The hot topic tomorrow will be how Casey Matthews, the rookie middle linebacker making his first start, looked against another team. Grading a middle linebacker is a hard thing for fans to do. Unlike a kicker or receiver, it is hard to tell if a linebacker was responsible for any mishap that may happen on defense.
But what can we expect, and look for, from Matthews tonight? Here are some things the coaches will be looking at.
Play Calling: Physically, the adjustment from college football to the NFL is hard on every player. But for certain positions, like quarterback and safety, the mental aspect is just as important. Middle Linebacker is also one of those positions, especially now that they are responsible for making the calls. Their is a big difference between calling the plays in the quite confines of Lehigh University and the packed, loud environment of Lincoln Financial Field. The coaches will keep a close eye on how Matthews does getting the play to his teammates, and adjusting to anything he sees once the defense is lined up. Matthews must also demand his respect of his teammates, which unlike last year, are filled with Pro-Bowl players.
Tackling: At 6’2 & 232 pounds, Matthews is small compared to other middle linebackers in the league. One issue the Eagles linebackers have had in the past few years is being able to shed blocks and get to the ball. Ernie Sims, who did not play the middle, is a prime example of someone who was unable to get off a block and make a play. Matthews needs to show tonight that despite his small stature, he is able to get to the ball and finish the play. That also means tackling, as Matthews will have to show he can still bring people down at this level. Matthews has done that in practice, but tonight will be his first true test in that area.
Coverage: Matthews is not known for his speed, but has had a decent camp in coverage. In one-on-one drills, Matthew has done a good job staying with running backs and tight ends. Matthews will not find himself lined up with a tight end often during a game, as Jamaar Chaney should get that responsibility. But Matthews will have to drop back in zone coverage at time, and if he is a liability in the middle of the field, the Eagles cannot afford to keep him in their.
Play making: At the end of the day, Matthews will be able to keep his job if he does one thing: make plays. The Eagles have not had a play making linebacker since Jeremiah Trotter- the first time around. Matthews may not be the biggest or fastest, but he knows the game and is able to make plays. Matthews finished with 3 sacks and 3 interceptions last season with Oregon. Tonight, Matthews may not be able to make as many plays as he will later in the year with experience, but it will be important for Matthews to get around the ball tonight. If Matthews can show on film to the coaches that he is making correct reads, reacting to it, and trying to make a play, it will go a long way in him keeping his starting job.