Eagles Return to Primetime Football Versus the Steelers

Eagles Return to Primetime Football Versus the Steelers

Prior to last week's preseason opener versus the Ravens, I cautioned readers not to get too excited about the game, one of the chief reasons being the Eagles would utilize a "vanilla" offensive strategy. As much as it pains me to do so, we need to issue a retraction on that statement.

No offense being run by Michael Vick could possibly be termed vanilla.

The Eagles played their starters for just one series against Baltimore, and Vick marched them straight into the end zone. It didn't seem to matter much what kind of plays were called, or even that the offense was without DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. They went right down the field with a series of big plays and accurate passes. It was very satisfying to watch.

With DeSean Jackson back in the lineup for tonight's nationally broadcast meeting against the Steelers, and the starters expected to participate for a full half, we are hoping for more of the same.

They are faced with a slightly greater challenge tonight though as they face off against last year's AFC Champions on their home turf. Vick, in particular, has a lot to prove tonight versus the greatest zone blitzing team of this era. That's right: Mike Vick is going on the watch-list.

It will be interesting to see how much blitzing the Steelers actually do in an exhibition game, but where Vick is at with his ability to read and react to defensive pressure is one of--if not the biggest--keys to this season. We need to see if he can identify where the pass rush is coming from, and whether he knows where the ball goes and if he can get out quickly enough to beat the blitz.

The offensive line took a ton of heat last season, and the right side in particular was not great, but a big problem was Vick holding on to the ball too long and not feeling the pressure. For all the big additions the Eagles have made, if their quarterback doesn't improve and take the next step in that aspect of running the offense, we're not sure how far they can ultimately go.

Here are the rest of tonight's player to keep an eye on:

King Dunlap
Last week, we had Ryan Harris on our watch-list, but he's out tonight with a back injury. First of all, Harris was not super impressive against the Ravens, so the job is still very much up for grabs. Second, Harris had a history of back problems in Denver, so he could be falling out of favor very quickly.

We'll see if Dunlap can seize the opportunity. He showed some improvement in relief efforts last season, but was far from the stabilizing force the Eagles are searching for on the right side. Offensive line coach Howard Mudd also typically favors smaller linemen for zone blocking system, which works against the 6-9, 330 lbs. Dunlap. He could help himself out quite a bit though with a solid outing against one of the NFL's best defenses at pressuring passers.

Winston Justice remains on the PUP list.

Darryl Tapp
Major props to Jim Washburn and every member of the defensive line last week. From the opening snap until the final gun, their unit was by far the best on the field, showing tenacity and getting consistent penetration. The difference between last Thursday and the past several years was remarkable.

A big part of that was Tapp, who in one preseason game nearly matched his sack total for all of last season. The Birds sent DE Chris Clemons to Seattle last year in exchange for Tapp, and while Clemons amassed 11 sacks in 2010, Tapp accounted for merely three. The Virginia Tech product is off to a torrid start in August though, getting to Ravens QB's twice last week, as well as three tackles, one for a huge loss.

Maybe guys like Tapp and Jason Babin will prove the problem here the past two seasons was coaching and schemes all along.

Casey Matthews
For the second straight week, Matthews makes our watch list, which says something how important his development is to the defense. We also didn't see much of the rookie from Oregon last week, just eight snaps in fact, so another reason is we're still waiting to actually see him. However, Bleeding Green Nation put together a nice round-up of reviews on Matthews' brief performance, and it was mostly positive stuff, including CSN's own Ray Didinger.

So far Matthews hasn’t looked out of place. He has been good in camp and he was good again in limited snaps on Thursday. It appeared Matthews might have been fooled on a Joe Flacco to Ray Rice screen pass that gained 23 yards on the opening drive, but it was his tight coverage on the tight end that forced Flacco to hold the ball and allowed Trent Cole to record his first sack later in the first quarter.

Having said that, eight plays is about the smallest sample size there is, so we'll hold off on the excitement for at least one more post.

Instant Replay: Phillies 7, Braves 5

Instant Replay: Phillies 7, Braves 5

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — Aaron Nola picked up his first win since June 5 as the Phillies beat the Atlanta Braves, 7-5, at Turner Field on Thursday night.

Nola was supported by some strong offense. After scoring just one run in losing the previous two games in Miami, the Phils erupted for five runs in the first inning. They hit three homers in the game.

The Phillies had been winless in Nola’s previous seven starts.

The Phillies are 47-57.

The Braves have the worst record in the majors at 35-67.

Starting pitching report
Despite leaving with a 7-3 lead after five innings, Nola was not particularly sharp. He gave up eight hits (one was a fly ball that was lost in the twilight sky), walked three and hit a batter. He needed 95 pitches to get through the five innings.

Nola is 6-9 with a 4.78 ERA in 20 starts.

Atlanta’s Matt Wisler gave up seven hits and seven runs in five innings. Five of the runs came in the first inning when the Phillies batted around. Wisler allowed two homers, two singles and walked two in the inning.

Bullpen report
David Hernandez was the first Phillies reliever out of the bullpen. He struggled. But Edubray Ramos, Hector Neris and Jeanmar Gomez combined to close it out.

Gomez allowed two hits, a walk and a run in the ninth, but earned his 27th save.

At the plate
Aaron Altherr, activated off the disabled list earlier in the day (see story), had a big night in his first game of the season with the big club. He hit the ball hard all night and had three hits, including a two-run homer in the fifth.

Maikel Franco and Tommy Joseph hit back-to-back homers in the first inning. Franco’s was a three-run shot. He leads the club with 19 homers. Joseph has 14 homers in 57 games.

Adonis Garcia had two hits and two RBIs for the Braves.

Transaction 
Peter Bourjos was placed on the disabled list and Altherr was activated (see story).

Up next
The series continues Friday night. Vince Velasquez (8-2, 3.34) pitches against Atlanta right-hander Tyrell Jenkins (0-2, 6.17).

As Aaron Altherr's audition begins, Pete Mackanin says Cody Asche 'needs to step it up'

As Aaron Altherr's audition begins, Pete Mackanin says Cody Asche 'needs to step it up'

ATLANTA — Nearly four months late, Aaron Altherr is finally getting his shot to show the Phillies he deserves to be part of their future outfield plans.

Altherr, 25, was activated from the disabled list before Thursday night’s game against the Braves and was in the lineup, batting fifth (see story). Altherr will see a lot of playing time over the final two-plus months of the season. He’s essentially auditioning.

“We want to see him play as much as possible,” manager Pete Mackanin said before the game. “So if he stays healthy, I’m going to keep running him out there. That’s what this year is all about. We’re finding out about the guys that are here. He is a potentially important part so we want to see what he does. I’m anxious to see what he does.”

Altherr, a ninth-round draft pick in 2009, played in 39 games for the Phillies last season. He hit just .241, but 20 of his 33 hits were for extra bases and he had a .827 OPS. He was slated to be the team’s everyday rightfielder before suffering a wrist injury that required surgery early in spring training.

Altherr is healthy now and eager for his chance.

“I’m good to go mentally and physically,” he said Thursday afternoon. “I’m definitely excited to be back up.”

Altherr took Peter Bourjos' spot on the roster. Bourjos was placed on the disabled list with a sprained right shoulder two days after running into the outfield wall in Miami.

With Mackanin committed to giving Altherr playing time, it will be interesting to see how the skipper divides up playing time with the remaining outfielders, especially when Bourjos recovers. Bourjos was a trade candidate before his injury. He could still be moved in a waiver deal once he’s healthy in August. Tyler Goeddel, Cody Asche and Jimmy Paredes also play corner outfield spots and much heralded prospect Nick Williams is expected to be here at some point (see Future Phillies Report).

Asche is walking a tightrope. He entered Thursday night’s game mired in a 4-for-51 skid and Mackanin seems to be losing patience.

“As I said earlier in the season, this is a very big year for Cody to prove that he can be part of the future and he needs to step it up,” Mackanin said.

Jason Peters impressed by Doug Pederson, questions Chip Kelly

Jason Peters impressed by Doug Pederson, questions Chip Kelly

Heading into his 13th season, Jason Peters has experienced a lot during his exceptional NFL career. So when the eight-time Pro Bowler says head coach Doug Pederson is more respectful of veteran players than the previous regime under Chip Kelly, you take notice.

"I think so," Peters stated frankly on Thursday at training camp (see Day 4 notes). "The last couple years, there wasn't a lot of vets, and any vet that stood up and had something to say, we got rid of him.

"Doug was a player here, he understands veteran players and he understands the game, so I think it's better."

Addressing the media for the first time since last season, Peters faced a series of questions about how Pederson differs from his unique predecessor. Schemes and philosophies were topics of discussion, as well, but perhaps the sharpest criticism levied by Peters was Kelly's lack of appreciation for what an NFL player goes through to be ready on Sunday.

"Any time you've got a coach who's been there, done that, he knows about the trenches and he knows about the two-a-days, it definitely helps with a veteran team as a whole," Peters said.

Peters admitted Kelly's practices took their toll on players. If that sounds like a familiar complaint, it's probably because former Eagles cornerback Cary Williams voiced a similar opinion in 2014. On Thursday, Peters echoed and expanded upon Williams' sentiments.

"The same practices that we did in training camp were the same spring practices, exactly the same, so it's pretty much we had training camp the whole offseason," Peters said. "Even OTAs were the same exact practice. It kind of wore us down."

Peters also maintained the unusual practice schedule during the regular season was no help, either.

Most teams practice Monday and take Tuesday off. Kelly did the opposite, so there was no real break leading up to gameday.

"We practiced on Tuesdays when Chip was here, and you felt it on Sundays," Peters said. "I did anyway."

Pederson has mentioned on several occasions the Eagles intend to do everything they can to keep Peters fresh and prepared for Sundays this season, which the 34-year-old says is "just being smart." One way that could manifest itself is an occasional day off during the week.

Although Peters' criticisms of Kelly weren't limited to the workload on veterans, the left tackle indicated the constant uptempo attack may not have done the offense many favors, either.

"If you run 100 times in a row, back to back to back, don't you think your 50th time you're going to be a little slower?" Peters asked. "But if you get a little bit of a rest, you're going to be a little bit faster.

"It's give and take. When you go back to the huddle and you get that wind, you're just a little stronger when you go back to the line, so I think it will help."

Peters added that the simplicity and predictability of Kelly's system became a problem, as well.

"I mean, this is the National Football League, and if the running back is to the left and you're running the zone read, where do you think the ball is going?" Peters asked rhetorically. "To the right.

"They caught up to us. We had some good years there back to back, then last year we had that down year. We just needed to change a little bit up, especially with [quarterback Sam Bradford] back there. They know he's not gonna run it, so it kind of put our hands behind our back."

While Peters believes the return to a more sophisticated, traditional NFL offense under Pederson — one that uses snap counts and chip blocks to help its offensive linemen — will be an enormous improvement for the Eagles.

Peters knows it's on the players to do a better job in 2016, too. At the same time, he feels as though the deck might've been just a little stacked against them.

"We can't really blame it on that, we're professionals," Peters said.

"[The coaches] call the play, and we execute it. But when the [opponents] know, and they're professionals too, and they know what the play is, it's tough."