The preseason opener is in the books. The Eagles lost 16-10 to the Steelers, but the outcome is of little importance. The preseason just isn't about winning and losing. There is plenty to be happy about, but there are also some areas that still need work. This was just step one. The coaches can now work with the players on specific areas that need to be improved. The biggest thing to be happy about is the fact the team came away healthy.
Let's start off talking about the offense. The starters moved the ball well. They put up 10 points in their two drives. That is a good beginning, especially when you consider that Reggie Brown, Shawn Andrews and Brian Westbrook weren't part of the equation.
Donovan McNabb played well. He was 10 of 13 for 97 yards. He threw the ball well. His two best throws were bullets to Greg Lewis. McNabb and the offense did stall on the first trip to the red zone. I'd be lying if I said I didn't start having flashbacks to 2007. We do have to keep things in perspective and remember that was the opening drive of the preseason. The offense marched right down the field and scored a touchdown on the next series, although that score did come against the Steelers backups. McNabb made pretty good reads. He did miss a wide open Kevin Curtis on a couple of plays. McNabb moved around well in the pocket. He didn't take off running downfield, but I'm happy about that. I'd rather him save those kinds of plays for the regular season. In preseason games, I want him to throw the ball away if needed, but not risk taking shots to his body.
I was hoping for more from Kevin Kolb. He made some very good throws and had some positive moments, but lacked the kind of command that I expected. There were pre-snap penalties, sloppy throws and some oddball mistakes. In his defense, this was his first real game action in almost a year. He got a few snaps against the Lions last season, but his last extended playing time came in the 2007 preseason. The other key factor is that Kolb was working with backups. I wasn't expecting him to lead a smooth, polished attack, but the group was more "rough around the edges" than I expected. Hopefully Kolb and the backup offense will build on the game and play better next week.
The running backs all had some good moments. Correll Buckhalter started and played the best. He showed a good burst. He made a nice cutback run. My only beef with him came on a screen pass to the right side where he didn't let his linemen get in front of him. The play gained seven yards, but could have easily been a big gainer if he had just been a bit more patient. Lorenzo Booker gained 18 yards on six touches. He looked fast, which I certainly expected. The Eagles lined him up all over the place. Tony Hunt and Ryan Moats each had some good moments.
DeSean Jackson was the best of the wide receivers. The Eagles may have found a wide receiver that can really add something special to the offense. Jackson had five catches for 51 yards. He had another reception taken away by penalty. Jackson looked like an NFL receiver. He got open, caught the ball well, took hits and showed good RAC (run after catch) skills. One catch was a short pass that he grabbed, spun away from the defender and got an additional six yards. A simple four-yard gain turned into 10 yards. That kind of speed, quickness and elusiveness is something the receiving corps needs more of. His most impressive catch to me came on a throw from McNabb. Jackson ran a deep crossing route. The pass was a bit behind him. Jackson jumped up, reached back, brought the ball in and took a big hit. He held onto the ball for a gain of 19 yards. If he can handle McNabb's fastballs, even when they are a bit off-target, that is a great sign. Jackson may only weigh in the 175-pound range, but he took a couple of big hits last night and didn't flinch. He was willing to work the middle of the field. He focused on catching the ball and didn't care about guys coming over to deliver big hits.
The other receivers and the tight ends were solid, but didn't make flashy plays. L.J. Smith looked healthy on his one catch and run. That's a very good sign. Greg Lewis had a good game. Jason Avant nearly made a great touchdown catch. He just couldn't quite get both feet down inbounds.
The offensive line group was pretty good. Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas each showed some rust. Thomas gave up a sack when he didn't handle a blitz well. Runyan got off-balance and fell, which led to a penalty on his part. The interior guys looked pretty good. I watched Max Jean-Gilles quite a bit. He played well. His pass blocking has come a long way since last December. He showed good awareness, especially against a blitzing group like the Steelers. Jean-Gilles "anchored" very well. He got his hands on a defender and that was that. He wasn't driven back at all.
I need to re-watch the backup offensive line in order to give thorough notes on them. King Dunlap did look pretty good at left tackle. He really uses those long arms of his to keep defenders under control. He needs to anchor better. I saw him get driven back a time or two. Winston Justice was up and down. He got beaten by an inside move on one play. Justice set really hard to the outside. The defender saw that, gave him a good whack to the shoulder, and got to the inside with ease.
Let's shift over to the defense. One area that was a concern early on last night was the run defense. The problem was that the defensive ends were not "setting the edge" as they say in football terms. Our ends were getting sealed by blockers and that opened up running lanes to the edge. I'm not sure if this was a simple alignment problem or what. The Steelers flipped their tight ends around on several plays and that caused the linebackers to move around. The defense adjusted and the edge runs weren't as effective.
None of the starting defensive linemen stood out, one way or another. We know that group can play. I'm going to focus on the backups, a group that is more interesting. Darren Howard played both end and tackle. He looked fast. He chased a play down from behind. He got pressure up the middle on a pass play. Chris Clemons showed his speed off the edge when he got to quarterback Dennis Dixon for a near sack. Jerome McDougle was the star of the defensive line. Who expected to hear that? He only had a couple of tackles, but McDougle was disruptive all game. He played both sides and pressured the quarterback from both spots. He looked quick off the edge and athletic in space. It was a very encouraging start for McDougle. Rookie Bryan Smith made a couple of hustle plays. He is fast and he's got a good motor. Trevor Laws and Dan Klecko were the only backup defensive tackles. They played the whole second half and looked exhausted at the end. Laws showed he can be disruptive. He was credited with four tackles and a sack.
The linebackers played well, both starters and backups. Stewart Bradley looks like the real deal. He played inside runs very well. He's big and strong. Bradley can take on blockers, shed blocks and still get to the running back. That is really hard to do in the NFL. Bradley has pretty good range for a big guy. He was around the ball a lot. He also looked good in coverage. He played in the nickel defense. He covered a wide receiver on a crossing route and forced an incompletion. Chris Gocong and Omar Gaither looked good. Gocong looked much more natural, more fluid than last year. Gaither looked comfortable playing out in space.
The guy who helped himself the most last night was backup middle linebacker Joe Mays. He led the team with six tackles. Several of those were big hits. Mays was instinctive. He showed good range. He tackled with authority. He showed why the coaches have him as the backup, despite the fact he was a sixth-round pick in April. Akeem Jordan was second on the team with five tackles. He had an active game and picked up right where he left off last year.
The secondary is hard to say a lot about. The Steelers only threw 16 passes all game long. None of the cornerbacks jumped out at me, good or bad. Nick Graham did have a nice play on a downfield pass attempt. He stayed inside the receiver and wouldn't let the guy get to the ball. The safeties did stand out. One play that will be talked about is Brian Dawkins' coverage on the touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes. Dawkins took a bad angle, then froze. Holmes ran right by him and into the end zone. I hope this was just a sloppy mistake. Quintin Mikell was the best defensive back on the field. He came up fast in run support. He got a big hit on rookie Rashard Mendenhall. Mikell broke up a pass down the middle. He probably should have picked the ball off, but played the receiver instead of the ball. At least he did deliver a big hit on the play. Sean Considine broke quarterback Charlie Batch's collarbone with a physical tackle.
Special teams is still a work in progress. The blocking and coverage units need work. Our return guys have speed and ability, but need running lanes. Lorenzo Booker did bobble a kickoff before picking it up. DeSean Jackson ran backward on a punt return. That doesn't work in the NFL. These are the mistakes of guys learning how to perform these roles in the NFL. I expect to see improvement each week as the players should be able to learn from their mistakes.
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