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Lawlor: Pleasant Surprises From The Opener


Summer is almost over, but if you need a great football book, check out The Art of Smart Football by Chris Brown. The book is a collection of short stories on various football topics, with one of them being about quarterback play. Brown shares a great quote from Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, a noted quarterback guru.

"Does he make everyone around him better?" said Cutcliffe in 2011. "We have all played with those types of quarterbacks, we have coached them or we have seen them. That is the greatest gift the quarterback can have."

I just happened to read this section of the book recently and it popped into my head on Thursday night as I watched rookie Carson Wentz play for the Eagles. The backup offense did very little with Chase Daniel in the game at quarterback. It wasn't his fault, though. The offensive line struggled. There were dropped passes. Receivers did not get open. In seven drives, the offense had 14 total yards. You don't have to be a football guru to know that's not good enough.

But then Wentz came into the game late in the first half and things changed instantly. The line started to block better. Receivers started to hold onto passes (although drops remained an issue). Wentz brought some electricity into the game and it woke everyone up. He made the players around him better. That's the power of raw talent. The other players were genuinely excited to be on the field with someone who had that level of arm strength, mobility and natural ability.

Wentz proved to be exactly what the Eagles expected - a very talented, but also very raw player. He showed a strong arm. He threw some very accurate passes. Wentz used his mobility to gain yards up the field, but also to avoid rushers in the backfield. The Eagles haven't had a young quarterback with this kind of athleticism and ability since Donovan McNabb. Wentz showed mental and physical toughness. He stood tall in the pocket, even when rushers were bearing down on him. Teammates will respect the heck out of a quarterback who takes a beating, but keeps getting up and doesn't complain.

The biggest mistake of the night came when Wentz drove the team into the red zone. He got pressure up the middle and should have either taken the sack or thrown the ball away. Instead, Wentz tried to make a play. He threw the ball high and it was picked off. You cannot have red zone turnovers. Those are killers. You must come away with points when you have the ball that deep in enemy territory. Wentz threw high on a few plays. His receivers could have made some tough catches to help him out, but Wentz has to get the ball down. He also threw behind a receiver on a crossing route. That was completed, but could have been a bigger gain if the receiver could have kept his momentum and focus going forward.

We found out over the weekend that Wentz actually suffered a hairline fracture of his ribs on his next-to-last play of the game. There is no disputing how tough he is, but Wentz learned about life in the NFL. Big hits add up and you pay the price. He was bigger and stronger than most of the defensive players he faced in college. That won't be the case in the NFL. Hopefully, Wentz will return in time to get back on the field in the preseason finale. That would give him a chance to play a lot of snaps as the starters typically have the entire night off.

Beyond Wentz, there were a lot of eyes on the Eagles' defense. There has been a lot of buzz about Jim Schwartz's new 4-3 attacking scheme, so everyone was excited to see how the defense would perform. The defense was outstanding. They had four takeaways, three sacks and five tackles for loss. Schwartz was hired to run a defense that would attack and make plays. That's exactly what the Eagles got in the preseason opener.

The biggest thing for me was that the defense wasn't simply overwhelming the Bucs. That can give you a false read. The defense wasn't using tricks to beat the Bucs. Again, that can give you a false read. The Eagles' defense was well-executed and players stepped up when they had the chance. That kind of play should (and I stress "should") carry over to the regular season. Players in the front seven seemed to be in the right gaps on run plays. Tampa ran 21 times, but only gained 31 yards. The Eagles got penetration up front and that allowed other players to shoot in and make tackles.

I was pleasantly surprised by the coverage. With so many new faces working together for the first time and most of them new to the scheme, I thought there would be some issues. The secondary did a really good job of working together on zones and combination coverages. You saw plays where one defensive back would pass off a receiver to the next guy. You saw good high-low coverages. You didn't see receivers just running around wide open.

The Eagles have been great on special teams for the past two years. With the coaching change, you wondered if there would be a drop-off on special teams. Doug Pederson wisely kept Dave Fipp from the previous staff to continue coordinating the special teams and it looks like the group will continue to perform at a high level. Najee Goode, a core special teamer, opened the game by hitting the kick returner and knocking the ball loose. Chris Maragos recovered and the Eagles scored a touchdown three plays later. Josh Huff had a 39-yard kickoff return. Kenjon Barner was even better with a 47-yard return. He also added a 13-yard punt return. With the Eagles backed up to their own goal line, Donnie Jones unloaded a 62-yard rocket that flipped the field. Caleb Sturgis nailed a 42-yard field goal, putting the ball right down the middle.

There were some penalties and some issues with rookies and other young players making mistakes. That's to be expected. You can't mix in that many new faces and expect things to go perfectly. Special teams aren't live during Training Camp because of the fear of injuries. That makes those reps critical in preseason games. Young players can really help themselves if they stand out. At the very least, you want to show a real competitive spirit and great effort.

We don't know what to make of the Eagles' offense just yet. There were struggles in the opener, but remember that the full starting unit was on the field for only three plays. Also, the team's best blocker, Jason Peters, and best receiver, Jordan Matthews, weren't playing. While that group is an unknown, based on the opener, it sure looks like the defense and special teams units can perform at a high level and carry the team through some games.

The Eagles have plenty of issues to work through after the preseason opener. Stay focused on the big picture. Wentz showed big-time ability. The defense looks like it can be outstanding. Special teams look to be continuing to play at a high level. Those are important factors for the 2016 season and beyond.

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