If there is one overwhelmingly obvious strength of the Philadelphia Eagles' defense, it is their cluster of different pass rushing defensive linemen. If there is one overwhelmingly obvious weakness of the New England Patriots' offense, it is their confusion and uncertainty on the offensive line.
With the Eagles and Patriots clashing tonight, in a preseason game that should be of importance to both sides, there is a massive opportunity for the Patriots' offensive line to prove itself...or prove its doubters right.
While plenty of fascinating matchups exist across the field, such as Brandon Lloyd and Nnamdi Asomugha, Rob Gronkowski and Brian Rolle, Demetress Bell and Chandler Jones, it's nearly impossible not to zone in on the trenches tonight.
The Eagles' biggest star upfront is also the least talked about. Trent Cole returns to the field tonight after missing some time recently to test Nate Solder on Tom Brady's blindside. Cole is a very intense football player who plays with great physicality and speed. His relatively low center of gravity and excellent technique allows him to unearth much bigger tackles than Solder.
While Jason Babin gets a lot of attention for his sacks, Cole is a more all around player who will pressure Solder on every down. Solder will have to be totally aware of what Cole is trying to do to him on every single snap because he has a repertoire of moves in the passing game and the tenacity to repeatedly disrupt running plays for losses.
Solder can achieve that by maintaining his balance. Because he has a size advantage, and all the requisite talent to stick with Cole, Solder needs to just make sure he stays between Cole and his assignment at all times. Any lapses in concentration will see plays blown up on a regular basis.
Of course, that is easier said than done. However if Solder wants to be a starting left tackle in the NFL, then these are the kind of assignments he must willingly accept.
Even though Sebastien Vollmer has come off the PUP list recently, it is still unclear whether he will start against the Eagles or not. Whether it is he or Marcus Cannon who gets the nod, both players will be in for a long night. The Eagles rotate defensive linemen constantly. The team's right tackle will see plenty of Jason Babin tonight along with Brandon Graham who spells him.
Graham is a former first round pick trying to re-establish himself after multiple injury issues, while Babin was one of the best pass rushers in the NFL last year. Cannon will likely be out of his depth trying to deal with the wide-9 rushers while Vollmer just needs to prove his health and give the Patriots some positive signs if he is selected.
On the interior of the line Logan Mankins could be set to return. The likelihood is that this will be one game too early for Mankins, but he has always been a tough character who is willing to play through pain. Not that you want your players doing that in the preseason. If Mankins is involved, it will give some clarity about what sort of lineup the Patriots will begin the season with. If not it will be a good test for his teammates against a strong interior defensive line for the Eagles.
Even without Mike Patterson, the Eagles have two quality starters in Derek Landri and Cullen Jenkins. Both tackles are rare specimens in that they can be very effective in both stuffing the run and rushing the passer. There are no easy downs for the Patriots when it comes to dealing with those two. Furthermore, when they go off the field, rookie Fletcher Cox and veteran Antonio Dixon will bring a lot of desire to the field.
Cox in particular has the potential to take over any football game. Fortunately for the Patriots he is still refining his craft, but that does not mean he can't provide a stiff challenge. Dixon has proven in the past that he can take advantage of any weakness on the team's pass protection if given the opportunity.
The Patriots will quickly find out if their line can stand up to the Eagles or not because Tom Brady won't have a pocket to step into if they don't.