No matter what the final score says afterward, there are always essential bits of information to glean from a preseason game. This is an extremely important period for players on the bubble to prove their wares and put some good play on film. Sometimes you want to see your crop of rookies and see how they’re adjusting to the NFL. Maybe you want to look at how your new free agents can get used in their new scheme. Teams are aware of this, and that’s the main reason why they keep things simple from a schematic standpoint. It’s not about keeping your game plan close to the vest as much as it’s about letting your guys play fast in a competitive environment that can’t be duplicated on the practice field.
Coming out of the Eagles' 31-14 loss to Pittsburgh on Thursday night, there are several things that I walked away with feeling really good about. Let’s start on the offensive side of the ball, where the team’s top draft pick from this spring, Dallas Goedert, really shined.
ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS HAVE SOUND
It’s second-and-long down in the red zone, and Pittsburgh is playing a very basic version of Cover 3 with three deep defenders and four underneath in zone coverage. Goedert is going to be running a corner stop route, settling into the soft spot of that underneath zone, but let’s first start with quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
The Steelers are in their 3-4 front, and with the offensive line sliding their protection from right to left, linebacker Tyler Matakevich comes free from the offense’s right side. By design, this is Sudfeld’s man to beat. The young quarterback protects the ball with both hands, steps up in the pocket with his eyes downfield, and after throwing a Nick Foles-esque pump fake, he begins to break the pocket to the right.
Just before Sudfeld begins to run, Goedert has settled into the soft spot in the hook/curl area of the field. It’s called the hook/curl because it’s the spot between those two defenders (the hook and curl player in underneath zone coverage). When Sudfeld rolls right, however, scramble rules go into effect, meaning that the receivers can’t just stay static. They have to uncover and make themselves available for the quarterback. This is where Goedert’s awareness comes into play. The rookie shuffles to his right, settling into a more favorable window for Sudfeld, who pulls the trigger for the touchdown. This was a fun play to watch back!
Goedert finished the night with four catches, and here are two of them. On the first play, we see the rookie run a route that we’ve watched Zach Ertz execute so many times over the last two years for big plays. Goedert sells the over route with his eyes and face mask, then sticks his foot in the ground and breaks back to the opposite sideline. On the next play, we see the rookie work down the seam as Sudfeld plays the safety and linebackers in the middle of the field, helping create room for Goedert to work for a first down.
The biggest question surrounding Goedert had nothing to do with him as a pass catcher. Even though he’s a big body, he wasn’t an effective blocker at the FCS level. How would he adjust in the professional ranks? Coach Justin Peelle made that an emphasis from the jump, and this was our first look at Goedert doing the dirty work in the trenches. Color me impressed. They used Goedert at the point of attack on the front side of plays, on the back side to cut off defenders from the play, on the move as a lead blocker, and even blocked defensive ends and defensive tackles inside! Is he a mauler at this point who I’d want to go head to head with Calais Campbell or Everson Griffen for 60 snaps a game right now? No, but this was a huge step in the right direction.
The biggest thing to look for is the *willingness* to compete at the point of attack, and I thought Goedert more than proved himself in that area. The shots above are all of him on the move, where the scheme can help him get favorable angles on defenders inside. Keep watching him on some of these other run plays to get a sense of how he did in one-on-one situations at the point of attack as well.
This is an example of just that, as Goedert is trusted to block the safety one-on-one. If he can do that, Jay Ajayi is left alone on an island with the second safety, and he’s able to bust this for a big gain to get the Eagles out of the shadow of their own goal posts. Give a ton of credit as well to Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Stefen Wisniewski, working the double team up to the linebacker.
There are some more good shots of Goedert here, but my real focus is on Brandon Brooks. The starting right guard was arguably the best player on the field for either team on Thursday night, as he dominated the reps he saw between the lines. I loved watching No. 79 at the point of attack, working against defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt and imposing his will. There are some great blocks from Lane Johnson and Jason Kelce here as well.
Out of the trenches and into the sky, let’s see some fireworks from Sudfeld and Shelton Gibson, who absolutely torches this Pittsburgh cornerback on the outside. Gibson said after the game that he and Sudfeld talked about this exact situation on Wednesday. If he got press coverage, he was converting this to a go route and would use his 4.35 speed to blow by the defender for six points. Give credit to Wendell Smallwood as well in the backfield with his pass protection on the play to keep Sudfeld clean.
A young player who everyone was excited to see was Jordan Mailata, who was seeing his first live action in his entire life playing American football. There were definitely ups and downs here, and it will be fun to watch Mailata continue to develop. He’s a young guy with tons of upside.
While Brooks was dominant on offense, Fletcher Cox owned the line of scrimmage on defense. The All-Pro defensive tackle crushed every lineman in his path and was extremely disruptive in the snaps he saw on the field. Cox lined up inside and outside, and his sheer brute power was put on display more than once, as were his nimble feet and improved hand-use as a pass rusher. I love watching No. 91 play.
Cornerback Sidney Jones had a bit of an injury scare during the game, but before that he flashed. The second-year corner has made plays on the ball all summer long in coverage, and on Thursday he showed off his competitiveness and physicality on contact. Jones is quick, instinctive, and tough, a skill set that will serve him well in Jim Schwartz’s scheme.
Draft classmate Rasul Douglas saw a ton of playing time on Thursday, and he had his share of ups and downs. Douglas’ interception was a thing of beauty, as he showed off his awareness and ball skills down the field to split the difference between two vertical routes and pick off a pass along the sidelines. His pass breakup in the red zone was a clinic tape play; exactly how the Eagles' coaching staff teaches it. On the two touchdowns he allowed, he simply misplayed his jump to contend the first one, while the second one was pretty good coverage that was beaten by an outstanding throw and catch.
Young veteran cornerback De’Vante Bausby has been battling with Jones for the role as the slot corner, and has seen more than his share of first-team reps inside this spring and summer. This was a really strong sequence of plays, all from one Pittsburgh series, where you saw Bausby’s quickness, length, and discipline all rise up to the occasion. He’ll continue to compete for that nickel corner job.
Speaking of competition, I’ve been infatuated with the battle for the third starter in the Eagles' base defense at linebacker. Nathan Gerry, the second-year man from Nebraska, seems to have a stranglehold on first-team reps, but Kamu Grugier-Hill continues to make plays in every fashion as well. Gerry got the start on Thursday night, and was constantly around the football, showing off his ability to play off contact in the trenches. Kamu shows off his freakish athleticism every time he steps between the lines. That was the case again against the Steelers, as he tracked down ball carriers outside the numbers on multiple occasions. I’m excited to watch those two - along with Joe Walker, LaRoy Reynolds, and Corey Nelson - continue to compete this summer.
The second-team unit on the defensive line really stood out to me in this game as well. In particular, Steven Means, Elijah Qualls, and Aziz Shittu were especially disruptive. Here are all three making plays up and down the line of scrimmage.
Watching special teams is always very important, but especially so in the preseason, where roster spots are won and lost on Dave Fipp’s unit. Tre Sullivan’s effort was impressive across the board, as was Gerry’s, but here are two plays where four individuals stood out above the rest.
On the first play of the entire game, Jones and Gibson race to the ball carrier, ripping the returner to the ground inside the 15-yard line to spike the energy level up and get things started for the 2018 season. I loved seeing that kind of swagger on the opening play, especially from those two guys who both have plenty to prove (for different reasons). On the second play, Douglas absolutely lights up an opposing Steeler, laying him out on his way down the field, while Goedert buries his man into the grass as the play comes to a close. It’s no surprise to me that all four of these players stood out to me during the game on their respective sides of the ball after watching the intensity they brought to the third phase of the game. I’m excited to see more of it next week against New England.