Eagles Bounce Back -- Are They Ready?

Eagles Bounce Back -- Are They Ready?

It wasn't always pretty, and the road was paved in part by a few favorable breaks. Still, seeing the Eagles gradually separate from the Browns, then deliberately put them away, should provide the Delaware Valley some relief.

The Birds' defense pitched a shutout for three quarters, while Michael Vick overcame a turnover and some shaky play from his offensive line to guide the offense to 17 points. That was more than enough for the reserves, who rolled to a 24-14 victory.

However, there were plenty of questions remaining after the game. Vick took a beating, and while the Browns might surprise people this season, they are, after all, the Browns.

The number one thing that stood out on Thursday night was the play along the interior of the offensive line, particularly rookie center Jason Kelce, who was making his first NFL start.

On one hand, Kelce was visibly effective when run blocking, getting to the second level on several occasions. In fact, he had one of the key blocks downfield on Ronnie Brown's 13-yard first quarter touchdown run to put Philly up 7-0.

On the other, Kelce had several hiccups in pass protection, most of them leading to the quarterback getting maimed. He and fellow rookie Danny Watkins did not seem to be on the same page at all during the first few series, which lead to a bunch of missed assignments.

Unfortunately, it's the quarterback who pays the price for those, and pay he did--early and often. Vick coughed up the ball in their own zone on his first pass attempt when 334 lbs. defensive tackle Phil Taylor came steamrolling through the line of scrimmage, nearly leading to a Cleveland score.

As terrible as that sounds, butterflies may have been partly to blame. Kelce eventually settled down, allowing Vick to establish a rhythm. The quarterback went 7-for-11 for 71 yards on his final three series, adding an eight-yard touchdown run of his own.

Considering the rough start, we're not sure Kelce showed enough to win the job over veteran starter Jamaal Jackson, but he was impressive in some ways. King Dunlap has also been fine at right tackle each of the past two weeks, which should alleviate some concerns at the blind side.

But... It's the Browns...
The Browns didn't do themselves any favors in this one either. Cleveland muffed two punts--including a particularly hilarious play in the first quarter where one of their own guys knocked the returner over and the kick subsequently fell on him--both leading to touchdowns.

The Eagles' special teams also blocked a field goal, preventing the Browns from getting on the scoreboard after Vick's fumble.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie came untouched off the edge, giving the club their second blocked kick in consecutive weeks. Bobby April's unit is setting up nicely as long as Alex Henerey and Chas Henry's promising preseasons carry over once the real thing starts.

Even the refs got in on the act of gift wrapping the game for the Birds. Vick's touchdown run was set up by a questionable penalty.

Cleveland linebacker D'Qwell Jackson had a free break to the quarterback--a missed assignment by LeSean McCoy at first glance--causing a Vick pass attempt to sail away for an interception. Jackson was flagged for roughing the passer, apparently for driving his helmet into Vick's chest, though it was at least debatable. Nonetheless, the play was reversed.

Defense Carries the Night
Despite everything that went wrong for the Browns, we're not sure it would have mattered anyway. The Eagles' run defense was vastly improved over last week's performance against Pittsburgh, including the verbally maligned Casey Matthews.

Of course, it helped Cleveland seemed intent on throwing the ball for whatever reason. QB Colt McCoy found little room on the edges, and was picked off by Asante Samuel to open the second quarter. Pressure was an issue as well, with Mike Patterson, Trent Cole, and former CFLer Philip Hunt notching sacks.

Meanwhile, Matthews saw action in all four quarters as they try to prepare him for Week 1, though seventh round rookie Brian Rolle replaced him in some obvious passing situations. Matthews was a factor in the passing game too, and it looked like he started making strides against the run as well.

Also of note, Jamar Chaney had an excellent pass breakup to prevent a possible score. He showed off some excellent cover skills, flanking running back Peyton Hillis to the end zone where he was in perfect position to knock the ball away.

Wrapping Up
As for the backups, Vince Young had his best outing yet in an Eagles uniform, going 9-for-12--albeit for only 58 yards--and added a 10 yard scramble for six points. On the down side, Nate Allen ran with the second team all night, and it's beginning to look like he may not be a big factor once this season begins.

Once again, if you're looking at the big picture, this game didn't mean a whole lot in the grand scheme. If you were hoping for clear cut answers at potential problem areas, I don't think you got many. If you wanted to see a dominant effort against an opponent perceived to be weaker, this probably didn't quite satisfy you.

The greatest takeaway from these three games: the Birds survived them without any significant injuries. With many of the starters likely finished for the preseason, and the real deal a little more than two weeks away, they could have their full complement of players when they head to St. Louis on September 11.

Eagles Injury Update: Isaac Seumalo, Wendell Smallwood, Vinny Curry still out

Eagles Injury Update: Isaac Seumalo, Wendell Smallwood, Vinny Curry still out

The Eagles were back to practice on Tuesday without the same four players.

Isaac Seumalo (pec), Wendell Smallwood (concussion), Vinny Curry (knee) and Taylor Hart (knee) were all held out of practice.

On Monday, head coach Doug Pederson said the team would hold Seumalo back from practice until he was 100 percent. Pederson expects Seumalo back next week and then the team will make a decision about the starting offensive line.

Pederson also said he expects Curry and Hart back for the season opener on Sept. 11.

For the second straight day, however, Carson Wentz (ribs) and Jordan Matthews (knee) were practicing. Neither will play on Thursday in the preseason finale against the Jets, but both also said they'll be ready for the opener.

The Eagles wrap up their preseason at the Linc on Thursday with a 7 p.m. kickoff against the Jets.

Penn star receiver Justin Watson ready to keep doing it all in 2016

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Photo: Dave Zeitlin

Penn star receiver Justin Watson ready to keep doing it all in 2016

As Penn football players spread out around Franklin Field to take photos and do interviews for the program’s annual media day, Justin Watson hung by the track, playing a quick game of tag near the hurdles.

“Come and get me, J-Wat!” cried out Vhito DeCapria, the precocious 5-year-old cancer patient the team adopted last year through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation and who’s now back for his “sophomore” season.

Watson, known as “J-Wat” to most, smiled and played along. Being Vhito’s favorite player is just one of the many hats he wears. He’s also one of the team’s hardest-working, smartest and most versatile players — and he enters his junior season as perhaps the top wide receiver in the Ivy League, if not the entire FCS.

“Does he do anything to surprise me?” senior quarterback Alec Torgersen said from media day Monday. “Not anymore. He did at the beginning when he first got here. But now it’s just expected of him. I expect him to make those crazy one-handed grabs. I expect him to catch every ball I throw to him. When he doesn’t, I get disappointed.”

Torgersen has had plenty of opportunities to throw Watson passes — and not only last season when the star receiver caught 74 balls (fourth all-time at Penn) for 1,087 yards (second all-time) and nine touchdowns (third all-time). Throughout the summer, the two friends worked together at the same internship downtown. They ate lunch together every day and, at 5 p.m., they hopped on a subway back to Franklin Field, where they worked out in the weight room and practiced back-shoulder fades and option routes.

“A lot of college quarterbacks and receivers can’t have that type of chemistry but I think us being here all summer really helped,” Watson said. “It’s been cool doing that. It’s a special thing that’s definitely going to help us in the fall.”

In truth, Watson is actually more than just a receiver. Last season, he was also used on running plays, gaining 154 yards on the ground, including a 79-yard scamper that sealed Penn’s huge upset at Harvard. Watson finished with a staggering 249 all-purpose yards that day at Harvard Stadium, helping the Quakers win the game that effectively led to them sharing a piece of the Ivy League title. And he said he was all set to play another position by taking direct snaps in the team’s regular-season finale vs. Cornell before getting hurt.

“The uniqueness about Justin is not only his talent and skill on the field but his football IQ,” second-year head coach Ray Priore said. “During the course of the year, he in theory played every skill position on offense. And he didn’t even blink an eye doing it. That’s a special characteristic.”

Priore laughed when asked if he can find more ways to utilize Watson in 2016 but said he won’t put him back on kick returns, “which he probably could do.” He will, however, play safety when the Quakers line up in their “victory defense” at the end of games, “so you may see an interception.”

Watson says he’s ready for anything.

“That’s so much fun,” he said. “When you’re a kid in middle school, that’s what you do. It’s awesome to be back doing that. Anything I can do to help us win, I’ll do it, whether it’s running back or receiver. I don’t think they’ll let me throw it at quarterback after seeing my arm. But anything else I’m definitely willing and ready to do.”

In the end, though, playing receiver is what Watson loves most, saying that catching a deep ball — and hearing the crowd “hold their breath when the ball’s in the air and then erupt” — is his favorite thing as a football player. It’s also his skills as a receiver that has him earning so much attention heading into Penn’s opener vs. Lehigh on Sept. 17. Among his preseason accolades, the junior was named one of 22 players on the STATS FCS Offensive Player of the Year Watch List — the only Ivy Leaguer to receive such an honor.

But if all of his records and accolades leads to opposing defenses paying more attention to him, Watson isn’t worried. That’s because he knows the team’s other receivers like fifth-year senior Cam Countryman and sophomore Christian Pearson are more than capable of having big years too.

“If you put two guys on me, we’ve got a bunch of other great receivers who will be open and will kill you down the field,” Watson said. “If I’ve got to take two or three guys every game, we’ll be 10-0 because I know everyone else will be making plays.”

It’s that kind of selflessness that has endeared Watson to his teammates, who enjoy the energy he brings to practice and how he always seems to be the first player in the training room.

“He’s an incredible player,” said Countryman, one of Penn’s leaders. “I have the utmost respect for him. When he came in his freshman year, you noticed right away the talent he had. So all of the accomplishments that he gets, I’m not surprised at all. 

“And they’ll keep coming in.”

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Following a shutout, Phillies get to face Max Scherzer

Phillies-Nationals 5 things: Following a shutout, Phillies get to face Max Scherzer

Phillies (60-71) vs. Nationals (76-55)
7:05 p.m. on CSN

The Phillies couldn't hit in Monday's series opener, but they did receive the positive of Jake Thompson finally looking like he can get outs at the big-league level. Thompson allowed two runs over seven innings, but the Phils were blanked by Tanner Roark for the third time this season.

The task Tuesday night is no easier.

1. Due vs. Scherzer?
When the Phillies face Max Scherzer, you can essentially chalk it up as an automatic loss. The Phils are one of the weaker offenses, Scherzer is one of the game's best pitchers, and his track record against them is nearly flawless.

Scherzer (14-7, 2.92) has faced the Phillies eight times since 2013. He's 6-0 with 1.74 ERA and a 0.82 WHIP, with 62 strikeouts and 10 walks in 57 innings. 

Scherzer had some early missteps this season, caused mostly by home runs, but he's been incredible since the middle of May, when he tied a MLB record with 20 strikeouts in a game. Since that game, he's 11-5 with a 2.40 ERA and .172 opponents' batting average in 20 starts. He's struck out 181 and walked 29 in those 139 innings. Ridiculous. Otherworldly.

Unfortunately for the Phillies, they'll be seeing a lot of Scherzer moving forward. He's in the second of a seven-year, $210 million free-agent contract with the Nationals that, to this point, he's lived up to.

Scherzer has a blazing fastball and a disappearing breaking ball. He throws strike after strike after strike, which is ironically what gets him into trouble at times. Like Cliff Lee, Scherzer is around the plate so often that hitters tend to attack his early fastballs. The result is a lot of solo home runs. But Scherzer has even corrected that issue of late, allowing just five homers over his last 11 starts.

2. Learn from Herrera
Odubel Herrera has had by far the most success of any active Phillie vs. Scherzer. He's 6 for 19 with a double, a triple and five walks. There are only six players in baseball with at least 20 plate appearances against Scherzer and an on-base percentage higher than Herrera's .458.

Herrera had a multi-hit game Monday, his fourth in his last eight contests. He's hitting .283/.361/.413 in 540 plate appearances this season, providing pretty much the same offense he did a year ago. But still, the Phillies would like to see more consistency from Herrera over the season's final month. His OBP had declined every month this year until August.

Phils manager Pete Mackanin said on Monday that Herrera will remain in center field the rest of the season. Mackanin had indicated several weeks ago that Herrera would see some time in the corner outfield to allow the organization to get a look at Aaron Altherr and perhaps even Roman Quinn in center field in September, but that's no longer the plan. Quinn is on the concussion DL at Double A, and the Phillies don't want to move Herrera around or do anything to affect his confidence at this point.

It still seems likely that Herrera will end up at a different position in the future because the Phillies have better defensive centerfielders.

3. Their steadiest starter
Jerad Eickhoff tonight makes his 27th start of 2016 and 35th career start for the Phillies. He's 9-12 with a 3.87 ERA this season and 12-15 with a 3.57 ERA in his career.

Eickhoff is coming off yet another quality start, his 14th. He's pitched at least six innings in 17 of his 25 starts. 

Strange as it is, Eickhoff has faced the division-rival Nationals only once in his career so far. He allowed two runs to them over seven innings with 10 strikeouts in his penultimate start last season.

Eickhoff has been much better this season at home (3.27 ERA) than on the road (4.56).

4. A night for small ball
One of the Phillies' goals this season was to manufacture runs because they don't have a ton of power. That will be especially necessary tonight against Scherzer, who's shut down every Phils hitter with pop.

Maikel Franco, Tommy Joseph and Cameron Rupp are a combined 5 for 31 (.161) off Scherzer. Ryan Howard, who's unlikely to play, is 1 for 18 with 11 strikeouts.

Meanwhile, Herrera has gotten on base with regularity against him, and Cesar Hernandez is 5 for 18 with a double. Herrera and Hernandez will need to reach base and run tonight. Scherzer, however, does a better job than most aces of controlling the running game. He's allowed just 11 steals on 14 attempts in 60 starts with the Nationals.

5. This and that
• A loss tonight would put the Phillies 12 games under .500. Their record hasn't been that bad since June 27, which was 53 games ago.

• The Phils are 6-12 against the NL East since the All-Star break.

• It would have been difficult for Jayson Werth to play up to the seven-year, $126 million contract he got with the Nationals after 2010, but when you look back at his tenure in Washington he's had only two bad years out of six. In more than 3,000 plate appearances with the Nats, Werth has hit .269/.361/.442 for an .803 OPS that is 18 percent better than the league average over that span.