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Lawlor: Young Eagles Need To Step Up For Team To Take Flight

Posted Sep 19, 2017

NFL coaches face a tough balancing act every year. They want to get the best players on the field, but they also have to develop young talent. Doug Pederson had to find a replacement for Lane Johnson at right tackle last year and went with rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai. That looked like a questionable move at first, as Vaitai struggled mightily in his first start. He improved each week and was doing a solid job several weeks in.

Pederson saw Vaitai as a talented player who was worth developing on the field. Pederson knew there would be some bumps in the road, but felt the move would pay off later in the 2016 season and certainly in the future. It certainly looks like Pederson made the right decision in hindsight.

There are some young players who are up and down right now. Left guard Isaac Seumalo struggled against the Chiefs. Pederson was asked on Monday if he was making any changes to the starting lineup and he said, "I don't want to push any panic buttons at this time." The whole reason to have quality veteran backups like Stefen Wisniewski and Chance Warmack is to use them if you need them.

Pederson and the Eagles still very much believe in Seumalo. When you feel strongly about a player, you don't bench him for a poor game. You work with him to correct the errors he made and then get him back on the field so he has a chance to get better.

At the same time, the coaches know this team has a chance to make the playoffs. They can't just play anyone. The players have to perform at a certain level so the team can win games. A team like Cleveland can really focus on player development for the future. The Eagles have a strong core of players. They want to develop young guys, but also need to win games. That means they can only be so patient with young players.

Seumalo will be the starting left guard this week and I expect him to play better. He knows the coaches will be watching him closely. They love his potential, but this team needs to win games and Seumalo has to help them do that. He's not the only young player who needs to step up. Wendell Smallwood drew rave reviews during Training Camp but hasn't made much of an impact so far. He hasn't had much room to work with, but he's only gained 10 yards on nine touches. Smallwood is another young player the coaches believe in, but he needs to get more out of his touches.

I don't mean to pick on the young guys. There were costly mistakes by veterans that hurt the team on Sunday. Wide receiver Torrey Smith dropped a touchdown pass. Safety Corey Graham missed a tackle on Kareem Hunt's long touchdown run. Running back Darren Sproles fumbled the ball away on a punt return. Vinny Curry missed a sack on a key play that could have ended a scoring drive. Quarterback Carson Wentz threw a costly interception that gave the Chiefs a huge break at a key time in the game.

The difference with those players is that they have a strong track record. The coaches trust them. They will let those guys make a mistake or have a bad game because they know those players can bounce right back and make key plays. Young players are a projection. You hope they will perform at a high level, but don't know if they will.

While Sunday's loss was frustrating, there were some real positives. Wentz threw for 333 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He ran for 55 yards, showing that he is more of a dual-threat quarterback than many people think.

Tight end Zach Ertz caught five passes for 97 yards. He consistently gets open and seems to catch everything that is thrown his way. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery had a breakout game, catching seven passes for 92 yards. He scored his first touchdown as an Eagle when he hauled in a 16-yard pass in the third quarter.

Wentz has weapons this year and he is taking advantage of them. There were four pass plays that covered 22 or more yards. There were another three that went for 16 or more yards. Those kinds of chunk plays make a huge difference when moving up and down the field. As a point of comparison, the Eagles only had three pass plays of 16 or more yards in Week 2 last year.

The defense was good for most of the game on Sunday. The defensive line was dominant at times. They racked up three sacks and kept regular pressure on Alex Smith. The Chiefs did score 27 points, but 10 of them came on short fields after turnovers. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will tell you that situations like that are when his defense must step up, but you also have to give the Chiefs credit for making some crucial plays.

The Eagles hung tough on the road against one of the best teams in the league. There is something to be taken away from that. Still, the NFL is all about winning and losing. The Eagles lost on Sunday. That's a good lesson for the players to take.

Being close or trying hard or things like that don't mean anything when you look at the final NFL standings. You are judged on wins and losses. There is no gray area. No interpretation is needed.

It is good to see the Eagles play well for most of the game and show the potential this team has, but they must find a way to win games like that in the future. We know this team can compete. Winning is the next step.

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