The Eagles opened the exhibition portion of the 2014 NFL season falling to the Chicago Bears on the road by a 34-28 final. Overall, as a fan, one most likely came away from Friday’s game feeling unsatisfied, but by no means ready to make a break for the Walt Whitman. The game played out very much like a pair of teams squaring off against live competition for the first time in front of league officials. Here was some of what stood out to me over the course of the contest.
SPECIAL TEAMS-Upon completion of the 2013 season, it was clear that the Eagles special teams was in dire need of an upgrade. If Friday’s performance was any indication of the strides made by Dave Fipp’s unit, one should feel pretty good about the progress. The Eagles managed a blocked field goal, a kickoff return touchdown, and a recovery of a muffed punt return in the same game. In addition, the coverage units (led by newly acquired ST ace Chris Maragos) was relentless in pursuit and brought a lot of fire to the coverage game. No slip-ups in the kicking game and, unlike their loss to the Saints in the playoffs last season, the special teams was a bright spot to say the least.
MARK SANCHEZ- Credit where credit is due. The ‘Sanchize’ was probably the biggest bright spot on the offensive side of the ball for the Eagles in this one. The former Jets QB appeared confident from his first snap and carried it throughout a quarter of action. He led back-to-back touchdown drives in which he hit a variety of receivers in all areas of the field. There was perhaps no more exciting offensive play of the game for Philadelphia than Sanchez’s 34-yard connection with Zach Ertz up the seam that led to the first of two Matthew Tucker touchdowns. Two thumbs up for QB #2.
DEFENSIVE FRONT- If there’s one thing that jumps out regarding the difference between this year’s Eagles defense and the 2013 version, it has to be the size and depth up front. Both the first and second unit did an excellent job creating chaos along the line of scrimmage. The second-unit was responsible for more of the pass rush, but Matt Forte never really got going with the first team. 7th round pick Beau Allen looked like he could be challenging Bennie Logan for the starting nose tackle job at some point in the not-so-distant future. A couple of really strong players by 5th round pick Taylor Hart, Brandon Bair, and Joe Kruger.
MATTHEW TUCKER- It might end up being to benefit his pursuit of a roster spot elsewhere, but Matthew Tucker had a strong game as essentially the feature back for the Eagles. He accounted for two of their three offensive touchdowns, was a presence in the pass game, and ran the ball with authortiy. Tucker did have a fumble in the 3rd quarter. However, had it not been for the presence of one of his teammates helping knock the ball out, he would have been down by contact. With Chris Polk missing this game due to injury, Tucker did himself nothing but favors in a solid preseason opener.
JOSH HUFF- It’s worth mentioning as its own entity, because Huff’s kickoff return to cap off the 1st half of play was truly a spectacle. Huff seemed to be the type of player who relishes a bit more in ‘game speed’ situations compared to what shows up on a stop watch. Huff was limited to just one catch as a receiver, though it did set up the Eagles second touchdown. However, the preseason is used to figure out who belongs where and as an assessment of assets on the team. With how much of a struggle it’s been to find a dependable kick returner who doubles as a threat to take one to the house for so long, Huff may have fast-tracked himself to the head of the class in that department.
NICK FOLES- My colleague mentioned earlier in the evening, but it’s certainly worth noting again. Nick Foles was not good against the Bears. There’s no sugar-coating anything as far as the actual performance. The offense in general was a mess in the first quarter. Penalties derailed any sort of progress, and Foles’s turnovers were just a cap on what was as forgettable a showing from the Philadelphia offense that we’ve seen in some time. Foles is unfortunate in the sense that when he looks bad, he looks really bad. I think it’s safe to say he won’t be looking to the likes of Ifeanyi Momah and Brad Smith as targets come regular season, but one has to hope the QB cleans some things up heading into next week’s tilt with the Patriots.
STARTING OFFENSIVE LINE- It was not as if the starting offense was a strong quarterback performance away from turning in a good game. The offensive line, which many see as the biggest strength of the team, did not fare well against what is generally seen as a pedestrian Bears defense. It was the first game that the unit included Allen Barbre in place of Lane Johnson, and a forgettable one at that. Evan Mathis was called for a holding penalty that negated a big passing play, Foles was under pressure on a few occasions, and there was generally not much push over the course of the first few series. One thing to consider is the effect that an athletic and cohesive offensive line can have on a defense over the course of four quarters instead of just one. With that in mind, it’s hard to get too upset with the unit. Just something that, again, one hopes to see improvements on come next Friday.
JORDAN MATTHEWS- One can mark down August 8, 2014 as the day that the world discovered Jordan Matthews’s mortality. In all seriousness, Matthews looked much the part of a rookie after weeks of being touted as a veteran in a young man’s body. He had multiple drops on the evening and was unable to establish any sort of rhythm on the field. The 2nd round pick’s athleticism and abilities are apparent in flashes, but he could not make any sort of positive impact on an offense that was looking for someone to step up. Matthews seems to have a strong enough presence to put Friday behind him, but one has to be wary of rookie wide receivers dealing with ‘a case of the drops’.
STARTING SECONDARY/LINEBACKERS- As a precursor to this group, technically Nate Allen took first team reps and had an interception. It was good to see Allen make a play, especially as he is locked in competition with second year man Earl Wolff. Beyond that, there wasn’t a whole lot to get excited about on the back-end of the Eagles defense. DeMeco Ryans was targeted in coverage on the Bears first touchdown and, just like 2013, the Eagles were victimized on a few long 3rd down conversions by Chicago. Malcolm Jenkins had a few nice hits and Cary Williams made a few plays on balls, but the unit was unable to come up with enough plays against Chicago’s starting offense when they marched 13 plays to paydirt in the first quarter.
JAYLEN WATKINS- The only thing keeping Watkins from being knocked down a category was his interception in the early stages of the 4th quarter. That being said, Watkins was torched so badly on the Bears 3rd touchdown of the game by Chris Williams that I still don’t think he realized it. The 73-yard score turned out to be the turning point of the game, as the Bears rattled off 17 straight points to win the game. Watkins is a player I’m excited about from a talent standpoint. It was fortunate that the Florida product got dealt this hand of embarrassment in his first preseason game. I believe it will allow him to maximize the returns as far as motivation is concerned. With that in mind, Watkins did just about everything wrong on that play and I’m sure he heard a great deal about it.
ROC CARMICHAEL- Here’s to hoping Jaylen Watkins somehow gets good enough to where this stiff is no longer needed. It’s uncanny how quick opposing offenses key in on Carmichael and manage to do so on multiple plays in a row. Carmichael had a penalty that gave Chicago an automatic first down, was targeted three times on a Bears scoring drive, and generally appeared incapable of providing any sort of legal resistance in his time on the field. Normally, Virginia Tech produces strong defensive backs for the NFL level. It would appear, to this point, that the Eagles landed one of the duds.
DISCIPLINE- The officials may have been told to call things a bit tight, considering it was the first game of the season. However, nine penalties for 89 yards is what it is. Especially on offense, where 1st downs are vital to maintaining the tempo of Chip Kelly’s offense, penalties are backbreaking for the Eagles. A penalty lead to Foles’ first interception, as he tried to force a ball deep on a 3rd and 17 play. Penalties extended drives for the Bears. This is a team that will crumble at the seams if it starts to beat itself. They operate so impressively when there are no hitches in the narrative of the game. However, once penalties start to become an issue, the Eagles can look very pedestrian rather quickly.
PERSON IN CHARGE OF COVERING ZACH MILLER- Zach Miller is a nice player. Always been a solid tight end and he has put together a solid career out of Arizona State. That said, he has no business scoring two touchdowns and accounting for nearly 70 yards in the passing game. The most touchdowns Miller has had in a season is two. He made Jason Phillips and DeMeco Ryans look particularly bad on his scoring plays and did serious damage to the Eagles first and second string defenses.
All in all, the game was somewhat of a glass-half-empty type feeling. There were a few things to get excited about, but nothing to hang one’s hat on. Realistically, one would have to think the team wants more than anything to get to their second exhibition of the season against the Patriots. Considering the miscues and the penalties, a team of professionals generally wants to put performances like this one in the rearview mirror. After a week of practice with the Patriots, the Eagles will square off with Brady and the gang next Friday in preseason game number two.