Casey Matthews is not Chuck Bednarik, Bill Bergey, Byron Evans or Jeremiah Trotter.
Those guys were great inside linebackers for the Eagles. Matthews is an unproven rookie. He might one day join that list, but for now he's a player growing into his new role.
Rookie players are going to have ups and downs. This is true for some second- and third-year players when they finally make the move into the starting lineup. I remember watching Dallas burn Stewart Bradley in pass coverage several times in his second-ever NFL start. It wasn't pretty. Bradley was unsure of what to do and it wasn't a great matchup to start with. By the end of the season, Bradley was sticking with running backs along the sideline and even on some deeper routes. He knew what he was doing. In the real world, this is called learning on the job. In the NFL, it is called growing pains.
I think the key with Matthews is to see him as a functional starter and as a player who shows regular progress. He was fine in the preseason opener, but only played a few snaps. Last week, Andy Reid said that he got better as the game went along. That was progress. Remember that he's only 40 to 50 snaps into his NFL career. Every week, he should learn and get better. By mid-season, he should be noticeably better, if not sooner. He must develop well.
The Eagles are taking a calculated risk by going with a rookie middle linebacker, but I don't think the team is unreasonable. Matthews isn't a major project. He played middle linebacker in college. He started for three years and played at a big school. He has an extensive football background. This isn't Chris Gocong transitioning from defensive end to linebacker. This isn't Joe Mays going from North Dakota State to the NFL. Matthews is a football player, not an athlete. He's a middle linebacker.
Matthews is a project in the sense that most rookies are. He has to learn a new scheme. He has to adjust to the style of pro football (no more spread offenses and option running). He also has to adjust to the size and speed of the game. Matthews did the last thing by bulking up to 245 pounds. He now has the size and bulk to better fit in at middle linebacker. The big task at hand is learning to take on and shed blockers.
Juan Castillo and linebackers coach Mike Caldwell will work tirelessly to get Matthews ready for the season. This is a player they believe in. They want him to succeed. They will push Matthews relentlessly in order to get him where he needs to be.
This Thursday will be another good test. Matthews got better from the first quarter to the second quarter in the Steelers game. Can he carry that momentum over to the Browns game? Matthews won't be a finished project this week, but he does need to show that he's continuing on in the right direction. If he flatlines or his play regresses, that's when the team has to get concerned. The whole point in playing a rookie is so that he can learn and improve.
THE LIGHT IS COMING ON
There are a few young players who showed some good development in the Steelers game.
1. King Dunlap made big progress from week one to two. His biggest issue this summer has been adjusting to the new scheme. Dunlap wants to continue giving ground in pass protection. That was fine under Castillo, but not Howard Mudd. Dunlap struggled with the scheme in the opener. He was much better against the Steelers. He moved back a couple of feet instead of a couple of yards. Huge difference. Dunlap played better and looked more comfortable in the blocking scheme. A good showing this week could secure him the right tackle spot for the foreseeable future.
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2. Cedric Thornton is big, quick and athletic. In the opener, he had a bad habit of getting way out over his feet. It was then easy for blockers to push him around. I'm sure Castillo and Jim Washburn were not happy with how many plays he ended up on the ground (OTG is a bad thing for just about any player). Thornton made great strides from the Ravens game to last week. He played with better balance and was more under control. I don't know that he's going to be good enough for a roster spot. He's got potential, but needs a lot more work. It was good to see him headed in the right direction.
3. Austin Howard has not had a great offseason. He appeared to arrive at camp heavy. He shuffled back and forth between left and right tackle. He struggled adjusting to Mudd's scheme and just wasn't impressive in the preseason opener. I don't know what happened during the next week, but Howard looked like a different player in Pittsburgh. He's still working his way into shape, a problem for many big guys around the league. Howard at least played well. He wasn't allowing players to get by him in pass protection. He was physical and aggressive. Howard looked a lot more comfortable with what was happening.
4. Danny Watkins got better from the opener to last week. Against the Ravens, you could see that he was unsure of things a few times. Most rookies have this problem their first time out. Watkins was more comfortable and confident in Pittsburgh. He had one great run block where he drove a defender about 10 or so yards downfield. That was fun to watch.
5. Chas Henry only had one chance to kick, but he made the most of it with a 53-yard punt. The key for him and Alex Henery is to be consistently good. Neither player got enough opportunities last Thursday, but Henry did make the most of his one punt.
THINGS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Michael Vick threw three interceptions and just didn't play well. That doesn't bother me much. He's never been a great practice or preseason player. Vick comes alive in real game situations. I would prefer for him to be sharp and play well, but I'm not concerned.
The third-down defense struggled against Pittsburgh. It looked like various individual breakdowns were the problem. That's good news in the sense that it wasn't one area really playing poorly. That's bad news in the sense that multiple players made mistakes in critical situations on the same night. Third down is the money down in the NFL. I'm not worried about this, unless the problem shows up in the Cleveland game.
The backup middle linebacker situation is something to keep an eye on. Greg Lloyd had the job in the opener, but is dealing with an ankle sprain. Akeem Jordan handled that role in Pittsburgh. I am fine with Matthews remaining the starter, but the Eagles need a solid backup in place.
I'm definitely curious about what will happen at return specialist. Johnnie Lee Higgins hasn't had much of a chance to show what he can do. DeSean Jackson can be an electric punt returner, but it would be nice to have someone else to handle the job. Sinorice Moss had two good kickoff returns against the Steelers. It would help if he could stay healthy and contribute on offense. I am interested to see if Ronnie Brown does get some reps as a kickoff returner. That might help save a roster spot.
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