The third preseason game is always the most important. Starters play a lot, usually into the third quarter. Players have already had a couple of games to knock off the rust and get into the flow of things. Coaches want to see a sharp, crisp performance. They want progress from the previous games. The first couple of games were up and down affairs, but I think Andy Reid can be pretty happy with the Eagles' 27-17 victory over the Patriots.
The Eagles played well in all three phases of the game. The offense moved the ball and scored in the red zone. The defense really controlled the Patriots, but didn't have to face Tom Brady so they were expected to look good. Special teams had been a major disappointment so far but that wasn't the case in Foxborough. Two return touchdowns suddenly have everyone talking about the special teams in a positive light. This was a really good showing by the Eagles and it sets a good tone heading into the regular season. The preseason finale against the Jets will be mainly backups fighting for roster spots.
DeSean Jackson was the star of the game. All the talk this week was about how to replace Kevin Curtis. There was a lot of angst in Eagles Nation. Jackson played a terrific game and offered some hope at wide receiver. He caught four passes for 67 yards. He had a pair of catches that went for 23 yards and one that went for 13. More important than the numbers was the speed he brought to the offense. Jackson caught a screen pass on the left side and then worked his way across the field and turned it into a gain of 23. That is exactly what you want out of him. He took a short, safe pass and turned it into a big play. Jackson's speed, elusiveness and vision showed on that play. The offense takes on a whole new dimension when you can get big chunks of yardage with short throws as well as long ones.
Jackson is interesting (and fun) to watch. He doesn't appear to be running hard, but he still goes right by player after player. He is one of the rare guys who has ""effortless"" speed. This was evident watching him play at Cal. You could see it even better at the Scouting Combine. Most guys who run the 40-yard dash are using every ounce of effort possible to get down the line. Jackson ran one of the fastest times of all the players, but easily looked the smoothest. You could see that running style against the Patriots. He is unlike any player the Eagles have had in a long time.
That speed showed up in the return game as well. Jackson ran a first quarter punt back 44 yards, but the play was called back because of penalties. He then ran back a punt 76 yards for a touchdown as the first half ended. That was an electrifying play. Jackson weaved through the first wave of defenders and then turned on the jets when he got into space. We officially have a weapon on special teams. Jackson had a 27-yard return last week. Against the Patriots, he had one field-changing return and one for a score. The longest punt return of the 2007 preseason was 19 yards. Jackson is giving us immediate impact in the return game.
Speaking of impact in the return game, Quintin Demps took advantage of his promotion to starting kickoff returner. He ran back a second quarter kickoff 101 yards for a score. That really opened up the game. Demps didn't get big yards on the other two returns, but his style impressed me. He caught the ball cleanly and took off with no hesitation. That sounds simple, but a lot of returners, especially young guys, struggle with that. They look for big holes and wide running lanes. The best kickoff returners get the ball and go. Brian Mitchell was a master at that. Seeing Demps do that as a rookie is very encouraging. He's got a chance to be a very good returner because he has the speed to go with that style. The blocking on the touchdown wasn't great. Demps got up to full speed and found a seam in the defense. He brushed off a tackle attempt by the kicker and it was over. No one was going to catch him. Demps gives us another weapon in the return game. Last year we had none, this year we have two.
Tony Hunt got his first chance at fullback and played pretty well. I was impressed with his blocking. It needs work, but the effort was excellent. He attacked his targets when he could. I thought he did a good job of hitting with the correct shoulder so that he would seal the defender and leave a running lane. Hunt doesn't have the kind of pop you'd ideally like, but he showed promise. He got in on one tackle in special teams coverage. I think Hunt has a very good chance to be the starting fullback for the season.
The starting offense played well. Donovan McNabb was sharp. Brian Westbrook looked like he was in midseason form. He ran for 39 yards and had an impressive gain of 19 yards on a screen pass. Shawn Andrews got the start at right guard. He might have been a little rusty, but didn't look like a player who missed all of training camp and two preseason games. He should be back to full speed for the regular season. The rest of the offensive line looked solid. The Patriots got some pressure with their blitzes, but McNabb generally had plenty of time.
The passing game was good even without Reggie Brown and Kevin Curtis. Jackson led the way with his four catches. Hank Baskett and Jason Avant each caught a pair of passes. They didn't deliver big yards, but helped to move the ball. One of Avant's catches converted a third down and the other was for a touchdown. That was a very impressive grab. He shook free of the defender in the end zone and snared a bullet from McNabb. Baskett also should have had a touchdown, but he fumbled the ball as he was being tackled at the goal line. L.J. Smith played his best game of the preseason, catching three passes for 44 yards. Greg Lewis added one catch for 16 yards. That is the kind of group effort that will be needed to replace Kevin Curtis while he's out.
Kevin Kolb has come a long way since the opener. He played another good game. Kolb threw the ball well underneath. He also connected with Michael Gasperson for a 42-yard pass play. Kolb led the offense on a 90-yard drive that resulted in a field goal. Even more impressive is the fact that he did that with our backups against the Patriots starting defense.
Without Tom Brady the Patriots offense misfired quite a bit. The Eagles defense also had a big hand in that. The defensive line played a terrific game. Trent Cole had a sack. He also drew a holding call and was disruptive off the edge. He and several defenders got Laurence Maroney in the backfield on one running play. The defense got a lot of penetration throughout the game. That's a very good sign. Our scheme is predicated on guys getting up the field and disrupting the offense. The defense racked up four sacks and another four tackles-for-loss.
Several backup defenders stood out. Jerome McDougle is playing like a man on a mission. He had a sack, hit the quarterback at least three times, and consistently got pressure. McDougle is quick off the ball, stays low, and is playing with good power. The sack came against Nick Kaczur, the starting right tackle for New England. McDougle isn't just getting the best of backups anymore. The sack was a thing of beauty. McDougle fired off the ball, rounded the edge, grabbed Matt Cassel and then slung him to the ground.
Rookie linebacker Joe Mays played a terrific game. He led the team with 8 tackles. Mays flew to the football and tackled well. He has some real pop when he hits. He had a tackle-for-loss when he fired into the backfield and blasted the running back. The most impressive thing is that he shows good instincts. Mays isn't the fastest player in the world so he has to read formations and plays quickly. He does a good job of that and seems to sense where the ball is going to be.
Dan Klecko had four tackles, including two for a loss. He was quick off the ball. He actually got some snaps with the starting unit. He might not have made it as a fullback, but Klecko is playing well enough at defensive tackle that he looks like a good bet to make the team. He is undersized, but can be a good role player if used correctly.
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