The third preseason game is the most important.
Starters see the most playing time. Teams actually do a bit of game planning. The results don't count, but they do matter. You want the starters to play well and look like a cohesive group. The Eagles went out and played their best game of the preseason on Thursday, beating the Steelers 31-21. The game wasn't even that close. The Eagles led 31-7 and had a long touchdown run called back or the score would have gone up to 38-7. That was a major butt whipping, preseason or not.
This was the first time in the preseason that the offense was at full strength. You could finally see what an array of weapons the Eagles have. This group is going to be very tough to stop in the regular season. They can run the ball. They can throw inside or outside. The tight ends are deadly in the middle of the field so defenses have to be careful about selling out to stop the run. The offense puts pressure on the defense all over the field.
The one thing we haven't really seen is much of a vertical passing game. Nick Foles tried to hit Riley Cooper for a long touchdown against the Steelers, but Cooper wasn't able to make the grab. I don't know if the Eagles have focused on the short and intermediate passing game by design or if receivers just weren't getting open deep. Cooper was a good downfield weapon last year. Jeremy Maclin has caught his share of deep balls over the years so I expect he'll be going deep plenty of times this season. I'm not worried about this issue, but it is worth noting that the deep ball has been missing to this point.
The offense has made amazing progress in just a few weeks. Go back to the opener. The line was shaky and Nick Foles didn't handle the pressure well. He threw two interceptions, the same amount as all of last season. The offense was better against the Bears, but still wasn't in top form. That changed against the Steelers.
Foles and the starters put up 17 points and 251 yards in the first half. Beyond numbers, the offense just looked good. They got plays off at a brisk pace. There was rhythm to the way things happened. The offense flowed, which I think is important for a no-huddle attack.
Foles played his best game of the summer. He made smart decisions. There was an interception, but that came when Darren Sproles tripped while waiting for a screen pass. Foles also made quick decisions. He didn't seem to be holding the ball as long as in some other games. Foles made some good throws. The incompletion to Cooper in the end zone was impressive. Foles had to put that away from the defender, but keep it close enough so that Cooper had a chance. He put the ball in a good spot. I thought Foles made a couple of good throws to Cooper on crossing routes. There were a couple of connections to Brent Celek that were right on the money. The one throw Foles would like to have back is when he led Sproles a bit too far on what should have been a touchdown. The pass was 10 to 12 inches too far out in front. Foles and Sproles are still working on downfield timing. That was almost a beautiful play.
Cooper did have a couple of drops in the game. This was his first action of the preseason and he was shaking off some rust. He generally looked good, but the drops must go away. Maclin had a good showing. His numbers aren't great - six catches for 43 yards. I liked the kinds of catches he made. Maclin caught short, quick passes in the middle of the field. He then turned and got up field quickly. There was no hesitation in regard to contact. Maclin took some big hits in the game and always bounced right up. There was the one scary moment when he tripped and went to the ground holding his knee. Everyone held their breath, but he came right back from that.
Jordan Matthews has come a long way in three weeks. He was the starting slot receiver on Thursday. Matthews caught a couple of passes and didn't do anything great, but he didn't look like a rookie. He looked like part of the starting offense. The Eagles actually fed him the ball a couple of times to try and take advantage of his run-after-catch skills. One play resulted in a first down. A defensive back made a terrific open-field tackle on the other and kept Matthews short of the sticks.
Sproles, the Eagles’ other new weapon, saw a good amount of action in the game. He carried the ball six times for 33 yards, including a touchdown. He caught one pass for 4 yards. You can see that he and Foles are still working on their timing. That will come soon enough.
Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of IgglesBlitz.com and was a contributor to the Eagles Almanac.
None of these skill players could shine without good blocking. The offensive line played its best game of the summer. None of the top three quarterbacks was sacked. The Eagles ran for 182 yards and averaged more than 5 yards per carry. The Eagles controlled the line of scrimmage. Jason Peters looked to be in midseason form. Jason Kelce was very good in space on runs and screens. Todd Herremans had a key block out in space on LeSean McCoy's long screen pass that went for a touchdown. Backup left tackle Andrew Gardner had another impressive showing. He had one block at the goal line where he just caved in a defensive end and got Matthew Tucker in for the score. Matt Tobin looked very good as well. The one concern for now is right tackle Allen Barbre in pass protection. He gives up too much pressure. Barbre moves his feet well, but doesn't extend his arms quickly enough. He keeps them tight to his body and lets defenders get into him. This is a bad habit that Barbre has, but it can be fixed.
The backup running back situation is confusing, but in a good way. Tucker played well. So did the guys behind him. Rookie Henry Josey only ran four times, but picked up 48 yards. He is showing serious speed and quickness. The Eagles traded for Kenjon Barner on Tuesday and he carried the ball seven times for 32 yards. There was lots of running room and the backs took advantage of it.
Backup quarterbacks Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley also played well. Sanchez got to face the Steelers’ starters in the third quarter and he led the team on a pair of touchdown drives. Sanchez finished the preseason going 25 of 31 as a passer. Those are shockingly good number for someone that is under 60 percent as a career passer. The Eagles’ offense is bringing out the best in Sanchez. He's got good talent around him and a terrific coaching staff. Beyond the numbers, Sanchez just looks completely different. He is playing with confidence. He runs that offense when he's on the field and isn't afraid to get on people. The guy who looked so goofy in New York seems to be long gone. Barkley got limited snaps since he will start this week, but he still went 4 of 4 as a passer.
Like the offense, the Eagles’ defense played its best game of the preseason. I think things came together for a variety of reasons. There wasn't as much player shuffling as last week. Coordinator Bill Davis used the previous game to focus on individuals. This week he was checking out the entire defense, as well as individuals. Davis was more aggressive as a play-caller. The Eagles seemed to blitz more this week. That's important for the 3-4. Finally, the players simply played better. No matter what you do, if the players don't execute, you're going to fail.
The pass rush was more effective against the Steelers. The blitzes worked and Trent Cole had his best game of the summer. That's a good combination. Mychal Kendricks, who had an outstanding game, was a very good blitzer. He came up the middle twice and one of those blitzes led to an interception. Kendricks came off the edge once and looked like he was shot out of a cannon. There were defensive backs getting shots on Ben Roethlisberger when they blitzed. Other times, it was just the main rushers. Fletcher Cox threw the right tackle down and got very good pressure on one play. Cole got pressure off the edge on several plays. Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham came off the bench, but each player had a sack and was disruptive.
Coverage was much better as well. Nolan Carroll II started at cornerback and had a diving interception. I thought Carroll looked very good in coverage. Malcolm Jenkins broke up a short pass where he almost came up with a pick. Bradley Fletcher had some penalties that he's got to clean up, but he generally covered well.
Backup defensive linemen Beau Allen and Brandon Bair each continued their strong play this summer. Allen played with the starters when Bennie Logan needed a rest. There was no drop-off at all. Bair batted down a pair of passes. He got pressure on some plays and was good against the run. He's been a major revelation this summer.
Special teams was up and down. Alex Henery missed an easy field goal, which he can't do. I thought his kickoffs were the best of the preseason so I hate to see him take a step back on field goals when he's showing progress on kickoffs. Ugh. The Eagles’ returners didn't do anything of note. The coverage units did give up a 49-yard kickoff return at the end of the third quarter.
All in all, this was a terrific performance by the Eagles. They blew the doors off the Steelers when the starters were in the game. It was 17-0 at the half and 31-7 in the third quarter. The Eagles didn't suffer any major injuries. The backups will take on the Jets this week and the starters will start focusing on the season opener against Jacksonville.