Thursday night (or very early Friday morning for those of us in the UK) saw the Philadelphia Eagles play the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Super Bowl champions were defeated 31-14. Whilst many of the starters for both teams were absent, it felt good to have football back again. There were also a lot of interesting storylines that emerged.
One thing that was different was the All-Pro play of Fletcher Cox. He dominated the Steelers defence. He completely destroyed All-Pro first-team right guard David DeCastro. Cox showed teams have to gameplan for him. Men that big aren’t supposed to chase down runners on screen plays!
Preseason is the time when teams start to get a feel for how their incoming draft picks hold up in live action against real opposition. For the Eagles, this first look at their rookie tight end, Dallas Goedert, was very encouraging. Goedert looked impressive as a receiver as he plucked 4 balls from the air for 66 yards, including a crowd-pleasing touchdown. Perhaps more importantly, he looked a willing blocker.
Corey Clement showed that last year’s success wasn’t a flash in the pan. He turned 5 carries into 30 as a runner, looking as quick and physical as ever. Clement also added 2 receptions. A new role for Clement resulted in a 13-yard punt return which he had to beg coaches for. I love watching Clement play. He’s a determined runner who excels as a pass catcher out of the backfield (as his 100 yards in the Super Bowl attests).
Clement was last year’s undrafted success story and the Eagles gave former Notre Dame runner Josh Adams a significant $25,000 signing bonus back in April in the hope they can repeat the feat. Adams ran for 1,430 yards, averaged 6.9 yards per carry in 2017, and looked like he could compete at the next level in this match. He showed good speed and vision, caught the ball well and was praised by coach Pederson for his good blocking. He finished with 30 yards rushing on 6 attempts and also added 11 yards on 2 receptions.
Why’s it important how Adams played? Clement, Jay Ajayi and returning veteran Darren Sproles are all locks to make the team. He missed the majority of OTAs and was buried on the depth chart as a result. With Matt Jones and Donnel Pumphrey out for the game, he and Wendell Smallwood could have improved their standing. I think that Adams did but Smallwood had a fumble to go along with his 21 yards rushing and 2 receiving. That’s not good for a veteran playing against backups!
The Eagles didn’t dress their top three receivers (Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Mike Wallace) and Markus Wheaton was also inactive for the game. This gave some of the younger players their shot in the limelight. Shelton Gibson struggled with confidence as a rookie last year after he dropped a boatload of passes. Whilst he wasn’t perfect in this one, he showed there is hope in year 2 as he snagged an impressive 63-yard TD pass. He finished the day with 77 yards on 2 catches. Gibson’s speed makes him extremely dangerous and he showed receiving and on kickoff returns, where he averaged 27 yards per return.
Watching the backups along the offensive line was a mixed bag. I thought that another rookie, Matt Pryor, looked competent as a blocker and so did Isaac Seumalo. Seumalo fell out of favour whilst playing guard last year and has transitioned to being the backup center this season. However, his downfall was snapping. This is an area he has been working on, but we still saw one snap kill a drive when it sailed over the QBs head. Needless to say, he’ll continue to work on this.
Starting your first NFL game must be pretty daunting at the best of times. Spare a thought for mammoth 7th round rookie, Jordan Mailata. His first NFL game was also his first ever football game. Ever. It’s a good job Jordan is resilient, as he gave up a strip sack on his first play. He progressed as the games went on and had some solid blocks, but is still a long way off being a serviceable tackle. Mailata‘s best chance at the moment is as a practice player. He needs as much game time with the third and fourth stringers as possible.
The cornerbacks were disappointing at times. Rasul Douglas, Sidney Jones and Avonte Maddox gave up several big plays and showed poor positioning on jump balls. Douglas, in particular, looked a feast or famine player, allowing two touchdown catches sandwiched between a highlight reel interception. One corner who really helped himself was De’Vante Bausby. Bausby looked good in coverage but seemed to stumble on what should have been a pretty simple tackle.
That brings me on to my final observation – tackling. It will be a big issue for every team in the league early on in the season. For those of you not aware, the NFL changed the tackling rule this year. These new tackling rules will take a while to get used to, as highlighted by Sidney Jones tackle (and resulting flag) on what was otherwise a pretty good play. If Jones had just have looked up it’s unlikely he’d have been flagged! (For those interested, the rule change is covered in Rule 12, section 2, Article 8. USE OF THE HELMET.)