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.

Ivan Provorov displays durability, versatility in Flyers' preseason loss

Ivan Provorov displays durability, versatility in Flyers' preseason loss

NEWARK, N.J. — How much of a horse is Flyers defensive prospect Ivan Provorov?

Well, consider this:

The 19-year-old logged a game-high 28:48 of ice time Monday night during the Flyers' 2-0 split-squad loss to the Devils in which he also quarterbacked the first-unit power play (8:03) and had the most penalty kill time (3:58) (see story).

“I thought I played well,” Provorov said. “It took me a few shifts to get into the game. I competed as hard as I could.”

He said he was used to playing more than 25 minutes in Brandon (WHL), anyway.

“Of course, this is a better league, high pace and it will take a few games to adjust,” Provorov said.

Because the Flyers have yet to work on power play, the results aren’t there. They were 0 for 7 in the game.

“We haven’t done anything on the ice, but have done some video on the PK on the board but nothing on the power play,” head coach Dave Hakstol said. “There’s other priorities now with so many players (64) in camp.”

Provorov worked both points on the power play and had just one official shot in the game.

“We didn’t get to do much power play [in camp],” he said. “It will get better as the preseason goes on.”

Rookie forward Travis Konecny worked the low slot on the top power play. He logged 18:34 of ice time, including 6:01 PP time. Konecny had two shots in the game.

He was on Andy Miele’s line with Scott Laughton. Konency had the only shots on his line.

Hakstol said Konecny and Provorov each “settled in” as the game went on. Hakstol isn’t sure if one or both will play Tuesday night at the Wells Fargo Center against the Islanders.

Konecny’s body language in camp exudes confidence unlike a year ago when he was skittish in his first-ever Flyers training camp. Now he sits back, takes it all in and has that look on his face of been there, done that.

In fact, he was trying to calm down some of his buddies, Anthony Salinitri and Connor Bunnaman, who were seeing the lights before the game.

“Me and [Ivan] Provorov were just talking,” he said. “We feel a lot more comfortable this year.

“I’ve been in this position here. I have my guys Salinitri and Bunnaman, we all hang out together and it’s their first year.

“They’re excited for their first preseason game just like I was last year, but I’m not thinking, ‘Wow, it’s an NHL arena.’ I’m thinking about the game and getting ready to play.”

Konecny was impressive last fall as an 18-year-old and Hakstol said he takes everything into account with more emphasis on the now than the past.

“Your body of work includes your season last year,” Hakstol  said. “Includes everything. The most important information is what you do right now. No question in my mind. I take everything into account.”

Take this into account: Alex Lyon is going to be a contender with Anthony Stolarz for the starting job in goal with the Phantoms this season. He was outstanding with 28 saves on 29 shots.

“They spent some time in our zone and had their big guns out there,” Lyon said of being under siege for two-thirds of the game. “They had a few shots but we did a good job keeping them to the outside. No super grade A opportunities.”

Lyon stopped two breakaways by Beau Bennett, one within three minutes of play.

“I felt like a newborn deer and could barely stand up,” quipped the former Yale goalie. “I was so nervous. It felt good to stop the first one.”

Dee Gordon honors Jose Fernandez with leadoff homer as Marlins beat Mets

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Dee Gordon honors Jose Fernandez with leadoff homer as Marlins beat Mets

MIAMI -- In tribute to Jose Fernandez, left-handed hitter Dee Gordon stepped to the plate as a righty to lead off the first inning of Monday's mournful game.

After one pitch, Gordon switched to his customary left side -- and homered in the first at-bat for Miami since the death of Fernandez in a boating accident.

Gordon pulled a 2-0 pitch from New York Mets right-hander Bartolo Colon over the wall in right for his first homer of the season. He tapped his chest after crossing the plate and waved toward the sky, and then sobbed as teammates hugged him in the dugout.

It was another heart-tugging moment in a succession of them over the past two days.

The atmosphere was funereal at Marlins Park three hours before the first pitch, with players going through their pregame stretching in eerie silence.

Then someone cranked up the sound system, and bouncy reggaeton reverberated throughout the ballpark. It was a nudge toward a return to normal, as the Marlins and baseball began to move on without Fernandez.

The animal race at the end of the fifth inning was canceled, along with other in-game entertainment, and most of the Marlins' hitters decided to forgo walk-up music. But there was a game against the Mets, the first for the Marlins since their ace died early Sunday.

"This is shallow, but the show goes on," Marlins president David Samson said. "There has been a lot of talking and a lot of crying and a lot of praying and a lot of trying to make sense of something you can't make sense of. There is no sense to a life ended like that, in a way that is so meaningless.

"It's our job to make his life matter, so we're going to do that forever, and forever starts today."

Fernandez made his major league debut against the Mets in 2013 and was scheduled to face them again Monday night in his final start of the season. Instead, Miami and the Marlins mourned the loss of the 24-year-old pitcher, whose talent and captivating personality were a combination unmatched in the sport.

Fernandez and two other men were killed when his 32-foot SeaVee slammed into a rock jetty that extends off the southern tip of Miami Beach at about 3:15 a.m. Sunday, a medical examiner said.

Fernandez was originally scheduled to pitch Sunday before his start was moved back a day. The change may be the reason he decided to go on the late-night boat outing.

"If he had pitched yesterday, maybe fate would be different," Samson said. "I've been thinking about that a lot."

Manager Don Mattingly said, "Obviously it crosses your mind."

The Marlins' game Sunday against Atlanta was canceled, and when they took the field Monday for batting practice, Fernandez's name and number hovered over the field on the huge video screen. Gordon wore a T-shirt that said "RIP," with a photo of Fernandez shaped as the "I."

For the game, the players decided to wear Fernandez's No. 16, with hastily made uniforms flown in. His number was also stenciled on the back of the mound.

The pregame ceremony included a slow, solemn solo trumpet rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Following the national anthem, New York manager Terry Collins led his Mets across the field to share hugs with the Marlins, and fans briefly chanted "Jose, Jose."

The Marlins then clustered around the mound and put their hands to the dirt. Some scratched out Jose's number or a message of love, and some just rubbed the mound -- his mound. His career record at Marlins Park was 29-2.

Fans established a makeshift memorial on the plaza outside the ballpark entrance, leaving dozens of flower arrangements -- daisies, carnations, roses and lilies, the result as colorful as Fernandez's personality. There were also candles, and messages scrawled on balls, balloons, photos and jerseys.

The situation was emotional even for the Mets, who are in the thick of the chase for an NL wild card with one week left in the season. On their dugout wall hung a Mets jerseys with Fernandez's name and number.

"Hearts are heavy," New York outfielder Jay Bruce said. "From a professional standpoint, you just try to prepare and play the game and respect the game. But I can't even imagine what it's like over in that other clubhouse."

Collins spoke about Fernandez in the present tense.

"He epitomizes what the game's about," Collins said. "Our game is bigger than a lot of things. It will always go on. We'll remember Jose. You've got to play the game in his honor. He would want to be out there."

Plans for a public funeral had not been finalized, but it was expected to be Thursday, the Marlins' final off day of the season.

Fernandez defected from Cuba at age 15, won the NL Rookie of the Year award and became a two-time All-Star. His enormous popularity in South Florida bridged the divide between the franchise and fans antagonized by too much losing and too many payroll purges.

Fernandez left behind a girlfriend who is expecting their first child, the mother who came with him to the United States and the grandmother who helped raise him.

On Sunday evening, the entire team took two buses to Fernandez's family home and met for 45 minutes with his mother, grandmother and other relatives and friends.

Fernandez's agent, Scott Boras, spoke to reporters near the batting cage -- or at least tried to. He said he paid his respects to the family before coming to the ballpark.

"His mother wanted me to tell everyone how she felt," Boras said. "She showed me pictures of him as a boy. She actually made his uniform when he was 7 or 8, with Cuban red pants."

Boras then cut short the interview because he couldn't stop crying.