Three of the four preseason games are in the books with the final one set for Thursday. One of the things that has stood out to me is that the Eagles are making a lot of big plays. The team played solid football, but there weren't enough explosive plays last year. The NFL is so close and so competitive these days that you must make impact plays to be a winning team.
The Eagles are making those plays this summer. Carson Wentz hit Torrey Smith for a 50-yard touchdown against Miami. Mack Hollins turned a catch over the middle into a 38-yard touchdown in the opener. Bryce Treggs and Marcus Johnson also have 38-yard receptions this summer. Greg Ward caught a pass for a 29-yard gain against the Bills. These chunk plays are critical for the offense. It is incredibly hard to methodically drive the ball and score a touchdown time after time again. If you can get a long touchdown or have a big play put you in scoring position, that makes a big difference.
Rewind to last summer. The longest pass play covered 28 yards and went to David Watford, who was playing against backups. There were only two touchdown passes in the entire preseason. Wentz had two in the first quarter last Thursday. The longest play by a starting receiver last summer was a 22-yard Nelson Agholor reception.
The defense has been doing its part as well with 13 sacks and seven interceptions in the three games. Those are impressive totals. Last year, the defense had 11 sacks and nine interceptions in four games. The players aren't satisfied with just getting the ball. Five different players have returned an interception at least 25 yards. There were two returns that long last year.
There are multiple reasons for the team making more plays this year. First, there is more talent. Ronald Darby was a major upgrade at cornerback. His interception and return against Buffalo showed just what a skilled athlete he is. Derek Barnett has added a talented edge rusher to what was already a good pass rush. Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith are huge upgrades at receiver. Even mid-round rookies like Hollins and Rasul Douglas have improved the roster.
The additional talent has helped push other players into roles that fit them better. Agholor looks so much more comfortable and confident playing in the slot rather than trying to be the primary weapon for the passing game. Johnson is purely a role player at this point, but he's shown big-time speed and will help the offense. Patrick Robinson is now playing in the slot on defense and looks like he's found a home. He was inconsistent outside. As with Agholor, he looks more comfortable and that helps him to play faster and more aggressively.
There is also the experience factor. This is the second year in the system for many players and the coaches also have a better idea how to use the players. Look at Mychal Kendricks as Exhibit A. He missed the first couple of preseason games last summer, but didn't do much when he did play. He was in on three tackles and had one tackle for loss in the preseason. He's healthy and knows the system this year. The coaches know how to use him and Kendricks is playing at a high level. He has three interceptions, a sack, and a couple of tackles for loss. He's been very disruptive as a blitzer and just missed a strip-sack last week.
The best part about all of this is that the team is making these plays based on talent, not scheme. When the regular season gets here, the coaches will put together game plans that put players in favorable situations. The closest thing to that now is Torrey Smith going deep or Kendricks blitzing off the edge. The plays aren't designed to free them up. They are generic roles that fit the players' skill sets. When you have talented players, that can be good enough in the preseason.
The Eagles also haven't had everyone on the field at the same time. Darren Sproles hasn't taken a snap yet. The coaches know what he can do so they're saving him for the regular season. Wendell Smallwood was limited due to an injury but instantly made an impact in the Miami game, averaging 7 yards a carry. Brandon Graham and Jordan Hicks missed the Miami game. Darby is still learning the defense and only has 34 snaps this summer. Jeffery sat out the opener but has shown big-time ability the past two weeks.
The Eagles have a lot more firepower than they did a year ago. We'll have to wait a couple more weeks to see how it translates to the regular season. Playing well in the summer is one thing. Doing it in the fall is a whole other challenge.
Kudos to Howie Roseman, Joe Douglas, Andy Weidl, Dwayne Joseph, and the scouts for not only building this roster but continuing to look for talent. This is the time of year when good personnel departments can find players to help the depth of their team.
The Eagles dealt for Dexter McDougle on Sunday. He is a good special teams player and offers depth at cornerback. He is best in the slot, but fast enough to also play outside. The only reason the Jets were willing to part with him is that they were desperate for safety help. The Eagles had some depth there so this move made sense for both teams.
Expect more movement in the next week as teams cut down to 53 players. This will be an incredibly busy time for the front office. The roster is mostly set and in good shape, but there is always room for improvement, especially at the bottom of the roster.