Despite big effort, bench awaits Curry, Graham

ap-eagles-brandon-graham.jpg

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.”

Eagles-Steelers predictions by our (cough) experts

Eagles-Steelers predictions by our (cough) experts

This isn't the Browns or the Bears.

This is a legitimate Super Bowl contender with an elite offense and a defense that will test Carson Wentz.

So how will the Eagles fare against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday afternoon? Our (cough) expert predictions on the Birds' Week 3 matchup.

Reuben Frank (2-0)
I think the Eagles will acquit themselves well. I think they’ll play a solid, competitive game against one of the NFL’s elite teams, and when the fourth quarter rolls around, they’ll be right there. I also think they’ll lose, but you didn’t think they were going 16-0, did you?

This is an intriguing test for the Eagles, who are sky high after wins over the Browns and Bears. But the Steelers have too much firepower for the Eagles to handle. And it’s not just Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, a Hall of Fame quarterback and all-pro receiver. Sammie Coates has only four catches but 153 yards. DeAngelo Williams leads the NFL in rushing. Five Steelers have at least one catch of 20 yards (the Eagles only have two guys with a 20-yard catch). And despite allowing almost 400 yards per game, the Steelers have given up just two touchdowns in wins over the Redskins and Bengals.

If the Eagles lose this one, they’re still a surprising 2-1 going into the bye with winnable games looming against the Lions and Redskins. If they win? They’re going to the freaking Super Bowl. But I just think they’re not quite ready for this challenge.

Steelers 24, Eagles 20

Dave Zangaro (2-0)
The Eagles are off to a great start, but I just don't see them pulling this one out.

Pittsburgh isn't just tougher than Cleveland and Chicago. The Steelers might be the best team in the NFL. They're dynamic on offense, even without Le'Veon Bell, and their defense should be something unlike Carson Wentz has seen in his first two games. 

I don't think it will be an absolute blowout and this is certainly a more intriguing game than it was a few weeks ago. But I just can't pick the Eagles in this one. 

Steelers 31, Eagles 24

Derrick Gunn (2-0)
Playing the Browns and Bears were the perfect warmups for the Eagles. Now, they'll face who many experts are picking to represent the AFC in this year's Super Bowl, the Steelers.

This is a team that is loaded on offense with future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger running the show. Antonio Brown is one of the most dangerous receivers in the game. Wide receiver Sammie Coates is averaging 38.3 yards per catch, and wideout Markus Wheaton, who missed the first two games with a shoulder injury, is expected to be available for this one. And they have 6-foot-7 tight end Jesse James.

DeAngelo Williams leads the league in rushing. The Steelers' defense is allowing 16 points per game, and will come after a young Carson Wentz, who's been brilliant in his first two outings.

Because the Steelers' D is giving up just 50.5 yards per game rushing, the Birds' offense may have to pass more than they want to. This is a tough matchup any way you look at it for the Eagles, especially with tight end Zach Ertz sitting this one out.

On any given Sunday anything can happen, but not this week.

Steelers 27, Eagles 17

Ray Didinger (2-0)
The Eagles have enjoyed success against the Steelers over the years, especially in Philadelphia. The last time the Steelers visited the Linc for a regular season game, the Eagles won a tough defensive battle, 14-6, with Brian Dawkins sealing the victory with a strip sack in the final minutes. In 1979, the Steelers were defending Super Bowl champs, but the Eagles upset them at the Vet, 17-14, when Franco Harris lost a fumble at the 1-yard line.
 
The Steelers haven't won a regular season game here since 1965. It is a good stat, but I'm not sure it has much relevance in this week's matchup. The Steelers are a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Ben Roethlisberger leads the NFL with six touchdown passes and running back DeAngelo Williams leads the league in rushing. Give the Eagles credit for winning their first two games and Carson Wentz is justly the talk of the league, but the Steelers are a huge step up in class from the Browns and Bears.
 
Steelers 24, Eagles 17

Andrew Kulp (2-0)
I can envision a way where this is a close game and the Eagles even win. It's not that far-fetched to think will continue to have success this week because Ben Roethlisberger is a different quarterback on the road, tossing five touchdowns to nine interceptions in six games last season. If they limit the Steelers' offense, Carson Wentz might be able to hit just enough big plays against the 31st-ranked secondary to pull off the upset.

As much as I believe that scenario is possible, it's difficult to pick a rookie quarterback over a Super Bowl contender. The Eagles will limit the Steelers' offense, but Wentz is going to see more complicated looks from the defense and maybe make some real mistakes for the first time. If I'm wrong, and Wentz performs the way he has the previous two weeks, there's a chance the end result is a victory — that's just awfully hard to predict.

Steelers 17, Eagles 16

Corey Seidman (2-0)
I foresee the Eagles have trouble covering Antonio Brown, who scores an early TD, before selling out against him and opening up running lanes for DeAngelo Williams.

Even if Carson Wentz leads the Eagles to points on their opening drive for a third straight game, I expect him to struggle unless the offensive line plays lights out (looking at you, Jason Kelce). 

Predicting Wentz throws his first interception and the Eagles lose to a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Steelers 27, Eagles 17

Andy Schwartz (1-1)
Well, guess I overestimated the Bears. 

But be thankful I did, because you know what happens when all of us pick the Eagles. 

They lose. 

Granted, we all picked the Eagles to beat Cleveland, but the Browns are so bad the rule doesn’t apply to them.

And the Bears don’t seem much better.

Not to take anything away from the Eagles’ victory. They won handily on the road on Monday Night Football and did so with a rookie quarterback making just his second career start. 

But still. The Bears were no benchmark for the Birds.

The Steelers, as Doug Pederson said, are.

And as much attention as we want to place on Carson Wentz, this game very well could come down to the Eagles’ defense, which as much as Wentz is responsible for their 2-0 record.

Ben Roethlisberger > Jay Cutler. Antonio Brown > Alshon Jeffery. D’Angelo Williams > Jeremy Langford. 

The Steelers are a Super Bowl contender. Right now they have the second-best odds in the league, behind the Patriots, who just trashed the Texans.

I’m on the Wentz Wagon. I like the Birds’ D. I’m just not ready to predict a W over the Steelers.

Steelers 30, Eagles 23

Visit TicketIQ to discover the lowest prices on Eagles tickets anywhere, zone-level ticket data and seat views from fans just like you!”

Stephen Tulloch's snaps can give Jordan Hicks a breather

Stephen Tulloch's snaps can give Jordan Hicks a breather

On Monday night, when the Chicago Bears’ offense got onto the field late in the third quarter at their 24-yard line, down 22-7, Jordan Hicks was a spectator. 

The Eagles’ starting middle linebacker stood on the sideline with his helmet propped up on his head as veteran 31-year-old Stephen Tulloch came out in his place. 

When asked why, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was coy. 

“It was a coaching decision,” Schwartz said Thursday. “He made a big hit on that play. Just leave it at that.” 

When pressed about Tulloch’s role going forward, Schwartz said he didn’t know and then that he isn’t big on talking about who is going to play in which package or how much. 

“I'm sorry, it's not that I'm trying to keep stuff from you,” Schwartz said. “I just feel like that's stuff that's best for the opponent to figure out on Sunday.”

Tulloch played well on that series late in the third quarter and early in the fourth, where he picked up a few of his 12 defensive snaps. He had a big hit on Alshon Jeffery after a first down and would have probably scooped up a fumble if cornerback Ron Brooks didn’t beat him to it first. 

He played well, but it was still a curious decision. Hicks isn’t just the Eagles’ starting MIKE linebacker, he’s one of the biggest defensive playmakers the team has. 

“That’s the rotation that they’ve put in place,” Hicks said. “Tully’s a great player. They like that rotation, they like putting him in, letting him get a feel for the game as well. For me, no, I mean, when I’m getting in a groove, going out a series doesn’t necessarily hurt me at all. Once I get into it, I’m locked in.”

Could the breaks actually help him?  

“Absolutely,” he said. “Especially if I’m rotating in on special teams here or there. No question.”

Tulloch was signed shortly before the season began after seventh-round pick Joe Walker suffered a torn ACL. The veteran already knew Schwartz’s defense inside and out upon his arrival, after playing under Schwartz in Tennessee and Detroit.  

Tulloch wouldn’t say if he expects his role to increase, decrease or stay the same. But he did say he enjoyed playing his first defensive snaps as an Eagle on Monday. And he understands the value he can have as a backup player who gives the starter a chance to rest. 

“I think that’s just the way the game is now,” Tulloch said. “A lot of guys play special teams and on defense as well. Whenever you can give a guy a blow to keep him fresh. It’s a long season, as you know, playing week in and week out. It’s a lot of wear and tear on the body, so whenever you give guys a breather, especially guys that understand the defense and there’s no let-off. Try to get them a little breather and get them back out there.” 

Starting WILL linebacker Mychal Kendricks, who has been the odd man out in the team’s nickel package, is questionable heading into Sunday’s game against the Steelers with a broken nose and quad contusion. 

There’s also been some outside thought the team could, at times, put Tulloch in the game at MIKE and slide Hicks to WILL if Kendricks begins to struggle. Hicks said he’s worked at the WILL, as well as the SAM, for depth purposes and could play there if need be. 

For now, though, Hicks is the starter and Tulloch is a capable backup off the bench, who looked pretty good in limited action against the Bears. 

“He looked like an 11-year vet,” Hicks said. “He’s played a lot of football. I’m sure when you get to that point, it doesn’t take much to just fall back on who you are and who you’ve always been and all those games you’ve played before.”

Visit TicketIQ to discover the lowest prices on Eagles tickets anywhere, zone-level ticket data and seat views from fans just like you!”