When the Eagles entered their first preseason game of the 2013 campaign under new coach Chip Kelly, all of the questions and intrigue were surrounding the unknown. The amount of build-up surrounding the ‘mystique’ of Chip Kelly’s transition to the NFL was captivating and the anticipation for the team’s preseason opener against the Patriots was electrifying. Fast forward six days and a 31-22 loss at the hands of New England and it was easy to see that the direction of the questions were shifting toward what was seen on the field. No longer were people wondering what they were to expect from a Chip Kelly team in the NFL. Instead, all week long leading up to Thursday’s game against the Panthers, speculation swirled around how the team was going to address their issues before stepping back onto Lincoln Financial Field. Of course, the quarterback competition remained towards the forefront of any sort of probing of the Eagles’ situation as they continued training camp. However, after seeing their defense gashed by the run and picked apart by Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots, an already questionable defensive unit was placed square in the sights of the media. Whether it was the early adjustments to a new defensive scheme, a sense of intimidation of playing against the Patriots, or simply a lack of toughness and tenacity necessary to play defense in the NFL, defensive coordinator Billy Davis and his first team became the whipping boy of talk-radio, national pundits, and fans alike. As they entered a game against a Panthers team that, while not excelling in the win/loss column in 2012, still possessed a great deal of offensive talent, spearheaded by 2011 Rookie of the Year Cam Newton.
While it is often assumed that the third preseason game is usually the one to take the most out of as far as projecting evaluations to regular season play, a game against the Panthers, in my opinion, provided a more reasonable barometer for some things to expect from the Eagles. Newton is as physically gifted a specimen as there is in the NFL, a healthy DeAngelo Williams is one of the more dynamic backs in the league, more than capable of running between the tackles despite his frame, and Steve Smith, even at 34, can still give defensive backs nightmares. Add in a few more solid pieces such as tight end Greg Olsen and Ted Ginn Jr., and the Panthers have the framework of an offense that should be very effective in the 2013 season. Coming off a win against the Bears in their preseason opener, the Panthers appeared to be a challenge the likes of which the Eagles did not have the pieces on defense to handle.
With Carolina receiving the opening kickoff, we would find out very quickly if the defense responded to what was, undoubtedly, a difficult week of practice where several players, both veterans and newcomers alike, would be challenged and have their mental and physical fortitude tested. Things did not get off to a promising start, as Newton connected on first down throws to Brandon LaFell and Ginn Jr. Whether it was a matter of not being as engaged in the game early or a case of the jitters, those two plays turned out to be rare blips on what was otherwise an impressive bounce-back game from the Eagles defense.
While I cannot imagine any fanbase would not want the type of defense that does not allow an opponent to reach midfield and is constantly turning the ball over, not everyone can have the luxury of units like the 2000 Ravens, who won more games on their Super Bowl run than their offense did. In today’s NFL, where the officiating and rules are catered toward the offense, teams must find any way possible to limit the opposition on the scoreboard and come out on top in the end, regardless of margin. There are still phenomenal defensive units in the NFL that are capable of winning games for their team, but there is more than one way for a defense to do their job and ultimately put in a winning effort. Some of the Eagles’ best defenses during the Andy Reid era were the quintessential ‘bend, don’t break’ units that were able to clamp down where it counted and force field goals instead of touchdowns despite conceding chunks of yardage and multiple red zone trips. Thursday was only a preseason game and its possible that, given more fine-tuning, the Panthers offense could turn in a performance like the Patriots did in the opener. However, seeing the way the Eagles defense, throughout the entire game, responded when their backs were near their goal line, I would say they took a serious step in the right direction.
While Cam Newton did not play the way he did in 2012 like he did in 2011, his physical gifts have not disappeared and he still has the capability to turn in monster performances. In a full first half of action, Newton rarely looked comfortable and was unable to put his team in the endzone against the Eagles D. In the New England game, it seemed like there was more chasing than should ever be on an NFL field. The Eagles were a step slow off the ball seemingly every play, and it led to huge chunks, via the air and ground game, of yardage for the Patriots as they embarrassed Billy Davis’ group. The Panthers were able to move the ball, efficiently at times Thursday night. Yet it always seemed that there was some play along their drives where the Eagles were able to alter their rhythm, ultimately forcing either a punt, or a field goal attempt, rather than conceding the touchdowns that they did in the first game.
To be perfectly honest, the first thing that drew my attention regarding the Eagles defense against the Panthers was the play of Cary Williams. This would be the first time seeing Williams on the field, in-game action after one of the most unusual offseasons Philadelphia fans have seen since Terrell Owens. With all the chatter coming out of the former Baltimore Raven, it would be interesting to see if he could back his mouth up with his play on the field. Judging off this performance, Williams will never be the most popular player among Eagles fans, but he will be even less popular among notable opposing wide receivers. One would be hard-pressed to forget Williams’ encounter with DeSean Jackson in last season’s game against the Ravens. His incessant pestering of opposing pass catchers, even after allowing catches, clearly has an effect on a player throughout the game. Williams was matched up with Steve Smith a great deal in this matchup. While Smith did catch a few balls in front of Williams in his time on the field, it was almost as if his goal became more about beating Smith than winning the game. Things are not that black-and-white when it comes to the NFL, but if Williams is able to, even by a fraction, knock the oppositions’ top pass catcher off his game every week, I call that a win.
Another individual in the Eagles revamped secondary that stood out in this one was Patrick Chung. While Bradley Fletcher, Brandon Boykin, and even Nate Allen turned in at least acceptable performances, Chung provided the defense with something that Eagles fans have not seen in quite some time, an imposing, physical presence from the back-end. Chung finished the night with 4 tackles (3 solo) and several of the bone-crunching variety. In his time in New England, Chung’s talent and physical gifts were never in question. Everything was on display Thursday night, as Chung knifed his way toward the ball on multiple occasions, delivering the type of pops that have been absent from the secondary since the departure of Brian Dawkins. While it is far from me to compare a performance in a preseason game to the career of one of the greatest Eagles of all-time, Chung was making a statement in this one. Hitting and physicality is, and should be, contagious on a defense. The defensive unit should operate as one and thus, all have the same attitude when it comes to delivering a big hit. Because of his aggressiveness and penchant for mixing it up in the box, there will be times where Chung is caught out of position. That being said, it is important for this unit to develop some pride in their tackling and, even though he is still young, Chung has the type of background and personality to lead that charge.
While Chung and Williams displayed some early signs of a shifting in culture on the defensive side of the ball, you would be hard-pressed to find a better performer on that side of the ball Thursday than Mychal Kendricks. Since he’s been drafted, the love-affair for Kendricks’ raw skills and instincts have been nauseating at times. This was only the case because, while never serving as a detriment to the team, Kendricks never really showed that playmaking ability that had been forced down our throats for over a year now. The shift of defensive philosophies only heightened the praise for Kendricks, as he would be able to use his speed in more situations, being one of four, rather than three linebackers. After a forgettable night against the Patriots in the opener, the former Cal Bear was a true difference maker. On multiple occasions, the defense dialed up run-blitzes that had Kendricks right on top of the line prior to the snap. Of the two instances I can remember, Kendricks blew up the blocking formation almost instantly, in one case leading to a tackle for loss for a lineman, and the other a beautifully executed gashing of the line and sound tackle of DeAngelo Williams for a loss of a yard. The play that impressed me the most, was on a 2nd down play early in the second quarter. The Panthers had driven the ball from their 20 yard line and were probing into Eagles territory, at the 34 yard line. On the play, Newton broke containment easily and, after committing to running the ball, had one man standing between him and a 15+ yard gain and a first down. Kendricks, all 5’11″ of him, bared down on the 6’6″ battering ram that was barreling to him and stuck Newton nicely for only a five yard gain. Following an incompletion on third down, the Panthers best drive of the night stalled and they were forced to kick one of their three field goals on the night. That play showed that Kendricks is developing more and more confidence in his abilities translating to the NFL level. Far more established NFL players have looked foolish trying to tackle Cam Newton in space. In Thursday’s game, even though Cam gained five yards, Kendricks made a winning play and one can only hope the young man continues to develop that trust in his game.
At the end of the day, the Eagles defense allowed only nine points and no touchdowns. There were times where it seemed as if the Carolina offense, regardless of who was playing quarterback, were going to make their way down the field at will and punch the ball in for a touchdown. However, in each case, the Eagles defense made the stops when it counted and kept Carolina out of their endzone. That four quarter effort shows that every defensive player took the shellacking at the hands of the New England offense as an indictment on themselves and their teammates. The Eagles will give up points this year, there is no doubt. Talent is lacking in certain positions and, implementing a new scheme, mental lapses are a formality. Yet to see a game where no touchdowns are allowed is a promising sign moving forward and, regardless of what he did to do it, a step in the right direction for Billy Davis within the organization.
As far as the offense goes, Section215.com’s own Tim Kelly provided a breakdown of who is establishing himself in the quarterback competition. Fortunately, there were several other things to keep viewers occupied, and at times enthralled, at what they saw from the unit that did not disappointment against the Patriots. Even with the turnovers, which I will discuss later, the team’s drives in the first half were a spectacle. I have never gotten more pleasure out of a fellow man’s discomfort, than I did watching the Panthers defenders sucking wind trying to keep up with the Eagles offense. Seeing the urgency on the Eagles ball carriers / receivers as they flicked the ball to the officials to set up another play made every second that the team was on offense entertaining. Even the plays that did not work out had such promise and, with a tinker or two, look as if they could resurface themselves down the road. While the Eagles did not register as many plays as they did against the Patriots, probably because they were winning for most of the game, they still seemed as if they had the Panthers moving in slow motion and guessing more than reacting.
First and foremost, LeSean McCoy stole the show tonight. As much as we pay attention to the quarterbacks, McCoy reminded us all who the playmaker on this team is and, should he continue to operate the way he did tonight, Shady could be looking at another career year. While one run in particular stood out, probably to a few Panthers’ defenders as well, McCoy was at his best in his time on the field. With 63 total yards on 11 touches (3 receptions), and an untouched 1-yard sprint to the endzone for a touchdown, McCoy relieved any concern about the lingering effects from the knee injury that kept him out of the Patriots game. While the Chip Kelly offense has shown that it can be effective to this point, NFL team’s cannot gimmick their way toward success at this level. Elite talent is necessary to move the ball and score touchdowns, and while he has not reached the status of an Adrian Peterson or Arian Foster, Shady possesses that skill level and some of the runs he showed off tonight proved it.
In terms of the backs behind McCoy in the depth chart, Bryce Brown managed to tighten his grip on the 2nd string spot without even playing a down. Chris Polk did manage to improve on his yardage output compared to his first game, but his 2nd quarter fumble deep in Carolina territory was a costly blow to his chances at spelling McCoy this season. Polk’s chances to remain on the roster appear to be safe, as offseason acquisition Felix Jones was disappointing in his time on the field before leaving Thursday’s game with a rib injury. Jones’ chances appeared to be slim as far as making the team prior to the injury. Once upon a time, the former Arkansas Razorback looked as if he had a promising future as a dynamic ball-carrier in the league. His deterioration to his current state is a shame to say the least. With that said, Chris Polk is a player that benefits the Eagles in a number of ways. He runs with a purpose and has an all-around game that sometimes evades Bryce Brown and McCoy. From everything that has been reported this training camp, Polk has made major strides and looks like an entirely different player. Yet with Brown’s clear advantage in the opener and Polk’s turnover in his chance to play with Brown on the sidelines, Polk looks as if he’ll remain relegated to the third string role, hopefully with an increased role compared to last year.
Thursday’s game was another instance of very solid distribution in the passing game, from both quarterbacks. In the first two preseason games, Jason Avant has proven, once again, why it’s impossible to cut him from this team. He is far from the biggest, fastest, or most dynamic player on the field. Yet somehow he is always making catches in huge spots for the Eagles. Four catches, four target, 42 yards, two first downs; or just another day at the office for Avant. While he did not blow the roof off like he did in the Patriots game, something about the way DeSean Jackson is going about his game this preseason makes one think that he has possibly taken things to another level. His only two catches, both for first downs, were such impressive demonstrations of separation ability and seemingly effortless speed and fluidity. He snared the ball like it belonged to him, and smartly took the ball out-of-bounds, flipping it to the official and hustling back to the line of scrimmage. DeSean Jackson will never be considered the best receiver in the league; but he can be one of the most dangerous and dynamic players, especially in this offense. Seeing Zach Ertz play a bigger role in the offense, 2 catches for 36 yards, was a welcome sight. Ertz’s talent is through the roof. The only way he will achieve it is if he is utilized early and often. Damaris Johnson continued to impress, both on offense and special teams. While his return abilities were on display late last season, the offensive scheme and Johnson’s early volume of action throughout the preseason indicate an interest in the compact, second-year receiver / return man’s abilities. Save for Polk’s fumble on Thursday, there has been very little to point out as far as negative performances amongst the Eagles’ skill players. Even current players who may not make the final roster could benefit from the high output of the team’s offense thus far.
While it might sound bizarre, the offensive line might be the most entertaining unit to watch on this Eagles team so far, and Jason Peters has not played a snap. Both quarterbacks are performing at a high level at this point, but at least a portion of it has to do with the fact that, for a major portion of the snaps, they are working with a defined, extended pocket. With Jason Kelce leading the way, no collection of players on the roster appears to be playing with the confidence that the offensive line is. Whether it is Vick, who could break containment at any instance, or Nick Foles, who spends much more time in the pocket, the line has been dominant in every instance and has only shown a few lapses. Lane Johnson made his first noticeable mistake against the Panthers, breaking engagement with William Horton who brought down Michael Vick for a four yard loss. Aside from that, Johnson once again showed why the Eagles made him the fourth overall selection in the draft. He carries himself with a great deal of confidence off the field, and managed to appear even more sure of himself on the field. Johnson’s speed and quick feet are on display for several plays, due to the nature of the offense. It is the plays where Johnson is bull-rushed with a quarterback in the pocket that has impressed to this point. In both weeks, there have been plays where Johnson dealt with his opponent’s best rush, only to root himself and explode into the defender, keeping him from the quarterback. The idea of the combination of athleticism and strength between the two Eagles starting tackles, in Peters and Johnson, is salivating given the skill players who could benefit from their play.
Matt Barkley once again showed why: he does not really belong in the Eagles starting quarterback conversation, and he has shown early signs that, with the proper seasoning, he can be something special in this league. Sometimes more so than Foles and Vick, Barkley displays a control of the offense and the players alongside him that goes well beyond his years. He hit Ertz with a very nice 21 yard corner route in the third quarter, and did not show the early appearance jitters that he did against the Patriots. It’s tough to take too much from Barkley’s showing in the first two games. All that’s certain is that he will remain on the roster, and that it is a good thing that he does.
A couple negatives that kept this from being a wire-to-wire positive for the Eagles are worth mentioning. If there is one type of play that is detrimental to Nick Foles chances at claiming the starting quarterback job, and his chances are already diminished beyond repair in the preseason at least, it is having a red zone turnover. It made what was otherwise, a very impressive drive, a failure reminiscent of 2012 and ultimately a disappointment. Polk’s fumble was close to the red zone as well. Alex Henery missed a very makable 44-yard field goal. The team also did not force any turnovers on defense, though they were in position to on a few occasions.
For the second straight week the special teams unit was a weapon for the Eagles. Aside from Henery’s missed kick, every aspect of special teams was impressive Thursday. Both punters had punts inside the 10-yard line, with impeccable coverage pinning the ball. Damaris Johnson and Brandon Boykin showed dynamic return ability in the punt and kickoff game. Russell Shepard, someone I am pulling hard for to make the roster, made an excellent tackle in kickoff coverage that put the Panthers on their own 11 yard line to start a 2nd quarter drive. Special teams is an area that you take for granted when you have it good, and can’t believe how much you miss that quality play when it is bad. The last few years, the Eagles special teams has been as bad as any of the rest of their issues. If the early returns are any indication of what’s to come, it is exciting to see how the special teams can supplement the efforts of the offense and defense.
So with his a win in the books, a well-played 14-9 win over a team in a similar position to his own, Chip Kelly notches another NFL first. The Panthers are not nearly as good a team as the Patriots, but to see the sort of adjustments made across the roster as well as the gameplan was a promising sign. While the Eagles next opponent, the Jaguars, may have less NFL talent than anywhere else in the NFL, former coaching candidate and Jaguars head-man Gus Bradley knows his defense and will certainly want to test his chops at what Chip is bringing to the table. Hopefully the team has another good week of practice and can continue to show signs of progress as they close in on Monday Night Football, week 1 vs. the Redskins.
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