When the starters came out 20 minutes into last Thursday's preseason opener versus the Steelers, the Eagles were down 10-zip. The offense went three-and-out on each of its two possessions, but the sample size is small, their track record relatively strong, so most of the concern there was contained to Michael Vick managing to hurt himself already. Don't worry, he's fine.
The defense, on the other hand, was not so fortunate to deflect criticism. Pittsburgh controlled the ball throughout the majority of the first quarter, then moved right down the field and punched the rock into the end zone for six on their second series. At first glance, it looked like an unmitigated disaster for defensive coordinator Juan Castillo's group, which has been picked apart ad nauseum since his promotion last year.
Castillo and his troops made headlines in recent days, their side of the story boiling down to, "It wasn't that bad," which turned a few heads. When you go back and examine it though, there is actually a little bit of truth to their line of thinking. There were a pair of dreadful performances by individuals -- none more outstanding than Jaiquawn Jarrett -- but collectively the unit did some good.
Take the opening series for example. A 16-play drive that goes 52 yards, requires a fourth-down conversion to continue, and ends in a field goal isn't exactly ripping it up. The Steelers also required Ben Roethlisberger to escape some heavy pressure on a pair of third downs and make plays on the move in order to keep things going. They didn't just march down the field, and there was only one really big gainer, a 17-yard passing play -- all of this without two starting defensive ends in the lineup.
I don't have any problem with this series, particularly against this offense and quarterback, and I'm not entirely sure why anybody else does for that matter. The defense bent, but didn't break, and did not go without their own opportunities. Here's the play-by-play if you're interested (note: ad/video plays immediately), but to put it in simple terms, the Eagles limited Pittsburgh to 3.25 yards per snap.
Something tells me that stop would have been viewed favorably had the second series not yielded far more in the way of breakdowns. However, even on the following possession, the defense had the Steelers' offense on the ropes until a penalty kept the drive alive.
The Eagles had Pittsburgh pinned on a 3rd and 16, and once again the quarterback was in trouble. Byron Leftwich pulled a Big Ben though and broke the pocket, only Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie was on to him. Unfortunately, the 182-lbs. corner launched himself through the air at the 250-lbs. quarterback, which drew a personal foul penalty as a desperation pass harmlessly hit the turf.
The play was officiated properly, but everything up to that point was going fine, and as for the hit itself, it wasn't nearly as dirty as some have made it out to be. He led with his shoulder and did not appear to initiate contact at the head, but under the rules, leaving your feet is a yellow flag every time.
Here's Where Things Get Ugly...
The remainder of the series was the Jaiquawn Jarrett show, and network execs might have to consider pulling the plug on that production after all. Jarrett looked Jarrad Page-esque while taking bad angles to ball carriers on consecutive runs, resulting in a pair of big plays.
Three plays after the penalty, the Eagles had Pittsburgh in a 3rd and 13. The Steelers called a draw, and with linemen on their backs, neither Derek Landri or DeMeco Ryans could get a clean shot at the back. Jarrett came charging in from his safety position, whiffing badly on the runner, who then found enough room on the outside to pick up the first down. Had Jarrett been under control and forced the back to the inside, he had help from Kurt Coleman, and they could have shut this down short of the sticks.
The very next play, Jarrett did essentially the exact same thing. The Steelers bust another run into the Birds secondary, and Jarrett comes barreling in completely out of control once again. This time, not only does he miss the ball carrier completely, he takes out his own man -- Vinny Curry -- who was close to chasing the play down from behind. The run goes for 33 yards, all the way to the 3-yard line.
Sadly, Jarrett wasn't finished yet. The Eagles do a nice job stuffing the next two runs cold to set up a third down, but now Pittsburgh is going to exploit the safety in the passing game. The Birds are in zone coverage, and the Steelers run a couple of slants to Jarrett's side. Apparently confused over his assignment, Jarrett simply doesn't slide into his area, and it's easy pitch and catch in the end zone.
Obviously this was disappointing to watch, but it's not difficult to see where the source of the problem was. Everything negative that happened on this drive following the personal foul can be traced back to, or at the very least, was compounded by Jarrett, and that's not an exaggeration. Many believed the 2011 second-round pick was in danger of missing the final cut to begin with, and it's hard to argue any longer after a performance like this. With Nate Allen back from injury, Jarrett is already splitting time between second- and third-string.
As for the defense as a whole, I suppose we have no choice but to judge them based on what was out there, even if Jarrett's chances of ever seeing meaningful action again are dwindling. That said, I agree with their own assessment that they weren't that bad, particularly taking this into consideration. The Eagles' first-team defense had Pittsburgh in 3rd and long on five occasions, and while they were able to convert three of them, this is generally a recipe for defensive success in the NFL.
The pass rush was relentless, overall the linebackers were an improvement, and the corners looked comfortable. Despite all the criticism, there were indeed some positives to build on here.