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.

Best of NBA: Rockets overcome Russell Westbrook's 7th straight triple-double

Best of NBA: Rockets overcome Russell Westbrook's 7th straight triple-double

OKLAHOMA CITY -- James Harden scored 21 points, and the Houston Rockets overcame Russell Westbrook's seventh consecutive triple-double to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 102-99 on Friday night.

Harden also had 12 assists and nine rebounds to help the Rockets win their fifth straight. Houston withstood Harden's 6-for-23 shooting effort.

Westbrook finished with 27 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. He has the longest triple-double streak since Michael Jordan had seven straight in 1989. The most in a row is nine by Philadelphia's Wilt Chamberlain in March 1968.

It was Westbrook's 12th triple-double this season and the 49th of his career. He is the NBA's active leader in the category and ranks sixth all-time.

The Thunder had won the previous six games during Westbrook's triple-double binge (see full story).

James moves into 9th on scoring list as Cavs top Heat
CLEVELAND -- LeBron James scored 27 points to move into ninth place on the NBA scoring list, and the Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Miami Heat 114-84 on Friday night.

James passed Elvin Hayes on a driving layup with 6:58 remaining and has 27,315 career points. The four-time MVP was removed about a minute later and received a loud ovation from the Cleveland crowd.

Kevin Love, a game-time decision because of back spasms, scored a team-high 28 points and had 15 rebounds for the Cavaliers. He missed the morning shootaround but was in the lineup after warming up on the court about an hour before tip-off.

Kyrie Irving added 23 points for the Cavs, who have won three straight after losing three in a row.

Derrick Williams scored 17 points to lead the short-handed Heat, who have lost four straight (see full story). 

Schroder has career-high 33, Hawks rally past Bucks
MILWAUKEE -- Dennis Schroder scored a career-high 33 points and the Atlanta Hawks rallied from 20 down in the second half to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks 114-110 on Friday night.

Paul Millsap had 23 points and 14 rebounds for Atlanta. Tim Hardaway Jr. scored 18.

The Hawks, who ended a seven-game losing streak Wednesday with a win over Miami, trailed by 20 at halftime. A 40-point third quarter put them back in the game.

Jabari Parker scored 27 for Milwaukee. Giannis Antetokounmpo, in foul trouble throughout the game, had 14.

Atlanta pulled ahead 105-103 on Kyle Korver's jumper with 3:15 remaining, giving the Hawks their first lead since early in the game (see full story). 

Best of NHL: Blue Jackets top Red Wings to notch 5th straight win

Best of NHL: Blue Jackets top Red Wings to notch 5th straight win

DETROIT -- Brandon Dubinsky scored a tiebreaking goal in the second period and the surging Columbus Blue Jackets won their fifth straight game, 4-1 over the Detroit Red Wings on Friday night.

Lukas Sedlak got his first NHL goal for the Blue Jackets, who have earned at least a point in 12 of their last 13 games. Cam Atkinson contributed a short-handed goal in the first period for Columbus.

Dylan Larkin's power-play goal in the second was the only scoring of the night for the Red Wings. Sergei Bobrovsky had 32 saves for the Blue Jackets.

Sam Gagner scored into an empty net with 13.9 seconds remaining (see full story). 

Staal scores in 6th round of SO to lift Wild over Oilers
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Eric Staal scored in the sixth round of a shootout and the Minnesota Wild beat the Edmonton Oilers 3-2 on Friday night.

Matt Dumba and Jason Zucker scored in regulation for Minnesota, which has won three straight.

Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk made 25 saves. He entered with a league-best .946 save percentage and 1.65 goals-against average.

Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins had goals for the Oilers, whose four-game losing streak began with a 2-1 home overtime loss to the Wild last Sunday.

Staal scored on a backhand deke before Nugent-Hopkins fired wide in the sixth round (see full story). 

Raanta, Rangers beat Blackhawks, 1-0, in overtime
CHICAGO -- Nick Holden scored 55 seconds into overtime, Antti Raanta made 26 saves against his former team and the New York Rangers beat the Chicago Blackhawks 1-0 on Friday night.

Derek Stepan passed from the boards to a streaking Holden in the middle of the ice, and he beat Scott Darling on the stick side for his fourth goal of the season.

Darling was going for his second straight shutout while subbing for injured starter Corey Crawford but had to settle for another solid performance.

Raanta, who made his NHL debut with Chicago in 2013 and played for the Blackhawks for two seasons before he was traded to New York, improved to 15-0-3 in 20 career appearances at the United Center.

The 27-year-old Raanta had 17 saves in Thursday's 2-1 victory at Winnipeg, and coach Alain Vigneault opted to give him a second straight start over Henrik Lundqvist because of his recent play and his success in Chicago (see full story).

Oshie, Johansson, Grubauer lift Caps over Sabres
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- T.J. Oshie and Marcus Johansson each scored a goal, Philipp Grubauer made 27 saves and the Washington Capitals beat the Buffalo Sabres 4-1 on Friday night for their third straight win.

Jakub Vrana and John Carlson also scored, helping Washington beat Buffalo for the third time in 15 days.

Kyle Okposo scored and Robin Lehner made 25 saves for Buffalo. The Sabres have lost three of their last four.

Oshie gave the Capitals a 1-0 lead 6:43 into the second period when he lifted a shot from the right edge of the crease past Lehner. Jay Beagle drew two defenders into the corner and sent the puck back to a wide open Oshie for his ninth goal of the season (see full story).