10 observations from Eagles-Steelers

10 observations from Eagles-Steelers

PITTSBURGH — More big plays from the defense, no big plays from the offense, nothing much of anything from Sam Bradford.
The Eagles improved to 2-0 this preseason with a 17-0 win on Thursday at Heinz Field over a Steelers team playing without most of its stars (see Instant Replay).
Like the Eagles’ 17-9 win over Tampa last week at the Linc, there were some good things — mainly on defense — and some bad things — mainly on offense. And a few really, really bad things. Mainly on offense.
Kenjon Barner, Chase Daniel, Paul Turner, Nelson Agholor, Brandon Graham, Aaron Grymes, Jaylen Watkins? It’s all here.
Welcome to this preseason edition of my 10 instant observations!
1. I wish Mike Tomlin had played Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams for at least a few series Thursday night because it’s tough to truly evaluate the Eagles’ defense against a Steelers’ offense missing every one of its elite playmakers. Yeah, the Eagles’ defense recorded four interceptions, but they were against Landry Jones, who is a borderline pro. On the one hand, you love seeing that sort of aggressive playmaking, especially in the red zone. Nolan Carroll’s pick-six, end-zone INTs by Malcolm Jenkins and Grymes and a fourth INT by Watkins were all encouraging plays. But we need to keep in mind it was Jones throwing the football. Still, more encouraged than not by the first-team defense. It seems to have an aggressive mentality under Jim Schwartz. It's been solid against the run, it hasn't been allowing big plays and it did pitch a shutout Thursday night against an assortment of Steelers starters and backups. The first-team defense still has much to prove against real quarterbacks. But it's playing fast and aggressive, and that’s a good sign.
2. We’re still seeing nothing from the starting offense, and it has just one more chance to figure this out (see story). Since the starters aren’t expected to play in the preseason finale against the Jets on Sept. 1, the first offense has one more chance to come up with some sort of cohesion, some sort of consistency, before opening day against the Browns. That’s a week from Saturday in Indy vs. the Colts. The first offense played just three snaps against Tampa last week, which is the same as not playing at all, and against the Steelers, the unit managed three points and 122 yards in a half against a combination of the Steelers’ first- and second-team defenses. That’s five series and an average of 25 yards per drive. You can’t single out anybody. They’ve all been ineffective. The quarterback, the running back, the receivers, the tight ends, the offensive line. Right now, this is an ineffective offense lacking consistency, explosion and playmaking, and it doesn't have much time to fix it.
3. Focusing specifically on Bradford, he did complete 14 of 19 passes, which is good, but those 19 passes only went 115 yards, which is bad. That’s just six yards per attempt. Yeah, offenses are vanilla right now, yeah, his offensive line is in flux, yeah, he doesn’t have many weapons, but we really haven’t seen Bradford get into a rhythm yet, and that’s a concern. One preseason game to go for him and you really want to see him get the ball down the field against the Colts in Indy next week.
4. Turner has been the Eagles’ second-best wide receiver this preseason, the best if you consider that Jordan Matthews has been out a couple weeks. Turner has done what you hoped Agholor and Josh Huff would do. Make plays. Flash. His highlight-reel one-hander from Daniel for 23 yards to set up a touchdown in the third quarter is the kind of play we’ve been waiting to see Agholor make. Turner is an undrafted rookie free agent from Louisiana Tech, and Agholor is a second-year first-round pick, but Turner is flashing in a way that Agholor hasn’t. This team is desperate for wide receivers. So far, one guy is making plays. Not only does Turner deserve to make the team, he’s quickly showing that he deserves to play.
5. I don’t care if I write this every week, I really like Barner. He just looks like a football player to me. Sometimes you see guys put up big numbers in the preseason but you don’t really expect them to ever carry it over into the regular season. Barner hasn’t done anything since he got here in 2014 to make me think he can’t play in this league. He runs hard, slashes through traffic, has a terrific feel for the defenders around him and is tough enough to run through guys (rushing stats: 7 for 35 vs. the Bucs, 6 for 41 Thursday night). He’s explosive in the return game, picks up the blitz, getting better as a receiver. We all know Ryan Mathews’ injury history. We all know Darren Sproles is a gifted player but not equipped for double-digit carries. We haven’t even seen Wendell Smallwood play yet. It’s pretty clear Barner has to be this team’s No. 2 back. Not only that, he needs to have a role on offense as well.
6. Watkins has shown up in both preseason games. Watkins is an interesting guy. Weird story. The Eagles drafted him in the fourth round in 2014, cut him last September, then signed him off the Bills’ practice squad in November, and he’s been here ever since. Can play some corner, can play some safety. He’s never been a great tackler, but he’s shown enough in coverage and playmaking that he’s going to make it tough to cut him. He’s still only 24 and in a secondary with a lot of unanswered questions, he’s got a chance.
7. While we’re praising young defensive backs, Grymes is another kid who’s put together two solid games in a row. Grymes, like Watkins, had an INT Thursday night in Pittsburgh and has shown the ability to be around the ball. Grymes has three years of CFL experience, but he’s only 25, so he’s got an unusual combination of youth and experience. He’s another one who still has work to do to survive roster cuts, but he’s done some nice things.
8. I don’t know what else to say at this point about Huff and Agholor. You just keep looking and hoping and waiting for the two draft picks to shine and it doesn’t happen. Agholor did have a nice 22-yard catch Thursday night, but he sure hasn’t looked like a special player this preseason, and when you’re the 20th pick in last year’s draft you really should be doing something special at this point. I’m still not ready to give up on him, but with each passing game, I wonder more and more if it’ll ever happen for him.
9. It was nice to see Daniel actually look like a quarterback. After that performance against the Bucs, I was starting to wonder about him. Daniel was an unspectacular but not horrific 10 for 16 for 82 yards in the third quarter and most of the fourth quarter. Hey, small steps. It’s still terrifying to think of him as the No. 2 quarterback, but at least he didn’t embarrass himself out there.
10. Finally, a quick shout out to Brandon Graham, who we haven’t talked about enough. BeeGee, making that switch back from linebacker to defensive end, has had a solid training camp and has had consistently good pressures in the two preseason games. Graham has actually hung in there against the run, too. Graham is the longest-tenured Eagle on the defense, the only holdover from the 2010 team that faced the Packers in the playoffs. Heck, he’s been here so long he was teammates with Stewart Bradley, Quintin Mikell and Ernie Sims. Graham has been a solid player the last few years, but he’s never put together a full season that you’d want from a first-round pick. He’s now playing under his fifth defensive coordinator in seven years, and if anybody can bring out consistency from Graham, it’s Schwartz. So far, Graham looks like a nice fit in Schwartz's scheme. I’m looking for big things this year from Graham.

Eagles-Vikings predictions by our (cough) experts

Eagles-Vikings predictions by our (cough) experts

The Eagles are coming off two straight losses and the slate doesn't get any easier with the 5-0 Vikings coming to town.

It also marks the return of Sam Bradford, who was traded just before Week 1, paving the way for rookie Carson Wentz to start.

The Eagles kick off against Minnesota at the Linc on Sunday at 1 p.m., so it's time for our (cough) experts' predictions for the Week 7 matchup.

Dave Zangaro (2-3)
I'll admit, this game just has a weird feel. It has the feeling like the Eagles might be able to catch the Vikings sleeping after their bye week and hand them their first loss of the season.

I was almost tempted to pick the Birds in this one.

But I'm not.

Ultimately, the Vikings are just the better team. I'm not sure how the Eagles are going to put up points against them. And I'm not convinced the Eagles' defense will be able to stop anyone after what we saw last weekend.

They keep it close, but the Birds fall to 3-3.

Vikings 20, Eagles 17

Derrick Gunn (2-3)
The good news is Minnesota's offense is ranked 30th in the league and the Vikings' run game is dead last averaging 70.6 yards per game. 

The bad news is the Vikings' defense is a monster, ranked 2nd overall and first in points allowed at 12.6.

There is not a weak link in the Vikings' D and they are fundamentally sound across the board. The Eagles' defense vows that what happened to them at Washington — allowing 230 rushing yards — won't happen again. 

Carson Wentz got roughed up by the Redskins' pass rush, and unless the Eagles' offensive line plugs the leaks, more of the same could happen this Sunday. The Birds have every reason to rebound at home, but I just don't like the overall matchup. 

Vikings 20, Eagles 13

Ray Didinger (2-3)
The Vikings aren't going undefeated. You don't go 16-0 in the NFL with a 30th ranked offense which is what the Vikings have. Yes, their defense is very good. Going back to last season they have held each of their last nine opponents to 17 points or less. They are deep, fast and well-coached by Mike Zimmer. But the offense led by Sam Bradford coughs and sputters a lot.
As a result, the Vikings will play a lot of close, low-scoring games and somewhere along the line they are going to lose. It could even happen this week when they play the Eagles. Special teams could be huge. The Eagles have a big edge with kicker Caleb Sturgis. Vikings kicker Blair Walsh has already missed three field goals and two PATs. However, the Vikings return men -- Marcus Sherels on punts, Cordarrelle Patterson on kickoffs -- are very dangerous. I expect the Eagles to keep it close but in the end I have to go with the superior defense.
Vikings 21, Eagles 16

Andrew Kulp (2-3)
Which Eagles defense shows up on Sunday? If they can limit Minnesota's anemic ground attack, which ranks dead last in the NFL, this should be a close game. Sam Bradford is playing really well, but it's not like he's airing it out all over the place.

Then it becomes a question of how Halapoulivaati Vaitai responds to a rough debut. The Vikings pass-rush is fierce, so it doesn't get any easier this week. As long as the protection gives Carson Wentz a chance, that will at least give the rookie signal-caller a shot at making a few big plays.

For some reason, I like their chances at both. It's going to be another ugly one, but the Eagles do just enough to squeak by.

Eagles 20, Vikings 19

Corey Seidman (2-3)
I foresee a low-scoring game in which the Eagles are more competitive than some might think.

But in the end, the Vikings have the personnel and the defensive-minded head coach (Mike Zimmer) to get key stops down the stretch.

Vikings 20, Eagles 16

Andy Schwartz (1-4)
You’re still reading? 

Well good for you. Much appreciated. 

Because clearly I certainly don’t know what to expect from this team. 

But let’s forget all that for the moment and look at the Bradford Bowl. 

The Vikings’ offense is hardly scary (30th in the league in yards per game behind the Rams and Niners), but their defense is (second in yards per game behind Seattle).

The Eagles’ offense is hardly scary (22nd in yards per game), and their defense (sixth in yards per game) was pretty scary a few weeks ago.

So let’s look at the intangibles. Which team needs this game more? The Eagles. And they’re at home. 

But given the outcomes the last two weeks and that Minnesota is unbeaten and coming off a bye, it certainly makes sense to pick the Vikes, who are favored by 2.5.

Then again, the Eagles not too long ago were unbeaten and coming off a bye … and we all know what happened.

So I’ll say the Birds pull off another upset and remain unbeaten at the Linc. 

Just don’t bet on it.

Eagles 6, Vikings 5

Eagles-Vikings Week 7: What they're saying

Eagles-Vikings Week 7: What they're saying

Riding a two-game losing streak, the Eagles (3-2) return home Sunday for the first time in nearly a month and welcome a familiar face to the confines of Lincoln Financial Field. 

Sam Bradford and the Vikings (5-0) will come to Philadelphia fresh off a Week 6 bye and, most notably, as the league's lone unbeaten team. Minnesota boasts one of the league's top defenses, ranking first in points allowed (12.6 per game) and second in yards allowed (287.6 per game), and is looking to improve to 6-0 for the first time since 2009.

The last time these two franchises met was back in December 2013, when Matt Cassell and the Vikings put up 48 points in a win over Chip Kelly's Eagles.

To get a better handle on this year's Vikings, here's what they're saying about the Eagles' Week 7 opponent.

Brian Robison poses yet another challenge for Big V
Making his NFL debut in a start against the Redskins last week, Halapoulivaati Vaitai struggled mightily. Ryan Kerrigan beat Vaitai and got to Carson Wentz for 2½ sacks, all of which came in the first half.

It won't get any easier for the rookie right tackle this week either, as he'll likely be lined up against Brian Robison for most of the afternoon. Robison has four sacks and two forced fumbles on the season and, according to Andrew Krammer of the Star Tribune, the versatile 10-year defensive end could be a difference maker on the defensive side of the ball Sunday.

"Whether his hand is in the turf at left end or he’s standing over a guard or center as the defensive tackle, Robison could be dropping back to cover a tight end or running back," Krammer wrote. "At the line, he’s given responsibilities to call stunts or twists depending on their own play call. Sometimes he’s setting the pick to free another teammate. ... And on Sunday against the Eagles and their rookie right tackle, keep an eye on Robison when he lines up at his traditional spot of left end. All four of his sacks this season, including two strip-sacks, have come from there."

Makeshift offensive line remains a question mark
The Vikings may be undefeated, but by no means are they made up of perfect parts. As the midway point of the NFL season approaches, Minnesota's injury-battered offensive line is still a work in progress. 

Starting tackles Matt Kalil and Andre Smith are both sidelined with season-ending injuries. Starting guard Brandon Fusco suffered a concussion Week 5 against the Texans, but is expected to return against the Eagles. Center is the only position on the line the Vikings haven't had to replace because of an injury at some point this season.

But despite the constant changes up front, Minnesota has been stout overall in protecting the quarterback, allowing eight sacks and 27 quarterback hits across five games. According to Brian Murphy of the Pioneer Press, the performance of that makeshift offensive line is going to be key in the Vikings' potential success down the road. 

"What’s best for Bradford and the Vikings’ standing as the NFC’s top dog is better pass protection," Murphy wrote. "He was sacked twice when Houston defenders turnstiled Clemmings and hit hard in the pocket other times. ... Offensive line intrigue never is a sexy storyline, but how well the Vikings manage the unit week to week figures to be an underlying factor to their continued success."

Strong away from home
The Vikings are a just a few years removed from going winless on the road, finishing 0-7-1 away from home in the 2013 season. Minnesota secured wins in only two of its first 10 away games under the tutelage of Mike Zimmer, but have since gone on a tear.

Minnesota has won seven of its last eight road games dating back to last season and, in their most recent game away from U.S. Bank Stadium, the Vikings took down the Panthers, 22-10, in Week 3. A testament of a true contender is having the ability to win consistently on the road, which holds true with the Vikings.

According to Chris Tomasson of the Pioneer Press, the Vikings' vast improvement over the past two-plus seasons has contributed to them becoming a stronger team away from home.

"Facing a tough opposing crowd once was a tall order for the Vikings, but it’s much less of one now. After being one of the worse road teams in the NFL earlier this decade, they’re now one of the best," Tomasson wrote. "Overall, the Vikings have improved, having gone from 7-9 in 2014 to 11-5 last season to 5-0 this year. That’s the main reason the road record has gotten so much better. Still, players say the continuity the team has had has especially helped when entering rugged road environments."

While Vegas has the Vikings as light favorites on the road, national experts have them heavily favored straight up to hand the Eagles their third straight loss.

ESPN: All nine experts picked the Vikings

CBS Sports: Seven of eight experts picked the Vikings

FOX Sports: Three of five experts picked the Vikings