After a relatively short week coming off their matchup with the Patriots last Friday, the Eagles returned to Lincoln Financial Field for the first time in 2014 to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in preseason action. Generally speaking, the narrative for almost all exhibition seasons is that the third game is the one that fans and analysts alike can place the most analytical emphasis on. Starters often play for the most extensive period of time and there is an increased familiarity with some of the secondary players on the roster.
Though one would have to think fans of other teams feel somewhat similar, I feel the Eagles are especially difficult to judge in exhibition games. Chip Kelly really does not unleash the full arsenal of his offense and the defense is, more often than not, in its normal base alignment throughout the contest. The coaching staff and front office alike seems so dedicated to gathering as much evaluation about each individual on the roster, that they seem almost indifferent to combatting their opponent.
That said, the Steelers are another team with playoff aspirations (much like the Bears and Patriots), thus making them the type of exhibition opponent teams want to stack up against. Both teams finished the 2nd half of 2013 on a high note and expect to be amongst a handful of contenders for their respective conferences.
The Eagles starting offense got the ball first. The promising sign of the drive was LeSean McCoy collecting an impressive first down on what may have been his longest run of the preseason. Nick Foles was able to connect with Riley Cooper for another first down for the Eagles, but was otherwise shaky in his first series (one completion on four attempts).
As for the defense, the opening series was a mixed bag. Heath Miller beat Nolan Carroll on a 3rd and 6 to prevent the Eagles from getting off the field with an opening three & out. DeMeco Ryans was flagged for a personal foul penalty on a bang-bang play where he leveled Le’veon Bell on a route out of the backfield. Other than that, the defense was able to hold up well as the Steelers entered Philadelphia territory and forced a punt to get the ball back to the offense.
The second Eagles drive on offense featured a heavy dosage of McCoy and the offensive line. Foles was able to connect on four of his seven pass attempts, including an impressive seam pass to Brent Celek that resulted in the tight end losing his helmet…again. The Eagles scored the game’s first touchdown on a 3rd and 10 play in Pittsburgh territory. Foles carried on like he was throwing to the left before reversing fields and hitting Shady with a screen on the right. McCoy reeled in the catch with one hand and followed impeccable blocking to paydirt to put the Birds on top.
The defense was able to force another punt with just one penalty-related first down surrendered. The offense would get the ball back again towards the end of the quarter. From there, Foles ironed out what little yips were plaguing him over his first two drives. Though he was aided some by a few Steeler penalties, Foles was flawless on drive number three. Including completions to Celek, Zach Ertz, and Jeremy Maclin; Foles engineered another long Eagles drive. He should have collected his second TD strike of the game, but the Eagles decided not to challenge a play where Maclin looked to have broken the pylon from a couple of yards out. Instead, Darren Sproles punched it in from a yard out and the Eagles went up 14-0.
As noted on Section215.com earlier in the evening, McCoy went into the locker room with a thumb issue apparently sustained during the first touchdown drive. He returned to the sideline, but not to any sort of game action.
Once again, with the Steelers moving into Eagles territory in their first 2nd quarter drive, the Eagles defense came up with a play. On a first down play, Mychal Kendricks brought some serious heat on Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The Pittsburgh QB fluttered a pass toward where he must have thought no one would catch it. Instead, Nolan Carroll (getting the start for Cary Williams) reeled in an impressive interception for his first as an Eagle.
The following drive for the Eagles provided easily the scariest moment of the preseason. After Foles connected with Ertz for a first down, he attempted another pass along the right sideline in the direction of Jeremy Maclin. Before the ball arrived, the receiver had already crumpled to the ground and started clutching his surgically repaired right knee. The Linc was as silent as if it were empty, as everyone looked on to see if Maclin’s season would be coming to an early end once again.
After everyone went through all of their ACL injury flashbacks over the commercial break, the welcome sight of Maclin pacing along the sidelines welcomed viewers back. Unfortunately, the very next play would also result in an Eagles receiving target on the field while Foles was throwing the ball. As the team tried to execute another screen pass, Darren Sproles tripped up on Todd Herremans and Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu, opportunistic as always, came up with the interception of Foles.
Fortunately, the turnover gave the Eagles defense another chance to impress. With Pittsburgh working on a short field, the D forced an impressive three-and-out, capped by a Malcolm Jenkins deflection on a pass intended for Antonio Brown. Steeler kicker Shaun Suisham would miss a 46-yard field goal try to the Eagles remained in front 14-0.
The Eagles were inches away from touchdown number three towards the end of the half, but Foles missed Darren Sproles on a wheel route in the endzone by the thinnest of margins. The Eagles would settle for an Alex Henery field goal to go up 17-0. The defense would end the half on a high note as Brandon Graham beat the Steelers’ right tackle for a clean strip-sack of Roethlisberger for the last play heading into the locker room.
NOTABLE STATS FROM 1ST TEAM OFFENSE
QB-Nick Foles: 19-29, 179 yds, TD, INT
RB-LeSean McCoy: 4 car, 24 yds; 2 rec, 26 yds, TD
WR-JEremy Maclin: 8 targets, 6 receptions, 43 yards
NOTABLE STATS FROM 1ST TEAM DEFENSE
LB-Mychal Kendricks: 4 tackles, pass defended
S-Malcolm Jenkins: 2 tackles, pass defended
CB-Nolan Carroll: tackle, interception
Mark Sanchez: 7-9, 85 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT
The summer of the Sanchise continued in a big way Thursday, as the Eagles second string QB led back-to-back scoring drives against Pittsburgh’s top defensive unit. He would give way to Matt Barkley early in the 4th quarter, but not before continuing a near-perfect preseason with the Eagles. Sanchez was particularly sharp over the middle, with his most impressive pass coming in the form of a 25-yard connection with backup tight end Trey Burton. It’s remarkable how well-timed out everything is with the offense when Sanchez is in the game. There’s no quarterback controversy in town, but Sanchez has continued to shine in a way that no one could have expected.
Matt Barkley: 4-4, 37 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT
Barkley threw a beautiful ball on what should have been a touchdown to B.J. Cunningham (washed out by an illegal formation penalty). There’s no doubt that Barkley has improved since last season. If Sanchez weren’t lighting the world on fire, there might be a conversation about him challenging for the backup spot.
Matthew Tucker: 10 carries, 46 yards, 2 TD
Barring anything unforeseen, one could make a very strong argument for Matthew Tucker making the team over Chris Polk. Tucker’s strong preseason matched with Polk’s inability to play throughout the exhibition season will most likely result in Polk’s promising career in Philadelphia coming to an abrupt halt. Tucker ran with decisiveness in all areas of the field and continued to show a nose for the endzone (4 rushing TDs leads the NFL for the preseason). Tucker has done everything, and then some, to stake a roster spot on the team. He was one of the better players in this game.
Kenjon Barner: 7 carries, 32 yards
In his first action in Eagle-Green, Barner looked pretty good out there. He has tremendous change of direction and worked well in tight spaces. Barner is not a burner, and his lack of breakaway speed will prevent him from ever challenging for too significant of time. That said, if Polk’s injury is too serious to pass legitimate judgement, Barner could end up making the team as the 4th running back.
Jordan Matthews: 2 receptions, 16 yards
Matthews wasn’t featured much in this game. He had a nice catch and run on a screen-pass first down and a short gain on a play out of the backfield. No drops or anything to cause any sort of worry. Matthews will probably start the season with the first team.
Jeff Maehl: 4 receptions, 19 yards
With Arrelious Benn leaving the game with a head injury and the remaining wide receiver roster positions apparently up for grabs, a game like this for Maehl could go a decent way for him making the team. Maehl continues to block well and catch passes over the middle. He still will not ‘wow’ anyone, but plays well within the offense.
Damaris Johnson: 2 receptions, 29 yards
Johnson caught a nice pass from Sanchez to set up the Eagles 4th touchdown of the game. He returned kicks and showed last week he was capable of playing out of the backfield. This coaching staff is huge on versatility, and Johnson has been given ample opportunity to shake previous years’ disappointments. He’ll be a tough call.
Trey Burton: 2 receptions, 37 yards
I mentioned Burton catching a beautiful ball from Sanchez on one of his two touchdown drives. Burton displays strong athleticism and catches the ball pretty well for a player who saw a lot of time at quarterback in college. The Eagles really like their starting TE trio of Ertz, Celek, and James Casey. That said, I think the staff will look long and hard at Burton, given his diverse skill set.
Brandon Graham: 2 tackles, sack
Graham was tough to ignore on Thursday. He had a clean strip-sack of Roethlisberger toward the end of the 2nd half and made a few nice plays out of the locker room. There aren’t too many players on the team with as quick a burst off the snap as Graham and he sports the type of frame that has worked for pass-rushers in the past. The Eagles will probably be forced to keep either Graham or Vinny Curry when all is said and done.
Vinny Curry: 3 tackles, sack
Curry’s sack was not as clean as Graham’s, but it was another game where he made a play. I think Curry will end up making the team over Graham when the dust settles. He has been impossible to ignore most of the time he has been on the field, and makes plays. Curry is the type of hard-worker who is determined to garner the respect and playing time he sees he deserves.
Brandon Bair: 2 pass deflections
Despite the less-than-eye-popping statline, Brandon Bair may have flashed more than any player on the defense. He pushed the opposition a great deal and made things very uncomfortable for Ben Roethlisberger. There are some who prefer not to keep Bair, 30 in November, over some of the Eagles younger options. However, one cannot argue with results and Bair has been productive in each of the team’s three exhibition games.
Marcus Smith: 4 tackles, tackle for loss
Smith bounced back from a tough game against the Patriots. He had a great play for a tackle for loss in which he shed his blocker and took down the ball carrier at the feet. He also joined in on a few tackles on plays where a week before, he appeared more lost than anything. Smith is a work-in-progress, but games like Thursday’s make one feel better about him being a worthy investment.
Travis Long: one tackle
I only mention Long because the broadcast would not shut up about him. Long is a heady player who appears to have the skillset to play both inside, and in space. For a team that runs a 3-4, having linebackers who can play both positions is beyond valuable. Long is a strong special teams player as well and looks to be a player who may challenge for a spot.
Nate Allen: one tackle
Allen has played well enough to secure the second safety position next to Malcolm Jenkins, in my opinion. I like Earl Wolff a lot as a young player, but Allen has done a nice job putting some of the knocks on him far back in people’s memory banks. I envision the Eagles using plenty of three safety/three cornerback sets (especially with Jenkins’s ability to play both positions). Allen deserves to start.
Earl Wolff: pass break up
Wolff had a nice play on a deep ball in which he had to make up a decent amount of ground. Wolff’s had a good preseason to this point. He would have had to have been unstoppable to secure the starting job, given the team decided to hang on to Nate Allen. At this point in career, Wolff should worry more about staying healthy and making the most of what reps he gets. He’s a good player.
SPECIAL TEAMS REPORT:
Alex Henery missed a 31-yard field goal. I don’t think he will be staying on the team very long.
The Eagles ended up holding on to win this game 31-21. Given the fact that they did their most damage against the Steelers starting offense and their first string defense shut out Big Ben and an offense with a lot of firepower, one would have to consider this a success. They outgained the Steelers 482-309, were productive on 3rd down, and saw their defense perform as well as they have up tot his point. The Eagles have a serious issue at place kicker and, if they ignore it, it will almost assuredly come back and bite them. The team dodged some injury scares in this one and turned in their best performance in the only exhibition game that anyone places any weight on. The last game will most likely decide whatever roster decisions Chip Kelly and company have yet to make. Otherwise, the Birds will most likely be headed into week 1 vs. Jacksonville on a high note.