When looking at the key match-ups from week to week it is easy to always pick the big names (Peppers, Gamble, Beason), which I try to shy away from, instead choosing players that I think will have to step up their game for the Panthers to win. Yet saying it's the first game of the season I thought I'd start with the usual suspects as there are plenty of questions to go around.
1. DE Julius Peppers vs T Jason Peters
After the offseason showdown, and now receiving $1+ million per game, everyone is expecting Peppers to produce. He lack of production during the preseason is a concern. He has stated he prefers to lead by example instead of words. Well, now is the time to produce and lead in his own way.
He will primarily line up against All-Pro LT Jason Peters. Peters was acquired from the Bills during the offseason and although he gave up a league high 11.5 sacks last season, he will be formidable first opponent for Peppers. The Eagles have a great line coach in Juan Castillo, having coached four lineman to the Pro Bowl in his career. He has also has created several offensive line starters from rookie free agents, including current start C Jamaal Jackson. Jason Peters was already good, but his coach could make him that much better.
However, also starting Sunday on the other side of their line is backup T Winston Justice. The regular start, Shawn Andrews, is out with back problems. Justice is a very questionable in his ability and whoever plays left end, or if Peppers moves to LE during the game, could be poised for a big day.
Peppers is on a short leash with the fans and he will need a stellar performance to hold of his detractors.
2. MLB Jon Beason vs RB Brian Westbrook / TE Brent Celek
Beason is on the list because he's been injured and is the leader of the defense and we all know the D didn't look strong during the preseason. They say they are ready to play and that they haven't all played together won't make a difference and they feel confident at with their abilities. There will be a lot of hard games this year but Beason will have a lot to watch for during this first game.
With the west coast offense the Eagles use, the short yardage passes could definitely cause problems. Westbrook is a key player for the Eagles. His durability has been questioned saying he hasn't completed a full season of games in his career. He had two offseason knee surgeries and just turn 30, the magical age for RB. However, since he is used often in screen it will probably be a bigger match up with LB Thomas Davis.
Another concern for Beason will be new starter TE Brent Celek. This is his second NFL season and there are indications he could be a significant fixture in their plans. Beason will have to account for him coming across the middle as well as protecting against the run.
3. CB Chris Gamble vs WR DeSean Jackson
Gamble received a huge contract at the end of last season. During the preseason he didn't play like a quality starter, let alone a shutdown corner that he is now paid to be. Some of this falls on the defensive scheme, playing soft zones, but there is no question he was badly beaten during the Baltimore game. If the Panthers expect to win on Sunday, Gamble will have to have a much better game.
To do so he will have to face second year WR DeSean Jackson, who last year broke the Eagles rookie receiving records for total yards and their leading receiver in 2008. With a year under his belt he is expected to fill a huge role in the Eagles plans.
Like Peppers, the fans are looking for Gamble to play up to his contract or we won't be happy about it.
4. Panthers DTs vs RB Brian Westbrook
Not that Westbrook is known as a power runner but saying our middle has some large (pun intended) questions it could be several games into the season before we truly know how they will perform. If the Eagles don't test the the middle of our defensive line, I would seriously question their game prep. Until our DT's prove themselves on the field, every team is going to press the middle. If our they don't play well it will be a long night and season.
However, the Eagles will also be missing their starting LG Todd Herremans. It is being reported that backup C Nick Cole will most likely replace him. Yet Cole is also on the injury report as probable. I don't know much about Cole, but the Eagles though enough of him to offer him a restricted FA contract that he signed. Saying the Eagles offensive line is a mess it could be just enough for our defensive line to look okay and take care of business this week. Also giving new DT Loius Leonard and Re'Shon Harris a week to get their feet under them.
5. CB Richard Marshall
Marshall was suppose to be the only new starter until Kemo was injured. Many are happy to forget the player that he is replacing, but Marshall is still an unproven starter and will have to prove his abilities on the field. Unless they always put Gamble across from Jackson, Marshall will see his share of him as well. This is his chance to shine and we will all be watching closely.
Basically take your pick this week about which defensive player you have questions about and most likely they are valid. But these are the one I think will be the most important this week as we prepare to start our season on a positive note.