PHILADELPHIA, PA - DECEMBER 18: Michael Vick #7 of the Philadelphia Eagles talks with head coach Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles before a game against the New York Jets at Lincoln Financial Field on December 18, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Football is back.
Yes, it might be the watered down version, but after finishing 8-8 last year the fans and players will be excited to finally put that behind them and start the new season.
The Eagles will get a good test early in the Pittsburgh Steelers, who figures to be Super Bowl contenders and always seem to give the Eagles a hard time.
It will also be the first chance for the coaches to really see what the players fighting to make the roster have in them when the lights go on and the real hitting starts.
Here are some things to watch for tonight:
Andy Reid: Prior to kick off tonight, the Eagles will hold a moment of silence for Garrett Reid. In addition to the pregame gesture, the players will be wearing a decal on the back of their helmets on what is sure to be an emotional night. The chances of Reid showing any emotion due to his son on the sidelines are small, but even before the tragedy, their was talks of fans seeing a new Andy Reid this year. It has already started to happen in his press conference, but will it show up on the sideline?
Clay Harbor/ Brett Brackett: Despite not producing last year (13 rec,163 yds, 1 TD), the position of backup tight end was considered to be a lock for Clay Harbor. While the spot still belongs to Harbor, the emergence of Brett Brackett in training camp has loosened Harbors grip on the job. Niether Harbor nor Brackett are great blockers, but Brackett has had a better training camp so far catching the ball. Brackett is taller than Harbor and has shown in camp that he is capable of going deep down the middle, taking a hit, and bringing in the ball. With Brent Celek out tomorrow, Harbor and Brackett will both get more reps to show the coaches what they can do.
Damaris Johnson: The argument could be made that no one on the team has more to gain or loose this preseason than Damaris Johnson. The small, shifty punt returner will be given every opportunity to show the Eagles coaches what he can do, and could win a job if they like what they see. The Eagles want Johnson to win the job, as having him back there will allow the Eagles to rest DeSean Jackson more during the game. Johnson has had a good camp so far, but the chances of him making the team as a receiver and not as a returner are about as small as he is. The key for Johnson will be to not force anything despite his desire to show off for the coaches. They Eagles need a playmaker, but they also need someone back there who Bobby April can trust.
Brandon Graham: WIth Jason Babin still out with a strained calf, Brandon Graham will get his first start in over a year. Yes, it comes in the preseason, but for the self titled "bust", it is still a step in the right direction. You didn't have to be at Lehigh this year to know Graham has been having a good camp, as he trimmed down, faster version of the Eagles former 1st round pick has been the hot topic amongst fans. Graham has had plenty of "sacks" at training camp, but it will do a lot for his confidence to actually bring down Ben Roethlisberger Thursday night.
Michael Vick/Jason Kelce: It's no secret that Michael Vick had some trouble picking up the blitz last season. In order to fix that problem, the Eagles and Howard Mudd have given more responsibility to 2nd year center Jason Kelce. During training camp Kelce has been much more vocal on the line so far during training camp, but both Vick and Kelce will get their first real test to see how the new system is working against the Steelers. Yes, it's the preseason and their is little to no blitzing, but it will still be a good opportunity for the two to get some real practice against a Steelers defense the Eagles have traditionally struggled against.
Mychal Kendricks: For the 2nd year in a row the Eagles will open the preseason with a rookie linebacker starting on their defense- but this time it is by choice, not in desperation. Michael Kendricks has had a solid but quite camp far. That might not be the worst thing as it means the rookie has not been beaten badly, but it also means he has not made any big plays. In his first dress rehearsal it's not fair to ask Kendricks to put on a Pro-Bowl performance, but it will be interesting to see how much of the defense he has down. It will also be key for the Eagles to see how the smaller Kendricks does shedding blockers, something Casey Matthews had trouble with last season.
Marvin McNutt: The training camp legend himself will take his act from the hills of Bethleham to Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday. Fans have big plans for the rookie receiver out of Iowa, and while he has has shown some flashes, tonight will be his first chance to get some extended action. While DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant not expected to play past the 1st quarter, McNutt will likely get reps throughout the entire game as he tries to show the coaches he can the big, red zone target this team needs.