Five Eagles We're Watching on Offense vs. Pittsburgh

Five Eagles We're Watching on Offense vs. Pittsburgh

Preseason football gets underway for the Birds on Thursday night, as they are hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers at the Linc. The starters generally only play anywhere from a series or two to the end of the first quarter in game one, so this won't be the showcase for a Michael Vick or LeSean McCoy -- though it will be fun to see those guys finally take the field again.

Believe it or not, there is still a lot at stake in these next four games, just not the final score. Mostly you want to see the team walk away from it healthy, but aside from that, here are five Eagles on the offensive side of the ball who we'll be watching closely once we finally reach kickoff.

Demetress Bell

There aren't many question marks on the starting 11, which looks largely the same as it did a year ago, only with one notable exception: they're missing the best left tackle in football. Andy Reid would say you don't replace a Jason Peters, who is expected to miss the season from a ruptured Achilles tendon, but Demetress Bell was signed to do just that. This will be our first glimpse into how much the offense has lost on their fast ball in the transition.

First, how much will it hamper LeSean McCoy in the running game? Coming off of a stellar sophomore year in which he finished fourth in the NFL in rushing, McCoy was at his best when running off-tackle to the left. According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles averaged 7.1 yards per carry off Peters' outside shoulder in 2011, which is a full two yards more than what the team averaged on all runs combined. Difficult to imagine they are going to get that kind of production on the outside with Bell.

Second, how often will it alter the offense's look in pass protection? Peters was a rock at LT, so much so the coaches were not afraid to let him go one-on-one with the most dominant pass rushers in the league. Expecting Bell to come into a new scheme and instantly lock down the left side might be a bit much. Watch for a tight end or back to help Bell in certain situations, and what the trickle-down effect will be for Todd Herremans on the opposite end of the line of scrimmage.

One more thing. Bell only appeared in seven games for the Bills last season, and missed eight in 2009. Might want to keep an eye on backup King Dunlap as well.

Clay Harbor

Brent Celek will be held out of the action with a knee sprain, which means Clay Harbor gets the start at tight end. However, it was only a couple of weeks ago when the Eagles were snooping around for the 2010 fourth-round pick's potential replacement. Harbor has the size and athleticism to be a viable target in the passing game, but as the offense has moved to a greater number of single-back sets, his ability as a blocker becomes increasingly important.

Fullback

The starting fullback is Stanley Havili, the club's seventh-round pick from 2011 who spent last season on the practice squad, but that's not what's interesting. What's interesting is how much we'll see of the fullback position. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, the Eagles went single back or empty back 81% of the time a year ago. There is a thought process that number could be even higher going forward as we enter offensive line coach Howard Mudd's second season on the job.

All of which has begged the question whether the Eagles will even bother using a roster spot on a traditional fullback, as the Indianapolis Colts often did not with Mudd. We'll be searching for hints in the play calling, such as the offense featuring more two-tight end sets.

Dion Lewis

Dion Lewis is off the hook for the felony-fire alarm fiasco from a month ago, and standing at the front of the line to seize the job as Shady's spell. A fifth-round pick last year, Lewis didn't get many opportunities as a rookie, but ran for nearly 3,000 yards at Pitt. The Eagles are carrying a couple more young backs they really like in Bryce Brown and Chris Polk, but this being his second season with the team gives Lewis the upper hand. As always though, a lot of it rides on pass blocking.

Mike Kafka

Michael Vick has spent a healthy portion of the past two seasons, well, not healthy. If he has trouble staying on the field for a third year in a row, at this point the Birds would have no choice but to turn to their relatively unknown understudy, Mike Kafka.

We say relatively unknown because Kafka did see some action early on in 2011. He replaced Vick in Week 2 at Atlanta, and actually conducted himself quite well. The offense mostly relied on quick, easy passes, but Kafka demonstrated poise and nearly led the team on a game-winning drive. He was 7 of 9 for 72 yards. However, when he replaced Vick again the following week against the Giants, they were ready. Kafka went deep on his first throw and was intercepted, essentially sealing their fate. He finished the afternoon 4 of 7 for 35 yards, two picks, and a sack.

It wasn't enough to be impressed, nor enough to write him off as an effective number two. This will be Kafka's third season in the league, so probably the best takeaway from those outings is at least he has some experience, and can maybe put that to good use should the Northwestern product be pressed into another game. The Eagles are probably going to be in trouble should anything happen to Vick long term, but ideally you would like to see something in these exhibitions that makes you feel confident in Kafka for a game or two.

Pete Mackanin on Odubel Herrera's slump: 'He needs to battle his way out'

Pete Mackanin on Odubel Herrera's slump: 'He needs to battle his way out'

After an 0-for-5 day at the plate, Odubel Herrera isn't heading to the bench a day later.

He's leading off. 

Pete Mackanin chose to move the slumping centerfielder atop the lineup card for Friday's series opener against the Reds despite Herrera's striking out in all five plate appearances Thursday.

"I think he's a .290-plus hitter as a leadoff man and I'm not going to sit him," Mackanin said pregame. "He needs to battle his way out. You figure you're the leadoff hitter once a game. After that, it's wide open."

While he hasn't batted leadoff this season, Herrera spent the majority of his time in that spot last season. In 76 games there, he batted .285 with a .359 OBP and .417 slugging percentage. 

The leadoff hitter this season has been Cesar Hernandez, who has a day off with a groin pull he's dealt with the last 10 days. Herrera primarily has been the No. 3 hitter this season and his average is down to .226 with 49 strikeouts to just 11 walks. 

Mackanin hopes the leadoff role can help change Herrera's approach at the plate.

"He was drawing a lot of walks at leadoff, so whether he has that mindset or not, I'm not sure," the manager said. "I just want to get him as many at-bats as possible. We need to get him going. We need him and [Maikel] Franco to get going."

May specifically has been tough on Herrera. He has four hits in his last 36 at-bats and has seven strikeouts in his last two games. He has just seven hits in 22 games this month. 

"I think he's at the point where he's grinding and sometimes when you grind, sometimes there's that feeling where you get lost," Mackanin said. "I've been in situations as a hitter where I've gone up to the plate saying, 'I don't care where it is. I'm going up there and just hacking.' Because you start thinking and that's not working.

"And you look for a pitch and then all of a sudden you say I'm going to take a pitch to get a look at and it's strike one. Then he throws you a nasty slider and that's strike two and your plan is out the window. So I've gone up to the plate myself saying, 'I'm just looking down the middle and swinging. I'm not thinking.'"

When asked, Mackanin said the team had not discussed demoting Herrera or Franco to the minors to take pressure off the duo.

While Herrera tries to hit his way back into a groove, Howie Kendrick is in the midst of working his way back to the majors. He was hit by pitch twice in a rehab appearance Thursday but is back in the lineup Friday in left field. 

Mackanin said Kendrick needed four days minimum in his rehab assignment and will therefore play Friday and Saturday before the team sees how he feels.

The manager also said the team would give more playing time to backup catcher Andrew Knapp. He started consecutive games for the first time on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

"I'm going to try and see him as much as possible and keep him as sharp as possible instead of once a week," Mackanin said. "That's tough to hit, once a week. It's tough to hit twice a week if you don't hit back-to-back. There's no ulterior motive."

Report: Brett Brown accuses longtime friend of defrauding him of $750,000

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Report: Brett Brown accuses longtime friend of defrauding him of $750,000

Sixers head coach Brett Brown is in Australia this week, where he has accused longtime friend and former Australian men's national team assistant coach Shane Heal of defrauding him of $750,000, according to the Australian Associated Press.

Brown invested $250,000 into each of three companies for which Heal was the sole director. Brown wasn't given a legal title regarding the companies and didn't know the specifics of how the money would be used.

"I assumed that the money was going to be used for what Shane told me it was going to be used for," Brown said. "Because it was a friend that I had for 25 years."

Heal was charged last year by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission following an investigation relating to alleged misconduct in 2008, 2009 and 2010, according to the AAP.

The sides return to court in Brisbane on July 20.

Heal played in the NBA for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1996-97 and was with the San Antonio Spurs in 2003.