a factor, leading all receivers with 11 catches for 81 yards. Five of those receptions for 43 yards came in the pivotal fourth quarter, when Philadelphia rallied from a 17-3 deficit to force overtime.
But the Eagles' running game was non-existent, outside of McNabb, a situation that all too closely mirrored last year after Staley went down with a season-ending foot injury. Staley rushed just nine times for 9 yards against St. Louis, with a long gain of 7. In the second half, he had a paltry two carries for 2 yards.
Staley will have to do better than that to lighten the burden that rests on McNabb. The Eagles' multitasking quarterback ran for 48 of his team's 57 rushing yards, and threw for all 312 on 32-of-48 passing. That means he accounted for 360 of the Eagles' total of 369 gross yards (McNabb lost 35 yards on five sacks). That ratio even dwarfs last season's gaudy performance, when McNabb had a hand in 75 percent of the Eagles' offense, which ranked as the highest total for any player on a playoff team.
On the positive side, Staley ran hard and well when he got the ball in the passing game, and showed no signs of lingering foot problems. He punished tacklers, as always, and had bursts of corner-turning acceleration. But until he turns back into the 1,000-yard rushing threat that he was in 1998-99, Staley won't be the weapon that the Eagles desperately need.
2. Todd Pinkston established himself as the best of the Eagles' new-look receiving corps. Nobody else came close to making a first-game impact.
You can't fault Philadelphia for deciding it could never get to the next level with Charles Johnson and Torrance Small as its starters. But you just can't say the decision to release both players this offseason was a wise one based on Sunday. So far, the Eagles aren't better off at receiver. They're just different.
But there was hope on one front. When McNabb needed to make a play against St. Louis, he looked Pinkston's way. On the Eagles' first six drives, McNabb threw at the team's No. 2 pick in 2000 eight times. Pinkston caught four of those passes for 46 yards. He finished with seven receptions for a game-best 99 yards, including a team-high long gain of 27.
Pinkston, getting his first shot at a full-time starting role, consistently found the soft spots in the Rams' secondary and caught nearly everything he got his hands on. But he was the exception at the position. McNabb's first completion of the game to a receiver was to Pinkston, with 3:15 remaining in the first quarter.
Free-agent signee James Thrash, who was expected to be the team's lead receiver even though he's got third-receiver skills, caught just one pass for 11 yards and didn't even have a ball thrown his way until 6:01 remained in the third quarter. Third wide receiver Na Brown added two catches for a respectable 36 yards.
And then there was No. 1 pick Freddie Mitchell. Billed as the big-play element that the Eagles sorely lacked, Mitchell had no catches, no balls thrown at him, and from all indications, left the bench only once. He reported into the game for the first time with seconds remaining in the third quarter, but turned right around and left the field without taking a snap.
Mitchell appears nowhere near making Eagles coaches rethink that trend. His progress has been very slow this season and he is said to be still trying to find his niche in the team's locker room. Confident to the point of brash at times in college, Mitchell's act hasn't worn so well in the NFL, where you have to perform before you're allowed to pop off.
3. The Rams did the rest of the NFL a favor by providing a blueprint for how to contain, or at least slow down, the Eagles' McNabb.
It wasn't exactly a secret, but St. Louis again underlined what a difference it makes if you can keep McNabb from getting outside of the pocket. On the run, McNabb can pick apart a team with either his arm or feet, and get the crowd into the game in the process. But if he's forced to stay at home, thanks to a strong bull rush and defensive ends who box the corners and think containment first, McNabb is rendered noticeably less effective.
At the end of regulation, the Rams had held McNabb to 18-of-31 passing for 157 yards when he stayed in the pocket. But when he was on the move, McNabb was a much more dangerous 11-of-14 for 136 yards. He also finished as his team's leading rusher with nine carries for 48 yards.
New Rams defensive coordinator Lovie Smith has seen it from both sides now. As the Bucs' linebackers coach last year, he watched as McNabb picked apart Tampa Bay's defense with 22-of-33 passing (with eight rushes for 32 yards) in the Eagles' convincing 20-3 first-round playoff defeat of the Bucs.
The Rams' whole defensive game plan was to rotate eight relatively fresh defensive linemen, in order to keep the heat on McNabb without over-relying on the blitz. Sacks weren't as important as pressure and the ability to keep McNabb contained between his offensive tackles. Stuffing the Eagles' running game also was prioritized, in that it shifted more of the burden onto McNabb's out-of-the-pocket game.
The Rams wound up sacking McNabb five times for 35 yards, which they viewed as icing on the cake. But when he got room to roam in the fourth quarter, McNabb again made things happen, almost single-handedly fueling the Philadelphia comeback.
Stop McNabb? It's easier said than executed. But Sunday, the Rams showed how it can be done.