All Eyes on Eagles’ Defense in Second Preseason Game – What We Want to See

All Eyes on Eagles’ Defense in Second Preseason Game – What We Want to See

The Eagles’ defense has been taking a beating all week. First they had to fight Tom Brady and 10 of his best friends last Friday, the result of which was – to put it bluntly – an ass whoopin’. And over the six days since, observers have been picking over the scraps, questioning everything from the defense’s preparedness to switch to the 3-4, to the lack of tackling throughout training camp.

None of which was entirely unfair. The Birds’ defense allowed the Patriots first-team offense to march down the field for six on both of their possessions, the unit surrendered 31 points total – that number easily could have been higher – and they were gashed for two huge running plays that went for over 50 yards. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

Such a ghastly performance supported fears coming into this camp that Philly’s defense might somehow be worse this year than it was last, when (as I probably needn’t remind you) surrendered the fourth-most points in the league. They don’t appear to have all the parts necessary in their front seven to make a 3-4 alignment work, and the rebuilt secondary is a huge question mark. Neither of those concerns was eased much from what we saw.

Of course, this was game one in a new scheme under a new regime, and it’s worth noting the opponent was one of the NFL’s elite. New England hasn’t won fewer than nine games in a season since the last millennium. Their starting quarterback is a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer. To begin with, maybe that wasn’t the most level of playing fields.

With that in mind, I think what I want to see most of all in game two versus the Carolina Panthers is some overall improvement, however marginal. Start small. Don’t allow a 62-yard run on the first play from scrimmage. Don’t make Cam Newton look like Brady. A concept Eagles fans might want to get used to: a good season for their D would probably be middle of the road. Let’s see if they can take a step in that direction tonight.

Here’s what we’re watching:

How the defense handles Cam Newton’s mobility

The Eagles don’t have many dual-threat quarterbacks on their schedule this season, but they will see Robert Griffin III twice, including in the season opener. The fact that Brady can pick the Birds apart is not surprising, sort of a given actually – there are few like him. The secondary should fare better against Newton, a career 58.9% passer, but let’s see how the defense handles somebody back there who can also make plays with his legs. Newton has run for over 700 yards in each of his first two seasons, and at 6-5, 250, he’s a haul to bring down. It’s a whole different kind of test this week.

Get hats on the ball carrier

Missed tackles weren’t as much of the problem last week as some would have you believe. There were some, but the Patriots actually missed more. For the Eagles, the problem more often than not when there was a breakdown was they weren’t even in position to make a tackle. On Stevan Ridley’s 62-yard run, nobody touched him until he was caught from behind, same on LaGarrette Blount’s 51-yard jaunt. Not sure which is worse, but let’s have fewer of both, okay?

Young linemen stepping up

This one is for both sides of the ball. Last week Vinny Curry, Bennie Logan, and Damion Square all made tremendous impacts on the defensive line, blowing up numerous plays in the backfield. All three did it against second-string offensive linemen though. It would be nice to see them rotated in with the first group so we could see them against starting-caliber players. On the other side of the ball, Lane Johnson had a fantastic debut in midnight green as the starting right tackle. Let’s hope he keeps it up.

LeSean McCoy in Chip Kelly’s offense

Shady will play tonight, so it will be our first glimpse into how dangerous he can be in Chip’s offense. Jason Peters is still nursing a hamstring, so McCoy won’t have his full cast of offensive linemen in front of him, but it should be exciting to see what he can do and how he’s utilized. Will we see him lined up in the slot at all, something we saw a little bit of at practice? Reuben Frank has more on why the fourth-year back could be in a for a big season.

[Update: Jason Peters is in uniform, may play tonight after all.]

The quarterbacks

Round two of Chip’s QB derby goes off tonight. By most accounts, Mike Vick has gained a slight edge over Nick Foles, but it will be Foles who gets the first chance under center tonight (as determined by a rotation). I am really starting to enjoy the competition, especially after last week when Vick hit DeSean Jackson on a 47-yard bomb, and Foles tried to one-up him with a 10-play, 66-yard scoring drive. It gave me a sense that there is no wrong choice here – even if that’s probably not the case.

Joe Biden tweeted at Carson Wentz: 'It's our year'

Joe Biden tweeted at Carson Wentz: 'It's our year'

It may be thanks to Vice President Joe Biden that we're all aboard the Wentz Wagon.

Biden may have coined the term and Barack Obama made it big.

Now, Biden has tweeted at Wentz after the Eagles' rookie led the Birds to a 3-0 start.

Philadelphia is a tad giddy.

Biden's tweet read:

Heart, guts, and poise from my guy, @CJ_Wentz. Huge game, strong start for the @Eagles. @DrBiden is pumped. It's our year.

You may have missed it, but when Biden was at the Eagles' week 1 game against the Browns, the Veep told head coach Doug Pederson he'd like to suit up and play.

"I wish I was good enough to be out there in a different role," Biden said.

"You want to put some pads on?" Pederson asks. "I can go get some."

"I did that through college," Biden responds. "I dreamed about it."

Biden comes in about 50 seconds into the below video.

Other RBs thriving, but Ryan Mathews (ankle) still 'the guy' when healthy

Other RBs thriving, but Ryan Mathews (ankle) still 'the guy' when healthy

Kenjon Barner has the third-most runs in the NFL of 14-plus yards despite having just 14 carries all year.
 
Wendell Smallwood ran for 79 yards and a touchdown Sunday in the first extended playing time of his career.
 
Despite their gaudy stats, Ryan Mathews will be the Eagles’ featured running back when he’s healthy, head coach Doug Pederson said Monday.
 
“I think we just continue the same way, really,” Pederson said. “When Ryan is healthy, he’s the guy, and then we’ll mix Darren (Sproles) in there and you saw what Wendell can do and we know what Kenjon’s all about.”
 
Mathews, who has been injury prone throughout his career, did not play after two early carries Sunday in the Eagles’ 34-3 win over the Steelers at the Linc.
 
Pederson said Mathews’ left ankle — originally injured in July, before training camp even began and then aggravated in the season opener against the Browns — is still bothering him.
 
“With that thing, that ankle, it’s something that for him it never loosened up (Sunday) and was stiff and so again (we) just opted on the side of caution more than anything else,” Pederson said.
 
Mathews gained minus-five yards on two carries in the first quarter and didn’t play again.
 
He's rushed for three touchdowns this year but is averaging only 3.2 yards per carry — 36th out of 40 backs with 20 or more carries this year.
 
Meanwhile, Smallwood is averaging 4.8 yards per carry, eighth-highest in the NFL, and Barner, with just 14 carries, has four runs of 14 yards. He’s averaging 6.1 yards per carry but doesn’t have enough to qualify for the league leaders.

Although Barner has the 58th-most carries in the NFL, only LeSean McCoy and Isaiah Crowell have more runs of 14 or more yards.
 
Sproles has been his usual electriyfing self in the receiving game and returning punts, but he’s averaging just 2.7 yards per carry.
 
Since opening day last year, Sproles is at 3.6 per carry — 50th of 52 backs with at least 100 carries over the last two seasons.
 
Pederson said despite Mathews’ injury history — he started more than nine games twice in his first six seasons — he has no problem with the workload he gave him in Cleveland. Mathews had 22 carries against the Browns, his second-most since 2013.
 
“I think that’s a good number for him, honestly, and then for everyone else to get a few touches after that we’re on track,” Pederson said.
 
“It’s kind of with Carson (Wentz), I don’t think you ever want to go into a game thinking you want to throw it 50 times. If you manage it and keep it around 30 and have a successful running game, I think that’s a good balance.”
 
How much Barner and Smallwood will work in once Mathews returns remains to be seen.
 
But it’s hard to argue with their production.
 
“Everybody’s a little different runner,” Pederson said Monday, a day after the Eagles improved to 3-0.
 
“Wendell did an excellent job between the tackles last night, sort of downhill, Kenjon sort of off-tackle, and of course Darren can do everything.
 
“So we’ll still keep the rotation the same, we’re not going to change much that way, and just want to get everybody in the football game.”
 
It’s tough to put together a running back depth chart for this team. Mathews had the most carries against the Browns, Sproles had the most against the Bears and Smallwood the most against the Steelers.
 
Last time the Eagles opened a season with three different backs leading the team in attempts was 1989, when Mark Higgs had 13 carries in the opener vs. Seattle, Anthony Toney led the way a week later with nine carries against the Redskins (that was the huge comeback win from a 20-0 deficit) and then Heath Sherman had a team-high 16 carries a week later against the 49ers (when Joe Montana threw four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter).
 
How similar this year turns out to 2003 and the original Three-Head Monster of Duce Staley — now the Eagles’ running backs coach — Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter will sort itself out after the bye.
 
“It’s good to have that kind of depth at that position with as many touches collectively as a group that we’re going to get each game and the wear and tear on that position,” Pederson said. “It’s great to get that many guys in the game.”
 
The Eagles certainly do seem high on Smallwood, the only back in the group that Pederson didn’t inherit from Chip Kelly.
 
Smallwood missed most of training camp with a quad injury and concussion but has been very good since he’s been healthy.
 
“He’s much like Carson in how he prepares during the week,” Pederson said.
 
“We’ve been fortunate with our young players ... and how they work and how they handle themselves on and off the football field, and he’s done a great job in practice, he’s put himself in a position to help us, and it’s great to see him.
 
“We saw it early in the spring, we saw it in training camp before the injury.”