The Eagles had a terrific showing in the preseason opener. The offense looked good with the starters on the field. The second unit was solid as well. Things were more up and down after that, but I think we all somewhat expected that from the third and fourth stringers.
The defense was outstanding all night long. Juan Castillo sure didn't look like a new defensive coordinator. The defense played the way he told us they would - fast and furious. The defense attacked and made a lot of plays in the backfield. This was true of the starters and the backups. Castillo and his players get high marks for the first game.
We heard all offseason about Jim Washburn and his wide-nine scheme. The reality lived up to the hype. The defensive line played great. The team had six sacks and all were by defensive linemen. It was a lot of fun to see the line attacking off the ball on every snap. Over the last few years, the line played a more controlled style. That's definitely in the past and I love watching the guys get regular penetration and play on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
Let's talk about some individual players:
OT Ryan Harris - All eyes were on the new right tackle. Had the Eagles finally found the starter at that spot? Overall, Harris had a solid game. He was beaten twice by inside moves and that is a major no-no. You don't want defenders having a short path to Michael Vick. Harris was focused on controlling the edge and that's why defenders got free to the inside. I'm sure Howard Mudd will give him a long lecture about blocking inside-out. Harris did look like a capable starting right tackle. The bad news is that he's been bothered by back spasms since the game.
C Jason Kelce - Jamaal Jackson played early in the game and looked fine. Then, Kelce came in and took over at center. The question with him is size and strength. Kelce held his own against the Ravens. He got moved back initially on some plays, but then was able to get his feet under him and re-set. He can be effective when doing this as long as he plays with good leverage. Kelce really stood out on run plays when he went after linebackers. He's agile enough to smoothly get to the second level. Then his nasty streak kicks in and he sustains blocks until the whistle blows. Kelce got badly beaten in pass protection once and it forced a poor throw in the red zone. He's far from a finished product, but this young man can play.
RG Danny Watkins - The Eagles'first-round pick made his NFL debut. Watkins had a couple of good run blocks. The Eagles ran right behind him on third-and-one. They got the first down. He was inconsistent in pass protection. I did think he looked good pulling on a run play. Watkins didn't play that much so it was hard to get a strong feeling for his night. He'll play a lot more this week. That will be a better test for him.
WR Riley Cooper - The Eagles are deep at wide receiver. The young guys need to play well to secure roster spots and they need to really shine in order to make a case for getting some playing time. Cooper did just that with his only catch of the game, a 42-yard highlight reel grab that set up the only touchdown of the game. Cooper might be the only receiver on the roster who makes that grab. He used his size to go up in the air and get the ball. He used his strength and toughness to hold on as it looked like Ed Reed tried to pull his arm off. Making matters worse, Cooper's leg got caught up under him and bent awkwardly. Really impressive play. That was a great way for Cooper to show the coaches that they should find a way to use him.
WR Rod Harper - Not all receivers are going to make the team, but some would love a practice squad spot. Harper could be in that category. He had an impressive game. He caught the ball well with his hands. He worked the middle of the field and showed no hesitance about playing in traffic. He took a pounding after a couple of short catches. He stood out more than any of the backup receivers.
TE Donald Lee - When the Eagles signed Lee on the first day of free agency, it seemed like a strange move. The team already had Brent Celek and Clay Harbor in place. The Eagles liked rookie Martell Webb and everyone wanted to see if Cornelius Ingram was finally healthy. Lee is a good player, but how did he fit in? It seems like the Eagles wanted him for a couple of reasons. First, he would push Celek and Harbor. Any struggles from them and Lee would be right there to climb the depth chart. Also, Lee is great insurance. If Celek or Harbor gets hurt, you've got a player already in place that is capable of starting or being a No. 2 tight end. Lee caught three passes against Baltimore and might be the best looking number three tight end of the Andy Reid era. Lee could force the coaches to think strongly about keeping all three tight ends.
RB Dion Lewis - The fifth round rookie had a good debut. He ran 10 times for 26 yards. On several of those runs, he showed good ability. Lewis ran hard and didn't go down on first contact. The overall numbers aren't great, but the blockers in front of him didn't have a great night and the Ravens did a lot of blitzing. Lewis gained 16 yards on a screen pass. He showed some burst on that. He also showed promise as a pass blocker. Lewis must get better, but he's aggressive and physical for his size.
LB Casey Matthews - Will the Eagles really go with a rookie at middle linebacker? It sure looks that way and Matthews is off to a solid start. The thing that impressed me most was his ability to diagnose plays. He read the offense and then got into the correct position. He helped to blow up a screen. He covered a tight end well on a play that resulted in a sack. He didn't have impact as a run defender, but read the plays and flowed to the ball. Matthews must get better at shedding blocks. The good news is that he's not hesitant about contact. Matthews just needs to improve his technique.
DE Darryl Tapp - The NFL is all about fit. Tapp is a natural in the wide-nine and that showed on Thursday. Tapp had two sacks and also got to a running back behind the line of scrimmage. Tapp fired off the ball and showed the kind of quickness and motor that Washburn needs from his pass rushers.
DT Derek Landri - Not too much was said when the Eagles added Landri. He was expected to be more than just a camp body, but not too much more. Well, nobody gave Landri that memo. He's here on a mission - to make the team. Landri had a sack in the opener and was regularly disruptive. He's got some athletic ability, but the best thing is his motor. Landri is relentless when chasing the quarterback. He's looked good in practice since the game and might be on the way to securing a spot.
LB Keenan Clayton - Clayton played well in the 2010 preseason and I had high expectations for him this year. He had a solid showing. Clayton had two tackles and played fast. He flew to the ball. I thought he looked good in coverage. I was happy to see him play a more physical style of football than last summer. I still want to find out if Clayton can be a good run defender.
SS Jarrad Page - Adding Page wasn't a big deal in my eyes since I had pegged Colt Anderson for the fourth safety spot already. Anderson was such a good special teams player that I felt the Eagles almost had to keep him. Page then went out and played really well. He had a red zone interception (those exist?) and helped break up another red zone pass with a big hit. He flew around and made his presence felt. Now Page is forcing the Eagles to think hard about whether they should keep him over Anderson.
ON TO PITTSBURGH
Now let's talk about Thursday's upcoming game with the Steelers. Some players need a strong showing in order to turn their situation around or maybe to open some eyes. Here are the players I'll be watching:
OT King Dunlap - He will get the start at right tackle. Dunlap was up and down in the opener, and that was going against backups. Now he's back as a starter (due to injuries) and gets a chance to show what he can do. Huge opportunity for Dunlap.
WR Johnnie Lee Higgins - The Eagles added Higgins in the hopes that he would be a backup wide receiver and the primary return specialist. I don't know if the team is impressed by what they've seen of him as a receiver. Higgins seems most comfortable going deep. He didn't get a chance to return a punt or kick in the opener. He needs to shine against the Steelers, on offense or special teams.
QB Vince Young - It was fun to watch Young scramble and make plays last week, but the Eagles need him to execute the offense more efficiently. You can't rely on making plays every week. At some point you must run the offense the way it is designed.
G Julian Vandervelde - He had some good moments in the opener, but needs to play even better if he's going to try and secure a roster spot. His primary competition might be Mike McGlynn, who also was up and down last week. Vandervelde was playing in his first NFL game. I expect him to be more comfortable this week.
OT Austin Howard - At one point, there was some hope he would challenge for the right tackle spot this year. Howard didn't impress in the opener. He let a rusher get by him to the inside for a sack. He missed some other blocks. Howard didn't report to Lehigh in great shape and that's hurting his game. He still has natural ability, but must play better. Learning a new system this summer and adjusting to a new coach isn't easy on the young man, but that's life in the NFL.
CB Trevard Lindley - The Ravens passing attack isn't a thing of beauty so it was hard to judge the cornerbacks. Lindley played fine in the game, but would benefit from covering a good receiver and facing a quality quarterback. Rookie Tyrod Taylor was busy running for his life last week. Lindley wants to show the Eagles he should absolutely stick around.
CB Brandon Hughes - See above. Hughes is a young corner that is in the mix for a roster spot. He needs a chance to show the Eagles what he can do. The big three at corner played well. Joselio Hanson played well. Curtis Marsh was solid and isn't going anywhere. Lindley and Hughes need to shine this summer to get a spot. Or to steal one.
LB Brian Rolle - Anyone who's read my columns this offseason knows I'm President of the Brian Rolle Fan Club. He had a good showing in the opener, but Rolle needs to shine in every game to make sure the Eagles find a spot for him. The starting linebackers are set for now, but behind them is a complete mystery. Rolle led the team in tackles last week and needs another game like that.
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