Eagles Open Preseason in Style, Top Ravens

Eagles Open Preseason in Style, Top Ravens

We try not to get too excited over results of exhibition games on the whole, and with a very limited training camp and scant opportunities for live scrimmages, the Eagles' first preseason game was little more than a very glorified practice under the big lights at Lincoln Financial Field. Still, in watching the ones take the field and move the ball efficiently against a respected NFL defense, even for only a few minutes, it was absolutely impossible not to get caught up in it.  

On both sides of the ball, the Eagles' top units looked sharp, with Michael Vick leading a scoring drive on his only series of the game and the defense looking hungry and nasty. Vick completed four of six passes for 74 yards, including a 42 yarder to Riley Cooper that perched the Eagles near the Ravens goal line. One of Vick's two incompletions came on a near TD to Jason Avant, who was shown to lose the ball out of bounds on a play that Andy Reid would challenge. He just had to throw that flag… you knew it was coming as soon as the close play was called an incompletion.  

But the offense answered with a quick TD strike to Brent Celek from three yards out, and that was it for for the V unit on the night. He wasn't the only one who looked great in limited or extended action though, with quite a few Eagles stepping up, and just about every unit playing as well as we could hope in such early action.  

Although we started with a look at the offense's TD drive, the Eagles defense was the big story of the night on the whole. The units combined to limit the Ravens to just a pair of field goals on the way to a 13-6 Eagles win.  

The defensive line was everything a Jim Washburn-led unit was advertised to be. They bottled up the run and got after the quarterback with explosiveness from the opening snap, making the Ravens offense look lost for stretches of the game, forcing field goals at best and turnovers at worst. On the night, Ravens QBs were sacked six times, with the Eagles owning the ends of the line in particular, but also getting good pressure up the middle. The rotations and unit replacements came, but the pressure remained constant.  

The completely revamped unit, from coaches to on-field personnel, looked to be on the same page, and that page was "straight at the point of attack." There's still a lot to prove, and all this came against an offense just getting its bearings, but Juan Castillo aced his first test as Eagles defensive coordinator. Darryl Tapp had his name called out quite a few times, and "Chef" Jaiquawn Jarrett enjoyed a huge moment on his college home field, hauling in an interception on what I think was his first ever series as an Eagle. Safety Jarrad Page also came up with a big pick in the end zone.  

Vince Young played parts of the first and second quarters, making plays with his legs when the Ravens seemed to have him cornered and connecting on a 32-yarder to Chad Hall. Much of the offense when VY was on the field seemed to center on handing the ball off to Ronnie Brown, who was bottled up for the most part, but looked sharp.  

Mike Kafka had the reins of the offense for much of the night, and despite an awful interception when he tried to go long and came up quite short, looked pretty crisp in running a more complete offensive package than Young was understandably given. Kafka finished the night 13 for 19 for 132 yards.  

Alex Henery lined up for two field goals in his debut as the replacement for Birds legend David Akers, and I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief that he hit both. His first, a 35-yarder, was a bit tight toward the right upright, which provided for the Don "Tolly Sunshine" Tollefson moment of the night, when Tolly called the kick "perfect." I kinda love that guy.  

Although the Birds managed only one touchdown, it was encouraging to see how it happened. A few small completions and one big play, followed by a narrow miss in the red zone (which we've seen plenty of), and a quick strike to one of the weapons this team has had for a few seasons but is a bit overshadowed with some of the other names on the field. If Jeremy Maclin's health doesn't keep him from the field, the combination of him and DeSean Jackson on the outsides, Jason Avant or Steve Smith on the inside, and a backfield that includes LeSean McCoy and Ronnie Brown, and oh by the way, MICHAEL VICK… defenses are going to have trouble containing everyone, and Celek could be one of the biggest beneficiaries. With improvements on the O-line, he may not have quite as much blocking responsibility as last year, leaving him free to find a seam for Vick to hit underneath.  

Just thinking about all that this offense can throw at a team—so long as most of its personnel stays healthy—is enough to make us want to watch that opening drive a few more times this morning. The work the twos and beyond put in last night was encouraging in the event they need to step up and become starters, which at some positions will surely happen.  

Perhaps best of all, no key players got hurt last night. The NFL is a war of attrition as you've no doubt heard, and while the preseason games don't count for anything in the standings, the injuries that happen in them are very real. I don't know that anything serious actually wound up on the injury report last night, although Cooper came up a bit hobbled after being pulled to the ground hard on his big first-quarter catch, and that's an even bigger win than the 13-6 score line.  

Overall, the opening preseason game was a great appetizer. We didn't get to see the ones in action for long, but what we did see made us want a lot more.

Cuban ballplayers mourn loss of Jose Fernandez

Cuban ballplayers mourn loss of Jose Fernandez

CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler played with Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez when the two were growing up in Cuba. They traveled together to Venezuela for a youth tournament.

Soler said Fernandez's ability was obvious, right from the start.

"Since he was a child, since we were kids, I knew he had something," Soler said through a translator. "He had a talent. It was very impressive."

Fernandez's death in a boating accident at the age of 24 cast a dark shadow over the major leagues on Sunday. Miami's home game against Atlanta was canceled, and several ballparks observed moments of silence. Wrigley Field's iconic hand-operated scoreboard displayed Fernandez's No. 16 in its pitching column next to Miami.

But the loss of Fernandez was felt most acutely in baseball's growing Cuban community.

"He was one of those guys that everybody loved," St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena said. "He was one of those guys that everybody knew exactly what he meant to our community. For us, it's a big, big loss. It's one of those things where our thoughts and prayers are obviously with his family, the Marlins' organization and the fans. But it gets a little bit closer because he was part of our Cuban family."

There were 23 Cubans on opening-day major league rosters this year, an increase of five over last season and the most since the commissioner's office began releasing data in 1995. Many of the players share similar stories when it comes to their perilous journey from the communist country to the majors, and the difficulty of adjusting to life in the United States.

A native of Santa Clara, Cuba, Fernandez was unsuccessful in his first three attempts to defect, and spent several months in prison. At 15, Fernandez and his mother finally made it to Mexico, and were reunited in Florida with his father, who had escaped from Cuba two years earlier.

He was drafted by the Marlins in 2011, and quickly turned into one of the majors' top pitchers.

"How he was on the mound was a reflection of him," Oakland first baseman Yonder Alonso said. "A guy who had a lot of fun, was himself. A very talkative guy, he would come into the room and you'd know he was in the room. Never big-leagued anyone, very professional. No matter what, he would talk to you about hitting, because he thought he was the best hitter, and he (would) talk to you about pitching, because he thought he was the best pitcher."

Alonso said Fernandez's death was "a big-time shock." Yasiel Puig used torn pieces of white athletic tape to display Fernandez's jersey on the wall in the home dugout at Dodger Stadium. Cardinals rookie Aledmys Diaz, who had known Fernandez since they were little kids, declined an interview request through a team spokeswoman.

"We Cuban players know each other well and all of us have a great relationship," Pena said. "For us, it's devastating news when we woke up. We were sending text messages to each other and we were showing support. It's something that obviously nobody expects."

Fernandez, who became a U.S. citizen last year, also was beloved for his stature in the Cuban community in Miami.

"He was a great humanitarian," Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman said through a translator. "He gave a lot to the community and I think that's why he got a lot of respect from the community in terms of what a great person he was and always giving, in terms of always willing to help out in whatever way he can to try to better and progress within the community someone that perhaps wasn't as fortunate as he was."

The 28-year-old Chapman lives in the Miami-area in the offseason. He said he spent some time with Fernandez while he was home.

"He would come by my house. I would go by his," Chapman said. "We would have long conversations. We would talk a lot. We spent a lot of good amount of time together. It was very special for me."

Pressure is on Flyers' fourth-liner Chris VandeVelde to fend off competition

Pressure is on Flyers' fourth-liner Chris VandeVelde to fend off competition

VOORHEES, N.J. — Even before Flyers training camp opened, Ron Hextall talked about a plenitude of internal competition for jobs.
 
It’s all over the ice, too.
 
Who starts in goal: Steve Mason or Michal Neuvirth, who came on strong at the end of last season? 
 
Does Ivan Provorov win a spot on the roster? And if he does, who gets sent packing?
 
Between Scott Laughton and Nick Cousins, who gets the lion's share of ice time? 
 
Can Travis Konecny or Roman Lyubimov force a veteran forward off the team?
 
Then there’s free-agent signee Boyd Gordon, a PK specialist who was second only to Claude Giroux in the league last season on winning defensive zone draws. More competition.
 
Well, one of the key battles in training camp for both roster space and minutes concerns how veteran fourth-liner Chris VandeVelde handles the competition from Lyubimov — the 24-year-old Russian who plays a heavy game and can handle special teams — and others.
 
VandeVelde saw a bit of an offensive drop-off last season with 14 points. Though just a point fewer than the year before, the bigger dip was going from nine goals to two.
 
With no real goal-scoring additions in the offseason, Hextall is expecting bigger outputs from returning players.
 
In VandeVelde’s case, two goals is something Lyubimov could easily match or exceed.
 
“You have to go out there and give it your all,” VandeVelde said. “Hopefully, work hard and kinda make an impression. There’s a lot of guys fighting for a fair amount of spots. It’s going to be interesting.
 
“I think I’ve felt pressure every year. Obviously, you want to make an impression and get noticed out there. Reassure [them] I can still do the job and add a few things to my offensive game.”
 
And his self-evaluation?
 
“I think I was solid,” he replied. “As a fourth line, we were very good at times. Individually, I can add a little more and chip in a little more.”
 
VandeVelde is not scheduled to play in either of Monday’s split-squad games in New Jersey or Brooklyn.
 
At stake here isn’t just his job on the fourth line but the penalty kill, as well. VandeVelde’s 2:17 shorthanded ice time per game was second only to linemate Pierre-Edouard Bellemare (2:35) among the forwards.
 
The 6-foot-2, 207-pound Lyubimov has played on the penalty kill in the KHL, and Gordon is a PK specialist. What was VandeVelde’s edge is now something up for grabs, especially given both Hextall and coach Dave Hakstol have vowed there will be improvement on the PK, which ranked 14th last season after being among the bottom 10 much of the year.
 
Hakstol has said he intends to tweak the PK with some structural changes. That sounds like personnel changes and Gordon could be a guy on the fourth unit and will certainly be in the mix on the penalty kill.
 
How to make the kill better remains at large.
 
“We have to start a little more aggressively,” VandeVelde said. “Kinda like we finished last couple games there against Washington (in the playoffs). We kinda got burnt there 6-1 (in Game 3). We switched styles a little too late.”
 
The Flyers gave up five power play goals in Game 3 to the Caps.
 
VandeVelde admits his penalty kill experience gives him a bit of an edge going into camp.
 
“If I can bring that extra edge and solidify a role, that is huge,” he said.
 
VandeVelde returned to his home in Moorhead, Minn., over the summer to focus on his skating, hoping to get a more explosive start on the ice that he could utilize better during the penalty kill.
 
One thing seems certain: VandeVelde says there’s a greater comfort level for returning players as to what to expect from Hakstol. Also, whereas last year’s camp was one of implementing systems, this year’s camp is one of expanding on them.
 
“Everyone knows what to expect,” VandeVelde said. “So do all three coaches. They are going to tweak some things, whether it's penalty kill or power play or other systems. We’ll learn that. That is what preseason is for. All the players know what to expect and are ready to go.”
 
VandeVelde said he’s already been informed what the team expects from him this season. The competition could push him in that direction.
 
“I know what they want,” he said. “Obviously, I can do more offensively and want to chip in a little more as a fourth line and as an individual. Maybe just work on that.”