CLEVELAND – Head coach Doug Pederson tonight expects to play his starters through the first half against the Browns (8 p.m., FOX), perhaps into the third quarter, as a sort of final walk-through before the regular season opens in two weeks against Atlanta at Lincoln Financial Field.
And he wants to see improvement over what the Eagles showed in the preseason ups and downs against Pittsburgh and New England. Pederson wants to see improvement.
"I think some of the takeaways, execution, quite honestly. Just we've got to eliminate penalties, big penalties," he said earlier in the week. "Turnovers have been kind of a sore spot obviously these first couple of weeks. We had some opportunities to take the ball away the other night and we didn't do that. But just overall execution. Hopefully now our units are starting to play more. They are playing longer. They are playing together. That's the way practices have been structured this week to be able to promote that just a little bit, and so that should help our guys that are so-called penciled-in starters to play a little bit better in a game like this."
Thus, the expectations are set. Some of the players to watch, specifically, extend beyond the starters. Here are some to keep an eye on tonight.
Nick Foles, QB
After a 3-for-9 performance in New England, Nick Foles wants to get into a rhythm, establish some timing and move the football tonight. The offensive line didn't give Foles much time last week, so it's important to see improvement up front, too. Foles escaped serious injury in the second quarter of last Thursday's game and he's fortunate about that. It's about getting into a flow for Foles and the offense tonight. We don't know what's ahead, but Foles could be the starter on September 6. Nobody knows. It's a fairly large moment for Foles, preseason edition.
Wendell Smallwood, RB
Who wins the job as the fourth running back? Wendell Smallwood should get some substantial touches here, so he needs to show explosiveness and decisiveness and show the Eagles that he's healthy and capable of being that fourth running back. Matt Jones will also get some playing time after a poor outing last week. Josh Adams is a question mark after missing last week's game. Donnel Pumphrey is not yet healthy enough to play after missing two games with a hamstring injury.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai, LT
Big V admitted that he wasn't mentally prepared for last week's game, and he struggled the entire time. This is a bounce-back moment for Halapoulivaati Vaitai, then, and he's got a lot of eyes watching him. It's probably not the smartest thing to pencil in Jason Peters for 16 games and every snap this season, given his recovery from a serious knee injury. So, the Eagles are going to need Vaitai, just as they did last season. Vaitai needs to step up tonight.
Mike Wallace, WR
Along with the rest of the offense last week, Mike Wallace was not productive. It's fair to think that the Eagles will try to get Wallace involved tonight, get him some touches, let him run under a pass or two down the field. Wallace has played well in practice, showing deep speed and reliable hands. Taking it to game night would be a big plus.
Sidney Jones/Avonte Maddox, CB
Who wins the nickel cornerback job? Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is watching closely tonight as Sidney Jones and Avonte Maddox take their reps. Both have had their moments of success and both have given up plays. It's been a very even race. Someone needs to separate.
Nathan Gerry/Kamu Grugier-Hill, LB
Same thing here. A starting job is on the line and both players have acquitted themselves well through two preseason games. The Eagles would like one of them to emerge, but they know they've got two players who can man the position. The linebacker depth has been a pleasant positive through the summer.
Jordan Hicks, LB
This isn't about how Jordan Hicks plays, because he's a terrific middle linebacker in this defense and nobody questions that. It's more a matter of seeing how Hicks fares with the extended playing time after his Achilles tendon injury from 2017. Hicks is critical to the Eagles' defense. His progress has been encouraging. A strong first half of play, and then some maybe, would be a real positive moving forward.
Haloti Ngata, DT
Haloti Ngata has been fairly quiet through two preseason games, so tonight is a chance to make some noise. The Eagles need Ngata to provide run-stopping strength at a position that has some questions with Tim Jernigan still sidelined and the Eagles hopeful of some young players emerging to provide depth. Ngata has been around the block a few times and he knows when it's time to peak. Tonight is a good time to get to the football.
Cameron Johnston, P
Here we are three games into the preseason and Cameron Johnston remains the man. Johnston is averaging 47.4 yards in 13 punts, with a net average of 45.3 yards. He's been outstanding after an inconsistent spring and Training Camp. Would another outstanding performance cement Johnston as the team's punter heading into the regular season?
Young WR Group
At some point, Alshon Jeffery will be healthy and in this offense. Same with Nelson Agholor. And Mack Hollins, who could see time tonight. Shelton Gibson has made an impressive bid to make the roster and earn playing time. DeAndre Carter opened some eyes last week. So did Bryce Treggs, but then he injured a hamstring and is out again. Will Greg Ward receive some looks tonight? Kamar Aiken, in his sixth season, is still trying to crack through.
It could be that the five-receiver depth chart is set with Jeffery, Wallace, Agholor, Hollins, and Gibson. Would the Eagles keep a sixth receiver?