There were a handful of big takeaways on Thursday night as the Eagles took on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the preseason opener at Lincoln Financial Field. Most everyone's eyes were on quarterback Jalen Hurts, getting the start in his first preseason game. How did he do? These were three of my favorite plays.
Hurts was 3-for-7 for 54 yards on the night - a modest stat line that would have been better if not for a pair of drops - but when you watch each throw, you can see the positive takeaways for the coaching staff. Head Coach Nick Sirianni spoke last week about wanting to find that middle ground for Hurts in 2021. Everyone can see the outstanding "second-reaction" plays he can make with his legs, but on Thursday, we saw the second-year quarterback mostly play within structure and deliver the ball where it was supposed to go on time. As Sirianni said previously, you don't want to be on either side of the extreme – and you certainly don't want to remove a big part of Hurts' strength as a playmaker – but Thursday night was a good sign of his progression.
Offensively, it was not just Hurts that stood out, as a couple of his pass catchers had impressive reps as well. The player who Eagles Everywhere are buzzing about right now is young receiver Quez Watkins, who turned in exactly one catch for 79 yards and a score.
Watkins' big play for a touchdown was eerily similar to his lone score from his rookie season in Arizona, where we saw him turn on the jets and outrun the defense there as well. The speedster has had a strong camp, and it was great to see him carry over his success on the practice field to the game. But, as Hurts put it, the secret is out on the second-year wideout.
Like Watkins, second-year receiver Jalen Reagor registered one reception against the Steelers, and while this one didn't go to the house, it still featured an impressive route for a first down.
The big thing that speedy receivers need to learn as they develop is how to weaponize that explosiveness. In the NFL, speed alone will not make you a great player. You have to know how to use it.
Ironically enough, reporters asked Watkins how he's developed as a route runner this offseason. His explanation serves as a good breakdown for what we see from Reagor on this play.
Watkins talked on Thursday night about being sharp with shorter routes, saying that he wanted to "be able to threaten a defender and make everything look like it's a deep ball."
Look at Reagor on this play and how hard he pushes upfield on his inside release. The corner believes he's running to the post because of how explosive Reagor comes off the ball and because of his body language early in the route. After a few steps, however, Reagor throws on the brakes, clubs underneath the corner, and breaks to the sideline with a sharp step, creating a ton of separation for the first down to move the chains. It may seem small, but these are the things we've seen from the Eagles' young receivers across the board this summer. Just look at all of the receivers on that shot!
Just like young receivers have to learn how to "weaponize" their explosiveness, the same can be said for young defensive linemen. When you are fast off the ball, blockers have to protect against your speed as a pass rusher. That can cause them to overcompensate, leaving other pathways open to the quarterback.
Look at T.Y. McGill and Milton Williams here. Two players known for their quick first step win with power, running through the opposing offensive linemen. The more tools you have in your toolbox, the better. It's great to see young players, especially a rookie like Williams, learn to embrace that and find different ways to win as a pass rusher.
Lastly, the other player who really flashed to me was linebacker Alex Singleton.
Singleton was FLYING around the field on Thursday night. The young veteran just returned to the field recently from the COVID-19 list, so it was great to see him jump right in and make an impact. Whether he was making plays from sideline to sideline or downhill, in the run game or the pass game, through contact or with an open runway – Singleton was constantly around the football. This linebacker group, in general, has been fun to watch this summer, and I'm excited to see that competition continue over the next couple of weeks.