First Flight: Sirianni, Hurts Make Preseason Debuts
Football returned to Lincoln Financial Field on Thursday night. Winning football will have to wait at least one more week.
Third-string Eagles quarterback Nick Mullens was picked off twice against the Steelers, the first leading to a go-ahead Steelers touchdown, the last coming deep in Steelers territory and spoiling any chance for new coach Nick Sirianni to secure a comeback win his coaching debut.
The Eagles fell, 24-16, in the preseason opener, but Mullens and the third-stringers were hardly the standouts, or the story, for the Eagles in their first action since the end of a disastrous 2020 season that resulted in the firing of Doug Pederson and trade of Carson Wentz.
Jalen Hurts made his preseason debut as the Eagles’ new starting quarterback and Sirianni, joined by defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, each made their first appearances in their new roles before a live audience at the Linc.
Let’s go ahead with the observations:
1. The takeaway from Jalen Hurts’ two series is this: He threw some really nice balls across the middle, made quick decisions against an aggressive Steelers front, was victimized by two drops, but also missed an opportunity on a home-run ball to Quez Watkins. Pittsburgh came after Hurts with a variety of blitzes – nickel corners, linebackers – and Hurts did well with his pre-snap reads to know where he should go, hitting Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert on the opening possession. The pass to Goedert came with pressure barreling down on him and went for 34 yards as Goedert turned upside quickly. His third-down pass to Ertz in Steelers territory should’ve moved the chains, but the Ertz drop took the offense off the field.
On the second possession, starting at the Philadelphia 2, Hurts had a chance to beat another blitz as Watkins separated down the left sideline but overthrew the second-year wideout. On 3rd-and-6, he stepped in the pocket, then tucked and ran for the marker but was tackled two yards short. He probably should’ve slid to avoid contact, an area he’ll have to improve on, because there was no way he was getting around the defense on that run.
All in all, a good effort from Hurts, plenty to be satisfied with and his stats could’ve looked better with more help. The big key for Hurts is showing what he can do against zone going forward. The Steelers really came after him.
2. While we’re on the subject of Watkins, he obviously presented well. The second-year wideout showed deep separation on the second drive and then showed short-area burst in the second quarter, taking a swing pass from Joe Flacco, following a block from Richard Rodgers and leaving the Pittsburgh defense eating his dust en route to a 78-yard touchdown.
With DeVonta Smith and John Hightower shelved, Watkins capitalized on his snaps as he’s done for much of training camp. It also should be noted that J.J. Arcega-Whiteside and Travis Fulgham finished without a catch. Jalen Reagor rebounded from an early drop to catch two passes in the second quarter.
3. Nick Sirianni’s first game went fairly smoothly. Not too many ugly penalties. No obvious time mismanagement. Showed a mix of 11 and 12 personnel, even some five-wide formations. The second-quarter touchdown was as much a good call as it was good blocking from Rodgers and speed from Watkins. The Steelers had been aggressive up front, sending extra rushers. The best way to slow down a fast, aggressive defense is to hit ‘em with the quick stuff.
4. You had to be impressed by the first and second string defenses, especially up front. Not so much for the third string. Jonathan Gannon, making his debut as defensive coordinator, kept it fairly simple in his first showcase. Plenty of two-deep coverages. Not much exotic stuff up front. He didn’t need to be creative; his front four supplied enough pressure.
Javon Hargrave, one the standouts in camp, gave left guard Kevin Dotson fits and bull-rushed his way to two hurries in the first quarter. T.Y. McGill and rookie third-rounder Milton Williams also flashed. InsideTheBirds.com‘s Andrew DiCecco will have more on this. The third-string line, however, couldn’t carry the torch. Not much push from sixth-round rookie Marlon Tuipulotu or second-year tackle Raequan Williams.
5. Alex Singleton picked up right where he left off. Despite missing most of the first two weeks from being on the Covid-19 list, Singleton played the entire first half and was basically everywhere. He notched seven tackles. At this point, you have to think Singleton and Eric Wilson are the starting linebackers. The Eagles will mostly be in nickel (two linebacker) formations. Joe Ostman, Shaun Bradley and T.J. Edwards rotated in when the Eagles were in base (three linebacker) formations. Again, Gannon kept it simple and didn’t really showcase a stand-up, pass-rushing linebacker position in this game.
6. Apparently, the Eagles have seen enough from Miles Sanders, who didn’t see any action. Jordan Howard – we’ve told you on ITB that No. 2 RB is his job to lose – started and only carried the ball once, but showed off his trademark pass-pro skills early, as the Steelers blitzed several times in the first quarter. Howard picked up a blitzing linebacker on the nice third-down ball Hurts threw to Ertz that ended up in a bad drop.
Kenneth Gainwell showed the crisp route-running and pass catching we’ve also talked about on ITB, with two receptions for 16 yards. He’ll get on the field early if he can continue to handle what the coaches throw at him. Kerryon Johnson continues to be just average. He slipped on his first carry but managed to get to his feet and pick up 10 yards. He gained just 2 yards on his next carry.
7. Good job by the second-team offensive line, especially with Andre Dillard out. Joe Flacco mostly delivered quickly and underneath or over the middle, but when he needed time, he was given enough. He was only sacked once, a coverage sack on 3rd-and-5 against a four-man rush. Brett Toth held his own at left tackle and Matt Pryor didn’t appear to have problems at right tackle. Nate Herbig played center and Jack Driscoll played right guard. Behind the second string O-line, Flacco led two field-goal drives, an eight-play drive and a nine-play drive. Just one 3-and-out.
8. Some scrappy play from the secondary, especially Zech McPherson and Josiah Scott. I thought Scott tackled well and McPherson also showed a nose for the ball. Rookies tend to be grabby, so it’s not surprising McPherson got flagged for interference in the second quarter against Steelers wideout Rico Bussey. Scott and Anthony Harris each recorded PBUs and Elijah Riley jumped a route in the fourth for the team’s lone interception.
9. Tyree Jackson, the tight end convert from quarterback, caught two balls for 32 yards, including a 19-yarder that he went up to get. I payed close to attention to his route-running, which I thought was pretty good for a prospect just learning the position. We’ll see more in the coming weeks, but he represented well in his first real game action at his new position.
10. For the most part, a good showing from special teams. Jake Elliott, who’s put in hard work this offseason and has looked much better in camp, made all three field goals, including a 50-yarder. The other two were 47-yarders. They really need Elliott to revet to 2017 form. New punter Arryn Siposs showed a good leg and, just as important, a good hold for Elliott’s kicks. He also downed a punt inside the 20.
– Geoff Mosher (@geoffmoshernfl) is co-host of the “Inside the Birds” podcast and staff writer for InsideTheBirds.com.
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