10 Things To Watch: Eagles vs. Steelers

Philadelphia Eagles undrafted free agent Damaris Johnson.Football in Philadelphia makes its long-awaited return tonight as the Eagles host the Steelers at Lincoln Financial Field.

Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m., and the game will be broadcast locally on 6-ABC.

Tim and I will be there, and we’ll be hosting a live chat right here, so be sure to join us.

Meanwhile, here’s a cheat-sheet for you: 10 things to keep an eye on this evening.

1. Andy Reid – It’s been the toughest week of the coach’s career. As recently as last week, talk in this town centered around whether Reid would be coaching for his job in 2012. Since his son, Garrett, died Sunday morning, Reid and his family have been overwhelmed by support from the fans, the league and others.

I’ve noticed it too – talk-show callers, online commenters and so on. Those who are usually Reid’s harshest critics are now squarely in his corner. Eagles fans have had ups and downs with the coach over the last 13 years, but it’s clear that those in attendance at the Linc are going to do whatever they can tonight to support him. It should be a special moment when Reid first walks onto the field, or when his face is first shown on the big screen.

2. The return game – The Eagles got nothing from their punt and kickoff return units last year, as DeSean Jackson and Dion Lewis struggled to make things happen. To start the preseason, Damaris Johnson and Brandon Boykin will get a chance to lock down the punt and kickoff return jobs, respectively. Johnson, an undrafted free agent out of Tulsa, has a real shot to make the team with a strong preseason. Boykin will make the team regardless, but the Eagles want to see him stand out on kickoff returns. Remember, returns are difficult to simulate in practice without live hitting on special teams, so the preseason really is important here.

3. Bryce Brown/Chris Polk – I’d be surprised if Dion Lewis didn’t start the season as LeSean McCoy’s backup, but there’s still room for competition. After a stellar high school career, Brown ran into issues at both Tennessee and Kansas State. Consider this: Brown has carried the ball just three times in game action since November 28, 2009. That’s a span of nearly three years. There’s no doubt that the seventh-round pick is anxious to show what he can do, and he told me last week he’s on every special-teams unit right now, trying to find some way to make the team.

Polk, meanwhile, has started to come on. He had a 50-yard run last week and looks comfortable as a blocker and a receiver. There’s a small chance that both Brown and Polk make the team, but more likely, they are fighting for one roster spot.

4. Brandon Graham – The former first-round pick said he’s tired of talking and ready to show what he can do. He’s had a solid training camp, and with Trent Cole and Jason Babin sidelined, Graham will get plenty of reps early on vs. the Steelers. He had three sacks and 13 hurries as a rookie, but battled injuries (and his weight) last season. Graham won’t really prove anything until the real games begin, but tonight is another step in the process.

5. Boykin vs. Hanson – The Eagles know what they have in Joselio Hanson , a player who’s been with the team since 2006. They need to find out if Boykin can wrestle the nickel corner spot away from the veteran. If he can, Hanson will likely be cut. If he can’t, the Eagles will have to keep both corners and make a cut somewhere else. Boykin has looked good at Lehigh, but will need to prove himself in game action in the coming weeks.

6. McBriar vs. Henry – I realize a punter battle isn’t going to get anyone out of their seat, but the Eagles have plenty of room for improvement on special teams. Chas Henry was unimpressive as a rookie, and if Mat McBriar is healthy, he’s the favorite to win this job. On the Eagles’ official depth chart, McBriar iss listed as the No. 1 punter.

7. Demetress Bell – Filling in for Jason Peters will be no easy task. He’s certainly shown athleticism at training camp, but Howard Mudd needs to be comfortable with him by the time Week 1 rolls around. This will be Bell’s first game action. Pay special attention to running plays designed to go to the left side. The Eagles might even try a screen or two to that side to test his athleticism.

8. DeMeco Ryans - For the first part of training camp, he pretty much blended in with the group. But in recent practices, he’s started to show glimpses of the player the Eagles described when they acquired him from the Texans in the offseason. At Lehigh, Ryans has stayed on the field in nickel situations. Keep an eye on how he looks in coverage.

9. Jaiquawn Jarrett – Nate Allen won’t play, meaning Jarrett will get plenty of chances to show that he’s improved this offseason. The 2011 second-round pick  has had a few stand-out moments at training camp, but still needs to show that he’s not a liability in coverage. Oshiomogho Atogwe, who is more of a free safety, could mix in alongside Kurt Coleman as well.

10. Danny Watkins – He’s been a bit of a forgotten man this summer. Optimists point out that the Eagles’ offensive line could be better in 2012, even without Peters. The thinking is that second-year players Jason Kelce and Watkins will improve, and Todd Herremans, who was plugged in at right tackle just before the 2011 season started, will benefit from having played there for a full year. The spotlight for me is on Watkins. He played hesitant for much of his rookie year, and while Watkins had good moments as a run blocker, he struggled in pass protection. The Eagles need the former first-round pick to live up to expectations.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

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  • billybob

    I heard somewhere that Brandon Graham was not going to play tonight due to a shoulder injury. Is this true?

    • http://twitter.com/mstry001 Viral

      trent cole hve shoulder injury.

  • mattieboy

    is there a way to watch this game online??

    • Philly0312

      The NFL actually has a package you can buy at their website for $20 which will give u full preseason access.

      • Septhinox

        use the promo code “directv” and it’s $16.99.

      • Rob

        FYI- for those of you interested in the package, the promo code “directv” will get you another $3 off ($16.99).

    • Septhinox

      Meant to reply to you.

      use the promo code “directv” and it’s $16.99.

  • Philly0312

    Harder to convert HB to FB than people realize? It’s likely one of the absolute easiest conversions in all of football…not that makes it easy – its just harder to turn a safety into a corner, a guard into a tackle, an outside corner to slot, a left tackle to right tackle…But FB is one of the easiest positions to learn in football, and the hardest part is having a desire to block and having the size…I’d say hes 10lbs too light, but that can be fixed, hes a rookie. Maybe not this year, but give a year on practice squad and maybe.

    • dusk2k3

      If Polk gets cut, he won’t make it to the practice squad. If he does, he’ll be picked up by another NFL team with a thinner backfield.

  • Merdinus

    The o-line has a funny history. Last year they had four question marks and Jason Peters. This year they only have one question mark, Jason Peters’ replacement. I assumed they’d do worse this year (because Peters can’t be fully replaced), but that’s fair to say that the other four might make up for the LT downgrade (nothing against Bell, but Peters was awesome – just ask Cris Collinsworth and Howard Mudd).