Reserve Tank: Backup Birds Steamrolled In Exhibition
Don’t make too much of the lopsided score in Thursday night’s preseason game between the Eagles and Patriots at the Linc.
Not just because “it’s the preseason,” but also because several expected Eagles starters, including the quarterback and almost the entire starting offensive and defensive lines, were intentionally withheld, leaving the new coaching staff to get more evaluations of players jockeying for roster spots and backups who needed the extra work.
Jalen Hurts wasn’t supposed to be among the healthy scratches, but the Eagles kept him out of the game – a 35-0 loss – because of an illness. With backup Joe Flacco getting the nod, the Eagles went also started with three backups on the offensive line and an entire slate of backups on the defensive line.
Defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave never dressed, along with defensive ends Brandon Graham, Josh Sweat, Derek Barnett and cornerback Darius Slay. Several others who were nursing injuries, including kicker Jake Elliott, were also out.
The ugly loss did the see the debut of Eagles first-round pick DeVonta Smith, the former Alabama star wideout whom the Eagles traded up to pick 10th overall. Smith had missed the first game with a knee injury.
But there were definitely areas to be concerned about, including a run defense that was steamrolled for the second consecutive week.
Sure, the backups were forced into starting roles, but even the Patriots’ backups dominated the line of scrimmage.
Let’s go with the observations:
1. Very odd that Hurts was suddenly pulled from the starting job. The team said the illness wasn’t related to Covid. Also, Hurts was in uniform and warming up before the game, seemingly getting ready to play. It almost seemed as if he expected to play and didn’t find out until the very last second. After the game, Nick Sirianni said Hurts went to the hospital after warmups to be evaluated for abdomen pain but checked out fine. The team decided to stick Flacco with the second-string offensive line – except for starting left guard Isaac Seumalo and left tackle Jordan Mailata – against the Patriots first-teamers, and the results were predictably unsightly. If he does’t play next Thursday against the Jets, Hurts will enter the regular season with just two series of preseason football under his belt. Sirianni didn’t say whether Hurts would play against the Jets and emphasized two days of joint practice ahead.
2. Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon showed a little more juice in Game 2 than Game 1. He didn’t go crazy with blitzes or exotic schemes but showed a variety of looks up front. Genard Avery, playing strong-side linebacker, was up on the line of scrimmage causing disruption at times in run defense. There were also more more stunts and line games involving the ends and tackles. Maybe Gannon was listening to the latest “Q&A” on Inside The Birds, in which Quintin Mikell pleaded for something less vanilla than last week’s game. Seriously, though, expect the Eagles to be a completely different team up front under Gannon than they were under Schwartz.
Avery’s usage was very interesting, as the Eagles are trying to figure out his role while also looking at Joe Ostman and rookie Patrick Johnson in the same role. The Eagles will make some interesting decision at this SAM spot.
3. As for run defense, it’s pretty clear — even just in the preseason — that the Eagles have good linebackers when it comes to playing rangy, sideline-to-sideline football, and can make plays on the edges and in open space. Downhill? That remains to be seen. Gannon will probably have to create run schemes designed to funnel ball carriers outside, which is common among NFL defenses, to compensate for the lack of bulk up the middle. If he can do that, the Eagles should be OK against the run. Alex Singleton and T.J. Edwards were the standouts behind a second-team defensive line that for the second straight week didn’t get off blocks and make tackles against the run.
4. The Patriots ran the ball 44 times. The Eagles ran 46 total plays. Last Thursday, the Steelers ran the ball 42 times. The Eagles ran 41 total plays. I don’t care if it’s preseason or doesn’t count or whatever. You never want to get dominated like that once, let alone twice. Remember, backups are one injury away from becoming starters.
5. Rookie sixth-rounder Marlon Tuipulotu hasn’t flashed yet and was one the culprits of that awful run defense. Hassan Ridgeway and T.Y. McGill are both ahead of him on the depth chart and having better overall camps. Third-rounder Milton Williams plays defensive end against the run and inside for pass rush, so Tuipulotu, the sixth-round pick from USC who the team had high expectations for, has bodies ahead of him. If it’s based on merit, Tuipulotu shouldn’t make the 53 unless he really picks up his play over the next three weeks, but sometimes rookies make the 53 without merit, so we’ll see.
6. Rookie corner Zech McPherson, a fourth-round pick, got picked on by Cam Newton and Mac Jones, but in fairness to him, both Patriots quarterbacks had ample time in the pocket as the Eagles generated very little pass rush. McPherson was whistled for holding one week after being flagged for pass interference and certainly allowed some receptions, but that’s why the Eagles signed Steven Nelson and made sure that McPherson would get enough reps in the preseason and camp to develop without having to start right away. Newton and Jones didn’t have great joint practices – big difference when the Eagles’ first-team defense is out there – but both looked in good command during the game. More so than Flacco and Mullens did.
7. Wow, it’s telling that Travis Fulgham didn’t get any run until after halftime. That’s clearly a message from the coaches, who we reported on ITB were already disappointed in Fulgham’s recent poor practices and habits. Crazy how far this guy has fallen since those four weeks last season. Definitely fair to say his roster spot is in jeopardy. Fulgham and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, the 2019 second-round pick, along with second-year receiver John Hightower were all withheld until the third quarter as they each fight to make the 53 — at this point — as a fifth receiver behind DeVonta Smith, Jalen Reagor, Greg Ward and Quez Watkins. None of those three had a catch in the second half. It’s not their faults that the passing offense was in total disarray, but it’ll be interesting to see how they grade out in terms of route-running, technique, etc.
8. Rookie tight end Jack Stoll showed why he’s likely to make the 53 as an undrafted free agent, especially with Tyree Jackson out for two months or so with his back injury. Stoll made one bad mistake, letting a pass go off his hands in the fourth quarter that turned into a Nick Mullens interception, but otherwise made some good receptions and logged plenty of work as Dallas Goedert played very few snaps and Zach Ertz watched from the sideline. Stoll led the team with six targets along with four catches for 33 yards. Also did some blocking up front.
9. Jordan Howard is the clear No. 2 running back behind Miles Sanders, and he’s had a good camp, but he was stuffed on 3rd-and 1 on the second drive. The opening was there, but Howard isn’t the quickest to the hole, especially compared to Miles Sanders. Matt Pryor and Dallas Goedert didn’t execute their blocks well enough, and the hole closed before Howard could get there. A more dynamic runner would’ve picked up the first down.
10. We’re just about three weeks into camp preseason with about three weeks remaining until the opener, so halfway through. This is the time teams start to discuss in personnel meetings where they feel strong and where they feel weak, and then calls start to circulate from GM to GM. The Eagles have good depth on the offensive line, so expect to hear Andre Dillard’s name and Matt Pryor’s name in trade reports. Pryor wasn’t very good against the Patriots, but he’s just adequate and experienced enough in an offensive line-deficient league to merit some attention. Likewise, the Eagles need to assess their depth at wide receiver and perhaps defensive tackle to see if there’s a veteran who could help them.
– Geoff Mosher (@geoffmoshernfl) is co-host of the “Inside the Birds” podcast and staff writer for InsideTheBirds.com.
Listen to the latest “Inside The Birds” podcast from Geoff Mosher and Adam Caplan here:
Or watch on YouTube: