Philadelphia Eagles

Despite big effort, bench awaits Curry, Graham

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Despite big effort, bench awaits Curry, Graham

CHICAGO -- It seems backwards, doesn’t it?

Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham are two of the Eagles’ best pass rushers, but they both come off the bench. Curry’s four sacks last year ranked third on the defense. Graham, who played in very small doses, had three sacks last season, but Pro Football Focus rated him as one of the best pass-rushing outside 'backers per snap.

Graham and Curry were disruptive forces again in Friday night’s preseason opener against the Bears at Soldier Field (see Instant Replay), with Curry sacking Jordan Palmer and Graham’s pressure leading to an interception.

And both came off the bench.

And they’ll continue coming off the bench.

In a game that’s all about the quarterback -- and the guys who hit quarterbacks -- the Eagles are keeping ceilings on two of their most promising quarterback-hitting weapons. This is team that ranked 31st last year in sacks per pass attempt against them.

“We’ll see,” Curry said. “Right now, it don't matter what it is. My thing is, man, when I step on the field I want to help my team win and just keep showing I’m a key player.”

It was impossible not to notice the difference in defensive intimidation when the second unit replaced the first against the Bears.

The starters barely touched Jay Cutler, who converted three 3rd-and-longs on a 13-play, 69-yard touchdown drive in the first. Cutler completed 7 of 10 passes on the drive for 80 yards and connected with tight end Zach Miller (not the former Raider and Seahawk) on a 10-yard touchdown on 3rd-and-7.

Then Cutler left, Palmer entered, the Eagles subbed in their second team and suddenly the complexion of the game turned.

On the very first play of the second quarter, Curry barreled through scrimmage and ransacked Palmer on 3rd-and-8 for an eight-yard loss. On the Bears’ next possession, Graham bolted around left tackle Michael Ola and clobbered Palmer as the quarterback heaved a pass downfield that wound up in Nate Allen’s hands.

Strangely, when asked about his second string’s effort, coach Chip Kelly mentioned rookie Beau Allen and practice squad incumbent Brandon Bair as two guys who stood out. He called Allen a “disruptive force” and said Bair seemed to be “flying around.”

Graham and Curry?

When asked about them, Kelly said he needed to see the tape.

“There was one time they didn’t block Vinny at all,” Kelly said. “A couple of times they let a couple of guys come free. Travis Long, they called him hitting the quarterback in the head, but he was unblocked on a couple plays.

“There was one play I think Brandon and Vinny were in the backfield after the snap, I don’t think either of them got touched, but it could have been a move by them. I’ll have to check that out.”

Curry’s personal scouting report seemed slightly more enthusiastic.

“I feel like I was awesome,” the third-year pro said. “For the most part I felt like technique was really, really good. I think I played really hard, but I also think the whole unit played hard.”

Graham said his pressures were a byproduct of having Kevin Greene, a five-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker who played 15 NFL seasons, helping out the coaches this past week in camp.

“It’s definitely a good feeling,” Graham said. “I wish I could have sacked [Palmer], (caused a) fumble. But it was still was a turnover, no matter what.”

No matter how well they play this preseason, Graham and Curry probably won’t get any closer to the starting lineup. Curry is behind defensive ends Cedric Thornton, an outstanding run defender, and 2012 first-round pick Fletcher Cox. Graham is stuck behind veterans Trent Cole and Connor Barwin.

But if they keep hitting quarterbacks, it’ll be hard to keep them off the field on all passing downs.

“I don't want to get ahead of myself,” Graham said. “I’m trying to go harder than I was last year. Consistency is the big thing with me. If I can stay consistent … I’ve got a spot. It’s just all about me staying consistent.”

Former teammate Jay Cutler thinks Alshon Jeffery will be just fine

Former teammate Jay Cutler thinks Alshon Jeffery will be just fine

For the last few weeks, there has been plenty of talk about Alshon Jeffery. He was hurt, then Doug Pederson kept him out and then his position coach said he was behind (see story).
 
Turns out, all everyone needed was just a little Jay Cutler perspective on the whole situation.
 
Cutler, in his typical Jay Cutler fashion, said on Monday that he wouldn't be worried at all about Jeffery.
 
"He'll be fine," said Cutler, who was teammates with Jeffery for five seasons in Chicago before joining the Dolphins this summer. "Obviously, I don't know what's going on here, I don't know where he is in the system, what his production's been like.
 
"As long as he's healthy, he's going to produce. He's going to go out there, he's a pro. He knows football, he's got a great feel, great instincts. If he's healthy, that wouldn't be a guy I'd worry about."
 
Cutler and the Dolphins are in town early for this Thursday's preseason game at the Linc and are having joint practices with the Eagles on Monday and Tuesday. Obviously, a big topic of conversation with Cutler was about his former teammate.
 
So a few questions later, Cutler was again asked about him.
 
"You guys are worried about Alshon," Cutler said jokingly. "He's going to be fine. What's going on? Is something going on that I don't know about?"
 
It was explained to Cutler that Jeffery missed some practice time during camp after hurting his shoulder. 
 
"Well, he had a shoulder injury," Cutler said. "What do you want him to do?"
 
Jeffery, who signed a one-year deal to join the Eagles this offseason, played in the Eagles' second preseason game after missing the first. And on Monday, he probably had his best practice since joining the team (see 10 observations).
 
Dolphins head coach and former Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase has said Jeffery is the only player he's ever coached that had him feel comfortable enough to tell his quarterback to just throw it up even if he isn't open.
 
Carson Wentz is still building that type of chemistry with Jeffery, but Cutler remembers what it was like to have a target like that.
 
"You just throw it," Cutler said. "You just throw it out there and he'll make it right. You get a guy like that 1-on-1, you can back shoulder him, you can put him over the top. It's hard to cover a guy like that and I'm sure Carson and some of these quarterbacks have witnessed his ability to catch the back shoulder balls and get on top of guys as well."
 
Jeffery is two years removed from his last 1,000-yard season, but the Eagles are really hoping he can regain the form that led to back-to-back seasons with at least 85 catches and 1,100 yards in 2013 and 2014. Cutler, of course, was his quarterback then.
 
And he still thinks his former teammate has it.
 
"Obviously, he's had a shoulder injury," Cutler said. "He had some injuries for us (the Bears) that were speed bumps for him. But when he's healthy and he's rolling, he's one of the best out there."

Wendell Smallwood ready for his 'chance to take it' in Eagles' next preseason game

Wendell Smallwood ready for his 'chance to take it' in Eagles' next preseason game

Don't give that fourth running back spot to Corey Clement just yet.

Wendell Smallwood isn't going to go down quietly.

Smallwood, the Eagles' second-year running back from West Virginia, is back practicing with no restrictions after missing nearly two weeks with a hamstring injury.

Smallwood has yet to play in a preseason game, and with undrafted rookie Clement acquitting himself well both at practice and in the first couple preseason games, the pressure is on Smallwood to produce soon to secure a roster spot.

“It was real frustrating," Smallwood said after practice Monday. "Just missing those reps, missing two straight preseason games, not being able to get better. You get better with those game reps and those practice reps, so I think I need to start taking advantage of every one I have."

Smallwood got hurt two weeks ago Monday, and although he returned on a limited basis last week, Monday's practice with the Dolphins was his first with no restrictions since he got hurt.

He looked good. He looked fast and physical. And he said he finally feels 100 percent.

“I think so," he said. "I feel good. Today I forgot about it. Wasn’t even thinking about the injury. Didn’t think twice about cuts, running, bursting, anything like that. I think I got it back.

"It’s a huge relief just because last week practicing I could sense that it was still there and I was still kind of thinking about it, and the coaches could sense it, so being this week, I’m full go, it’s not bothering me. You could see I got some of my burst back. I’m good."

Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Monday that Smallwood is more of an every-down back than he first realized.

"You know, I think Wendell is a true three-down back," he said. "When we first drafted him, I kind of looked at him as more like a first- and second-down back. I thought he would be OK on third down, but really he's turned out to be better on third down than I thought.

"So really I think he is a very versatile back who knows protections very well, who runs good routes, who catches the ball well. And then I think he's a slashing runner on first and second down, so we like that combination. He's done very well. He works very hard at it. Love him mentally, and really glad he's in the mix."

Smallwood played well early last year before he admittedly got out of shape, hurt his knee and wound up on injured reserve.

He ran for 79 yards against the Steelers and 70 against the Falcons — the Eagles' two biggest wins of the year — before fading later in the season.

He said learning how to work through an injury is an important lesson for a young NFL player.

"I’m definitely more equipped in my second year getting hurt than my first year because I dealt with it differently," he said. "I let it get to me a lot and kind of shied away from the game, but this year I got more into the game.

“It was frustrating, but I stayed into the game plan, stayed in my playbook, [and] I didn’t let it get to me. I stayed dialed in. It was frustrating to me, but I know what I can do and I know what I’m capable of. I’m right back out here and I’m ready to go, and I’m full go."

Much has been made of the Eagles' struggles running the ball this preseason.

LeGarrette Blount is averaging 1.9 yards on nine carries, rookie fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey has two yards on seven carries, Clement and Byron Marshall are both averaging under 4.0 yards per carry, and Darren Sproles and Smallwood haven't gotten any carries.

As a group, the Eagles' running backs are averaging 2.4 yards per carry.

The Eagles finish the preseason against the Dolphins at the Linc Thursday — the first offense is expected to play into the third quarter — and at the Meadowlands against the Jets, when most starters won't paly.

Smallwood knows people are already questioning the Eagles' running game.

“We sense it, we hear it, but like Doug (Pederson) said, we’re not going to overreact, we’re not going to underreact," he said. "It’s preseason, we’re going to get better at it, we know what we’re capable of doing. We’re not going to let it get to us that much.

“This game is going to be the one where we dial up the run and show how we can run the ball."

And it needs to be the game that Smallwood does the same thing.

“I’m definitely very hungry," he said. "I missed a lot of reps and missed a lot of game reps that could have made me better. So this is my chance to take it and go full throttle.

“It’s the game, man. It’s my welcome home party. I’m back on the field, going to go out there, I'm going to get some plays, I’m going to get some runs, going to get some passes. It’s real important for me."

Smallwood finished last year with a 4.1 rushing average, becoming only the fourth Eagles rookie running back to rush for 300 yards with an average of 4.0 or more in the last 35 years (also Correll Buckhalter, LeSean McCoy and Bryce Brown).

And he felt before the injury he had come a long way from his rookie year.

“I definitely think I took that step," he said. "From last year to this year, I took that leap that I needed, and I think just my running, I was more dialed in, my shoulder pads were getting low, I was running through people instead of trying to run around. I wasn’t thinking so much. I was just playing with confidence.

"Now I’ve just got to do it Thursday night — and every day we’re out here at practice."