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Five Eagles We’re Watching on Defense vs. Pittsburgh

Aug 9, 2012, 12:00 PM EDT

Five Eagles players to watch on defense tonight in the preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

We are only hours away from an Eagles kickoff, and while we have to keep telling ourselves it’s only preseason, we are genuinely excited for some football around here. Yesterday we talked about our five Eagles we’ll be watching on offense in tonight’s game, so naturally today we’re delving into the other side of the ball.

The defense will be without several big-name players tonight, so the star power is a bit lacking, but the starters generally play a quarter max in the first preseason game anyway. That put the emphasis on a collection of young players, and we’re struck by how many could play important roles for Juan Castillo in the season ahead. Up first though, he’s a new face, but a name that’s been around the league for awhile.

DeMeco Ryans

It’s amazing to think that the Birds have not had a stable situation at middle linebacker since heading into the ’09 campaign. Undoubtedly the Eagles’ biggest offseason acquisition, Thursday marks the first time we’ll get a glimpse of two-time Pro Bowler DeMeco Ryans in midnight green. Heralded not only as the answer in the middle of the defense, but also as the group’s leader, all eyes will be on Ryans tonight to see if he is 100% after suffering a ruptured Achilles two seasons ago.

The concern in Philly is the team acquired damaged goods in their trade with the Texans. Houston was willing to part with Ryans for a fourth-round pick and a swap of thirds, in part because he didn’t fit their switch to a 3-4 defense, in part because they were no longer getting their money’s worth at $6 million-plus per year. Ryans saw his role reduced in the new system, appearing in less than 60% of the club’s snaps in 2011.

His reduction in playing time could be explained one of two ways. Some worry the coaches simply lost confidence in Ryans after his injury, but in reality the Texans spent a lot of the time in dime personnel, which replaces one of the interior linebackers with a defensive back to better defend against the pass. That’s the big difference as Ryans moves back to the 4-3 where he’s most comfortable. The Eagles are counting on him as a three-down linebacker, so his athleticism coming off of that injury will be tested in coverage tonight.

Along with rookie Mychal Kendricks and second-year backer Brian Rolle, the Birds debut an all-new look at linebacker tonight. It should be a lot of fun.

Brandon Graham

Both Jason Babin and Trent Cole were ruled out tonight, so Brandon Graham should not only start, but see plenty of action throughout. It will be the first significant playing time for the former first-round pick since December 2010, as his recovery from microfracture surgery limited him to three games and 56 snaps last season. As we wrote about previously, it’s critical that Graham make an impression in these exhibitions if he has a chance to crack the rotation at defensive end and shake the bust label. Very excited to see what he can do in year three.

Fletcher Cox

This one is a no-brainer, and arguably could have topped the list. The Eagles moved up three spots in April’s draft to select Fletcher Cox with the 12th overall pick, so naturally we want to see what the new kid brings to the table. Standing 6-4, 298 lbs., the 21 year old has been billed as a penetrating defensive tackle who will disrupt plays in the backfield and could eventually draw double teams — a perfect fit for D-line coach Jim Washburn’s scheme.

While we just want to see if Cox is as good as advertised, it will also be interesting to see if the coaches move him around at all. Chances are they will save this look for a real situation, but there has been talk of Cox also lining up on the end.

Curtis Marsh

Curtis Marsh is another young player we already discussed a couple weeks back, as he has stepped into the role as the primary backup to Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at corner this offseason. He’ll get plenty of action with the twos, but we’ll be looking for the package with all three on the field at the same time — Marsh and DRC on the outside, Asomugha on the inside. A third-round pick who seldom played in his rookie season, Marsh has good size (6-1, 197) and is physical with receivers. It will be our first real shot of him since last summer.

Jaiquawn Jarrett

jarrett.camp

Yet another kid, at one point second-year safety Jaiquawn Jarrett was having one of the more tumultuous offseasons of anybody on the roster. Coaches were mum on Jarrett during mini-camps, and afterward the team signed veteran O.J. Atogwe, all of which caused many in the media to openly wonder whether the Temple product would even wind up making the team.

When Jarrett was taken in the second round of 2011′s draft, there was an expectation he would make an immediate impact in the secondary. Instead he was lost, and despite poor safety play especially early on in the season, JJ couldn’t get on the field. Of course, he had a fairly reasonable excuse not being ready to hit the ground running in that the lockout wiped away off-season programs that are especially valuable to incoming rookies. After all, the safety position isn’t all about running around making big hits.

With Nate Allen our of the lineup tonight, all of a sudden Jarrett is likely in the starting lineup alongside Kurt Coleman, which would put to rest any ideas the coaches were just going to give up on him after last season. He still has a long way to go before shaking the stigma that he was a reach, and we suspect he’ll stay on the field for awhile when the rest of the starters come out, as every rep is crucial right now. Clearly though the playing field is finally level for Jarrett this year.