Marcus Hayes: Injuries could test Eagles' mettle

DeSean Jackson's production will be missed if he is sidelined.
DeSean Jackson's production will be missed if he is sidelined.
Posted: December 01, 2009

THERE IS "banged up," and then there is "thin," and then, "ridiculous."

The Eagles are at "ridiculous."

Already without concussed Brian Westbrook, who is likely to miss a third straight game and his fifth of six, the Eagles will visit Atlanta on Sunday further undermanned.

This goes beyond

Atlanta. Little DeSean Jackson left the Eagles' win Sunday with a concussion. Given the NFL's recent embarrassed, alarmist reaction to the concussion issue, Jackson almost certainly won't play this weekend. After that, all bets are off.

So, no Westbrook. No Jackson.

And, while tight end Brent Celek probably will play, the sprained left thumb that transformed him from the team's top receiver into Jason Dunn likely won't heal enough to make him a consistent threat.

Celek said after Sunday's game that his remarkably good hands could not function late in the game. That was apparent.

That means Weapons 1, 2 and 3 are out, or limited.

And that means the Eagles' chances at an eighth win are severely limited . . . for the next 3 weeks, the earliest those significant players are likely to return at full strength.

The next 3 weeks wins them the division, or secures a wild-card berth. Or not.

They have a raft of injuries - nagging, serious and really serious. Westbrook complained of headaches after a noncontact workout last week, but this has been a season largely played without him. Backup LeSean McCoy has played with promise. So has rookie receiver Jeremy Maclin, alongside Jackson.

Promise goes only so far.

McCoy and Maclin have logged major minutes lately. They're due to hit a wall. They also will be focal points from now on, too.

The mere presence of Jackson, with seven touchdowns of at least 35 yards this season, alters everything a defense does. A team's inability to defend a healthy Celek makes Donovan McNabb comfortable and makes midrange passing possible. And ever since Westbrook became a starter, defenses have schemed to limit him.

The saving grace might be that Atlanta's defense cannot defend the pass, the run, or third downs. The offense isn't terrific, either, and it's banged up, too. Second-year quarterback Matt Ryan left Sunday's game with a toe injury and will not play against the Eagles. Top running back Michael Turner aggravated an ankle injury.

Still, the Falcons have a go-to receiver in Roddy White and a guy named Tony Gonzalez, the most dangerous tight end in history. Eagles starting cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Asante Samuel are playing hurt, and third cornerback Joselio Hanson has one more game left on his four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances.

Notably, the Eagles have been gashed by tight ends the past 3 weeks - since linebacker Akeem Jordan's knee injury - and Gonzalez has been a monster in that span.

True, the Eagles have won twice in a row, but they beat dogs. They have been hanging on by threads all over the field.

They needed fourth-quarter comebacks to beat the Bears and Redskins, with their Dead Coaches Walking. The Redskins played without defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, the foundation of their top-tier defense, and cornerback DeAngelo Hall.

On the Eagles' winning drive, the Redskins played without starting cornerback Fred Smoot (head) and second-year man Justin Tryon, who hurt his hip during the game.

Yes, you play who lines up across from you. But to pretend the Eagles suddenly righted themselves against anything near the best the Redskins have to offer is absurd.

Both weeks, they needed big plays from Jason Avant, a tough, precise receiver . . . whose value skyrockets when he is flanked by speedsters who attract the opposition's better cornerbacks. They needed a big play Sunday from Maclin, against that unmanned Redskins secondary.

Maclin is a sideline guy; he doesn't invite contact. Neither does Jackson . . . but how often will he be asked to cross the middle again? Will he be wary? London Fletcher's hit wasn't vicious. Just hard.

And, while it is true that you can get dinged on any play, how often will the Eagles risk a second concussion to Jackson?

Jackson also is the NFL's best punt returner. Maclin is not.

This all assumes that Jackson won't play Sunday, and, perhaps, beyond. That is a good bet, given the NFL's concussion climate and the Eagles' self-proclaimed caution in these situations.

The Falcons might be soft on defense, but the next opponent, the Giants, are not. Neither are the 49ers, Broncos or Cowboys, the other remaining opponents. Only the Niners are below .500, by one game.

This week, and beyond, will be a scheming nightmare for Eagles coach Andy Reid and his offensive brain trust.

"I don't even care about all that," Reid said. "Avant steps up. Maclin steps up."

He hopes. *

Send e-mail to hayesm@phillynews.com.

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