Eagles-Steelers: 5 things to focus on Thursday

Eagles-Steelers: 5 things to focus on Thursday
August 20, 2014, 7:00 pm
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Left to right: Mark Sanchez, Alex Henery, Riley Cooper. (AP)

As these faux football games go, the closest approximation to actual competition is generally the third outing. The starters figure to get their biggest run of the preseason. Here are five things to focus on when the Eagles host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday evening at Lincoln Financial Field:

5. Mark Sanchez
When the Eagles signed Sanchez, there weren’t exactly high expectations. His career in New York deteriorated from first-round pick and back-to-back AFC Championship appearances, to authoring one of the more unfortunate plays in NFL history, to a season-ending injury, to being released.

Since landing in Philadelphia, he’s been surprisingly good. He’s looked sharp in training camp, and he might have had the best overall performance of any Eagles’ signal caller in the first two games combined. Sanchez went 7 for 10 for 79 yards against the Bears, then connected on 11 of 12 passes against the Patriots for 117 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. It’s highly unlikely that another team would try to trade for Sanchez, which is fine. The Eagles -- or, really, any NFL team -- need a competent backup quarterback. It’s only the preseason, but so far Sanchez has performed well. Another quality outing would go a long way to allaying any fear about him serving as the second QB on the depth chart.

4. Alex Henery
He missed a 47-yarder against the Patriots last week. That was troubling -- but not as troubling as when he misfired from 48 yards in a two-point loss to the Saints in the postseason.

Henery’s career long is 51 yards. In 2013, only one other kicker had more misses between 40 and 49 yards than Henery. Not good. And yet, somehow, the Eagles’ kicking competition appears to be already over (even though the Eagles insist “all options are open,” and now they've added another). If things go south for Henery this year, maybe one of these guys can get a tryout.

3. LeSean McCoy
He missed Sunday’s training camp workout. On Monday, he returned to practice but told the media that the big toe on his left foot was bothering him enough to have an MRI and X-ray. By Wednesday, Chip Kelly was downplaying the injury and joking about McCoy’s toe.

The running back said he hopes to play against the Steelers but added that he won’t need many reps. Probably for the best. He also said that if the toe bothers him -- he was having some trouble putting pressure on it -- that he’ll shut it down until it feels better. Also for the best. McCoy led the NFL in rushing last season and was a big reason why the Eagles put up franchise record offensive numbers. Getting in and out against the Steelers (or simply staying out and waiting for the regular season) would be a positive outcome for McCoy and the Birds.

2. Maclin, Cooper & Matthews
The trio has yet to appear in a game together. That should change against Pittsburgh.

Jeremy Maclin, who is coming off an ACL injury that caused him to miss all of last year, was dealing with a hamstring issue that kept him out of some practices over the last week. Riley Cooper had a nagging ankle injury and missed the first two preseason games. Both returned to practice this week and indicated they’ll be available when the first team offense takes the field.

They will be joined by Jordan Matthews, who rebounded from that forgettable first preseason game with an excellent effort against New England. Matthews caught nine passes for 104 yards against the Patriots. Should be interesting to see how the three receivers are deployed and how Nick Foles spreads the targets around.

1. The defense
Bill Davis wasn’t so pleased with how his guys played against New England, particularly in the second half. He called the effort after halftime “structurally unsound as hell.” Not very encouraging.

The starting defense gave up three touchdowns on six drives in the first two preseason games. As a whole, the defense was flagged 15 times against New England, many of which were called because of the league’s new point of emphasis. Oh, and Marcus Smith wasn’t very good against the Pats. The first-round pick got 73 snaps but didn’t do much with them, which led to the head coach sending him a little message.

“If you're going to play that many plays,” Kelly said, “we're going to need more production out of you.”

He was talking about Smith, but he could have been addressing the entire defense.

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