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Lawlor: Defense Impressing Early On


Preseason stats can be dangerous. Without context, they can paint a wildly inaccurate picture of how good or bad a team is. Let's look at some stats for the Eagles defense and also put them in context.

The defense has scored seven points. They have allowed nine points. They have eight takeaways and seven sacks. They are holding opposing runners to less than two yards per carry. Those are pretty incredible numbers.

Before you start thinking this could be Gang Green II, we do need some context. The Eagles played Tampa's starters for about a half in the opener. The Steelers were missing their most explosive skill players and Ben Roethlisberger sat out the game. You also know that offenses tend to keep things vanilla in the preseason. The defense has not truly been tested.

Still, the Eagles haven't played one snap with the entire starting defense so far. Mychal Kendricks has yet to play in the preseason. Backups have been mixed in with starters on a rotational basis. This isn't a case of Fletcher Cox dominating backups and rookies. The Eagles are getting good defensive play from their starters, backups and third-stringers.

It also isn't one unit doing the damage. The Eagles are covering well, tackling well and getting regular pressure on the quarterback. This is good team defense. We don't know how the unit will perform in the regular season, but there is every reason to be encouraged by what we have seen in the preseason.

Preseason or not, a shutout is a beautiful thing. It was great to see the Eagles keep the Steelers off the board. It did take a pair of end zone interceptions to make that happen. That is "bend but don't break" defense at its most extreme. Jim Schwartz would rather not let offenses get into the red zone, but he's got to love the fact his players came up huge in those situations.

You can talk about yards, takeaways, percentages and efficiency, but defense really comes down to one thing. How many points did you give up? The Eagles have been very stingy this summer. That's one thing even Schwartz can be happy about.

The overall team played better than it did in the opener. Several players took a big step forward. Isaac Seumalo got his first start at left guard. He looked very much like a rookie in the first game against Tampa, but he was much better on Thursday night. Seumalo still had some tough moments, but he was more confident and  cut down on his mistakes. Seumalo had some really good blocks. He has the power to be a good run blocker and the footwork to be a good pass protector. You can really see his potential.

You don't expect a rookie to be a finished product. You do need to see the player show his physical potential and you need to see him get better each week. Seumalo has done both. It looks like the team made the right decision in making him a starter and moving Allen Barbre to right tackle.

Nelson Agholor played much better this week. He had two catches for 30 yards. On one of them Agholor had to fully extend to bring the ball in. Both catches moved the chains. Agholor also blocked well. He played with more energy and confidence than he did in the opener. It was great to see Agholor come to life. The Eagles need more of that from him.

Chase Daniel looked like a good backup quarterback. He got much better blocking this week and that made a huge difference. Given time and a cleaner pocket, Daniel was able to make smart reads and accurate throws. He led one touchdown drive.

One of Daniel's blockers that took a step forward was Stefen Wisniewski. He once again was the backup at right guard. He was sloppy in the first game, which surprised me because of all the positive Training Camp reports. Wisniewski was much better this week. He has ability and 77 career starts so there is no reason he shouldn't look good when playing in the preseason.

Eric Rowe has had an up and down summer. He played well against Pittsburgh. Rowe broke up two passes and was in good position on both. He looked much more comfortable in coverage. Rowe also played much better on special teams. The challenge for Rowe is to build on this performance and to play even better.

Marcus Smith played his first game at defensive end. He has been up and down this summer and then missed the opener due to a concussion. Smith looked natural at end, a spot he played in college. He showed an excellent burst off the ball. He was in on four tackles, had a tackle-for-loss and a sack, There was another play that stood out to me. Smith fired off the ball and drove his blocker backward with a physical rush. The ball got out to the receiver, who then headed upfield. Smith turned and chased the play, catching up as the play ended. He got a good initial rush, but didn't give up on the play. Coaches love that kind of maximum effort from defensive linemen.

Fellow end Steven Means had another strong game. He moved to the left side with Smith taking over at right end in this game. Means was regularly disruptive and created an interception with good pressure in the second quarter. Means has done everything asked of him this summer and more.

The player who got that pick was Jaylen Watkins, who had his second straight strong game. He covered well and continued to tackle well. If Watkins continues to play like this, he will be the third safety for the Eagles. He's come a long way this offseason. Kudos to him.

Has any Eagles player turned as many heads as rookie Paul Turner? He had another terrific outing, catching three passes for 44 yards. One of those was an incredible one-handed catch for 23 yards. Turner is playing his way not only onto the roster but possibly into a role where he will get playing time as a slot receiver.

There are still plenty of issues for the players and coaches to correct, but there is reason for optimism as you see the team making progress. The offensive lines played much better this week, helping the offense to be more effective no matter who was on the field. The defense is playing at a high level. There is work to be done, but the Eagles are headed in the right direction.  

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