Long, strange journeys for Braman and Maragos

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Long, strange journeys for Braman and Maragos

They were introduced together. One is tall and big and has long sand-colored hair and a growth of scruffy beard covering his face. The other is short and stocky and arrived with a fresh shave and a tight haircut. It was somewhat startling to see them standing there next to each other -- not because of how physically different they are, but because of the long odds they both beat to make it that far.

On Thursday, the Eagles introduced two new free-agent acquisitions: special teamers Bryan Braman and Chris Maragos. The Eagles signed Braman to a two-year deal and Maragos to a three-year contract. Braman, who was with Houston, hopes to see some snaps at linebacker. Maragos, who was with Seattle, would like to compete for the Eagles' ever-uncertain safety situation. At the least, both figure to play heavily on special teams. Considering the disparate but equally difficult paths they've traveled as football players, that is remarkable.

We will start with Braman, who is a hulk of a man (6-foot-5, 241 pounds) in a long line of them (he said his grandfather was 7-foot-4, 365 pounds). Out of high school, he played a year of football for the University of Idaho.

“Unfortunately,” Braman said, “I didn’t realize you had to go to class and get good grades in order to play football. I had to learn that the hard way.”

He took some time off after that. Braman said he comes from a “humble, blue-collar” family, and so he got a humble, blue-collar job making concrete railroad ties for a company called CXT. He lasted about three months.

“It was backbreaking work for $10 an hour, and it was about 75 hours a week,” Braman said. “I decided I deserved an education over a broken back.”

Braman returned to school and played two years at Long Beach City College. From there, he jumped to the Texas panhandle and landed at West Texas A&M.

“Unfortunately, my senior year, got into some trouble,” Braman said. “There were some character issues that people were questioning coming out my senior year.”

Braman was kicked out of West Texas A&M and later pled guilty to misdemeanor possession of psilocybin (halucinogenic mushrooms). He paid a $2,000 fine and the prosecutor terminated the one-year probation after 30 days, but the initial damage was done. He went undrafted and worked as a bouncer in Amarillo and College Station, Texas. He was also an Abercrombie & Fitch model for a while before the Texans called and offered him a job.

“That’s why Houston sits close to my heart,” Braman said, “because they did kind of give me a shot when no one else was batting an eyelash.”

The 26-year-old became a special teams monster with Houston and was named a Pro Bowl alternate two years ago. He had 31 special teams tackles with the Texans, including one that became a YouTube sensation when he made a crushing hit without the benefit of his helmet. Braman -- who said he once accidently tackled a fire hydrant with his face while playing playground football with his mom’s ex-boyfriend -- said he “wouldn’t advise” making a tackle without headgear. Those kinds of stories are why Donnie Jones, who played with Braman in Houston, called him a “war daddy” for his “will-sacrifice-body mentality.”

“It was a long road,” Braman said, “but I ended up where I wanted to be.”

Maragos managed to avoid backbreaking labor and mushroom possession and face collisions with fire hydrants, but his path wasn’t much easier. Maragos, who is listed at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, didn’t receive any recruiting attention coming out of high school. Western Michigan gave him a chance to walk on, and he spent two years there before sending a Facebook message to Luke Swan, a receiver at Wisconsin who was also a walk-on. Maragos asked Swan to look at his tape and bring it to the head coach. Swan obliged.

Maragos got a call, transferred, walked on, and switched to defense for the Badgers. He became a team captain for Wisconsin and was put on scholarship in his fifth year. Then he went undrafted. Maragos signed with the 49ers in 2010. He spent the last three years in Seattle where he played 43 games for the Seahawks and earned a Super Bowl ring. Maragos played 51 snaps on defense for Seattle this past season but was on the field for 80 percent of the special teams reps.

“It was kind of real similar,” Maragos said about the unlikely way he and Braman ended up with NFL careers. “And here we are today.”

Eagles-Steelers 5 things: The battle for Wentz-ylvania

Eagles-Steelers 5 things: The battle for Wentz-ylvania

Eagles (2-0) vs. Steelers (2-0)
4:25 p.m. on CBS
Eagles +3.5

The Eagles look to jump out to a 3-0 start in 2016 but face their toughest test yet Sunday when they host the unbeaten Steelers, a trendy Super Bowl pick this year.

So far, the Eagles have defeated a pair of opponents still in search of their first win, raising questions as to just how good they really are. A victory over Pittsburgh, or even a close game, would legitimize some of their early success.

1. The battle for Wentz-ylvania
Carson Wentz isn't playing merely for an Eagles victory this week. The 23-year-old out of North Dakota State is already chasing history in just his third NFL game.

With a win over the Steelers on Sunday, Wentz could become just the second rookie quarterback ever to guide his team to a 3-0 start. The other? Mark Sanchez, who guided the Jets all the way to the AFC Conference Championship Game in 2009.

Of course, beating the Browns and the Bears is one thing. Beating the Ben Roethlisberger-led Steelers in the battle for Pennsylvania is quite another.

Don't let Pittsburgh's 31st-ranked pass defense and Wentz's performance through two games fool you into thinking he should be able to throw on this secondary with ease. The Steelers are going to play things differently than the Eagles' previous two opponents, using far more zone coverage and trying a lot more disguise their intentions pre-snap.

If Wentz excels against this defense too, that should serve to quiet some of the skeptics — they're out there — not to mention put another feather in the young signal-caller's cap.

2. Who's got Roethlisberger?
In order for Wentz to even have a chance at making more history, the Eagles' defense will have to hold up its end of the bargain against one of the most potent offenses in the NFL. Roethlisberger has this unit firing on all cylinders, ranked eighth in the NFL in yards per game (405.5) and fourth in points (31.0).

Roethlisberger was always tough to bring down. Nowadays, even pressuring the 13-year veteran isn't easy because he gets rid of the ball so quickly. For much of his career though, he was among the most sacked quarterbacks in the league, yet even then getting to him and getting him on the ground was two different animals.

It's telling there's only one member of the Eagles' defense who has ever sacked Roethlisberger in a regular season game. That would be Connor Barwin, who once wrestled Big Ben to the turf while a member of the Texans in 2011.

Now many Eagles players — especially those along the defensive line — have faced Roethlisberger only one time in the regular season, or never. Regardless, the fact is only one person in that locker room has ever taken the man down in a meaningful game, so when Fletcher Cox or Brandon Graham finally do get their shot, it remains to be seen if they'll be able to finish the play.

3. Antonio Brown, meet Jalen Mills
You can't talk about the Steelers and not mention Antonio Brown, who improbably has become the best wide receiver in the NFL over the past few years. Since 2013, the four-time Pro Bowler has 389 receptions for 5,169 yards and 33 touchdowns. Remarkable.

Brown should have plenty of opportunities to add to his prolific totals against the Eagles' questionable cornerbacks Sunday. Nolan Carroll is a solid veteran coming off an ankle injury last season, but he had a rough 2016 debut against the Browns in Week 1, getting beat twice on deep passes. Then last week, seventh-round rookie Jalen Mills saw his most extensive action and was caught biting on a double move that resulted in a big 49-yard gain against the Bears.

It was Cleveland and Chicago, two offenses currently incapable of consistently hitting those kinds of plays, but not Pittsburgh. If the Eagles allow Brown to go one-on-one against these cornerbacks, the seventh-year wideout could eat them alive.

If Brown is matched up up on Mills specifically, it would result in some on-the-job training for the 22-year-old. To his credit, Mills has exceeded expectations by even getting on the field in his first season and has played the game without fear. But when he's lining up against Brown, it might help to have some.

4. Time on the Eagles' side
Maybe there is something to controlling the clock after all. After finishing dead last in time of possession for three years in a row under coach Chip Kelly, through two weeks the Eagles are leading the league in the category, averaging nearly 38 minutes per game on offense.

Is it any coincidence they're 2-0?

Yes, to an extent. While three of the top four teams in time of possession in 2015 made it to at least the divisional round of the playoffs (Seattle, Arizona, Carolina), the No. 1 team in the NFL last year was the Falcons, who went 8-8, and rounding out the top five was the 3-13 Chargers.

That being said, there's no denying that ball control has aided Wentz immensely. Doing something as small as sticking with the run keeps the offense on schedule to convert on third and fourth down. It can also help the quarterback and shorten the game. It helps the defense stay fresh too since they aren't constantly on the field.

The offense still has to make those conversions though to keep the football, and the defense has to makes stops on third down as well, which the Eagles have done well — seventh-best in the NFL. Time of possession is typically a byproduct of those two things, but not necessarily a big indicator of success.

5. Pittsburgh hates Philly
There may be a rivalry among the cities' sports fans, but these two teams meet only once every four years. And the Steelers are probably happy keeping it that way.

Meetings between the two teams have gone decidedly in the Eagles' favor, with a 17-9-2 record against Pittsburgh since 1960. However, it's particularly in Philadelphia where the Steelers have struggled for whatever reason, with eight consecutive road losses in the series going back to 1966.

With a sample size that small and so much turnover every year, let alone dating back to the '60s, it's hard to put a lot of stock in these records. Both teams have retained only a handful of players since their last clash in 2012, so it shouldn't be predictive of anything.

Yet games between the Steelers and Eagles historically tend to be on the low-scoring side and close, and Pittsburgh doesn't fare well in doesn't play well in Philly. We'll see if any of those trends are broken on Sunday.

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Eagles-Steelers: 5 matchups to watch

Eagles-Steelers: 5 matchups to watch

As far as measuring sticks go, this ought to be a pretty good one. 

Over the first two weeks of the season, the Eagles have beaten the Cleveland Browns and the Chicago Bears. It’s not their fault the schedule lined up two of the NFL’s worst teams to start the season. And they did what they needed to, beating bad teams. 

But the Steelers are a different animal. They might be the best team in the entire league. 

Here’s a look at five important matchups for Sunday’s game. 

Antonio Brown vs. Jalen Mills 
Against Alshon Jeffery, the rookie seventh-rounder gave up one big play, but then actually held his own. A new week brings a new challenge for the rookie. 

With Leodis McKelvin still out with a hamstring injury, the Eagles will go with Nolan Carroll, Mills and Ron Brooks. With a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, Mills should expect to be tested early and often, especially if he’s on Brown.

How good is Brown? 

Well, since 2013, he leads the league with 387 receptions and 5,196 yards. The next closest player in both categories is Demaryius Thomas with 317 catches and 4,491 yards.

Brown’s worst season in the last three came in 2013, when he caught 110 passes for 1,499 yards. The Eagles have never had a receiver put up those numbers in a season. In fact, Brown has three of the 21 such seasons in NFL history. 

Good luck, rookie. 

Ben Roethlisberger vs. Eagles' D-line
Jay Cutler is a pretty good NFL quarterback. Roethlisberger is going to be a Hall of Famer one day. 

Roethlisberger can carve up a secondary, but a lot of that is because of his ability to extend plays in the pocket. No one moves better in the pocket or is harder to bring down than Big Ben.

While Roethlisberger is tough to bring down, he does get sacked quite a bit. His 441 sacks rank him eighth all time. But last year, he had his lowest number ever at just 20 sacks and he's been taken down just twice in two games in 2016. 

The key for the Eagles' defensive linemen is to be aware that a leg tackle isn't going to stop Big Ben. They have to go at his torso to bring him down and it won't be easy.

DeAngelo Williams vs. Eagles' D
Plenty of people thought the Eagles were getting a break by avoiding Le’Veon Bell because of his suspension. While Bell might be the best back in the league, his backup DeAngelo Williams is leading the league in rushing at 33 years old. 

The one thing that stands out about Williams is his patience. The key for the Eagles to stop him will be discipline staying in their gaps. 

Kenjon Barner, who was a teammate of Williams’ in Carolina, remembered a saying Williams used often: “Slow to, fast through.” That’s the way Williams runs … slow to the hole, then he explodes. The Eagles have to be there to stop him. 

Carson Wentz vs. Ryan Shazier 
Through two games and 71 pass attempts, Wentz hasn’t thrown an interception. It’s a huge reason why the Eagles are 2-0. 

The rookie has to be mindful of Steelers middle linebacker Ryan Shazier on Sunday afternoon. Shazier is deceptively fast in coverage. It might not look like he’s going to make a play, then he’ll undercut a route for a pass breakup or an interception. Wentz would be wise to know where he is. 

Cameron Heyward vs. Allen Barbre
Heyward is probably one of the more underrated members of the Steelers. He’s a former first-round pick who has never made a Pro Bowl, but is very disruptive. 

Heyward had seven sacks in 2015 and was tied among all 3-4 defensive ends with 44 quarterback hurries, according to ProFootballFocus. He already has seven QB hurries in 2016.

Through the first two games, Heyward has primarily lined up on the right side of the line, which means Barbre will be the guy responsible for him Sunday afternoon. Barbre has played pretty well through two weeks of the 2016 season.

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