Eagles-Steelers: What did we learn?

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The Eagles' Jaylen Watkins intercepts the ball after he and teammate Aaron Grymes (right) had double coverage on Pittsburgh's Eli Rogers during the second quarter in a preseason game Thursday, Aug. 18, 2016 in Pittsburgh.

PITTSBURGH -- The Eagles shut out the Steelers, 17-0, on Thursday night in their second preseason game. Here are 10 things we learned:

1. Jim Schwartz’s defense might be legitimately good. The Steelers were without four of their best offensive weapons, so any enthusiasm about the Eagles defense should be tempered with the fact that Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams didn’t play a single down at Heinz Field. But for the second week in a row, Schwartz’s units forced more than four turnovers, had more than three sacks, and held an opposing offense to fewer than 10 points. That’s domination no matter who is on the field, no matter the inconsequence of the game. The second of four interceptions – Malcolm Jenkins reacted to a deflected ball in the end zone -- came after quarterback Landry Jones moved the Steelers 72 yards on 14 plays to the Eagles' 8. There is plenty to clean up. But an opportune defense will offset occasional lapses. What is perhaps most impressive is that Schwartz has all three of his units performing at a consistent level. There are depth issues at safety, linebacker and defensive tackle, but you wouldn’t think that by watching the first two preseason games. The reserves generated two turnovers and four sacks against the Steelers. Backups such as safeties Jaylen Watkins and Ed Reynolds and defensive tackles Beau Allen and Taylor Hart have shown improvement this offseason and shown that they can transition to a new scheme. Schwartz gets credit for that. Heck, even Marcus Smith looks motivated. He got off the ball aggressively and notched a sack in his first preseason game of the summer. If the Eagles are going to contend and win games this season, it will likely be on the strength of the defense and special teams. There’s nothing wrong with that. But Schwartz’s crew might have to be top 5-great to compensate for an offense that could struggle to score.

2. Nolan Carroll has a lock on a starting cornerback spot. He’s not flashy -- he’s just good. Carroll will sneak up on you. The Eagles, to their credit, slowly integrated Carroll back into the defense as he recovered from a broken ankle this offseason. He initially saw outside corner repetitions only in nickel personnel, but it’s become fairly clear the plan all along was for him to start and for Ron Brooks to play in the slot. Jones threw at Carroll three times, and he broke up two of the passes and intercepted the other when he jumped Sammie Coates’ route and ran 38 yards for a touchdown. Carroll is a solid No. 2 cornerback. The problem the Eagles have is that they have two No. 2 corners. Leodis McKelvin will likely struggle against elite receivers, and he will see his share this season – Alshon Jeffery, Brown, Dez Bryant, Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones, Jordy Nelson, A.J. Green, and DeSean Jackson, to name the most prominent. McKelvin has had a few shaky moments this preseason. He got lost in a zone last week, and the Bucs scored. And he took a pass interference penalty on Thursday night. The sample is small, but it illustrates that McKelvin isn’t all of sudden going to become a shutdown corner.

3. It could be a long haul for Sam Bradford this season. His numbers were Bradfordian: 14 for 19 for 115 yards. He completed 74 percent of his passes, but was there a memorable throw? In Bradford’s defense, he wasn’t exactly given much to work with. The Eagles’ first-team offense faced third and 8, third and 21, third and 12 and third and 15. You’re not going to convert many of those. As Bradford said, “The problem isn’t third down; it’s first and second down.” But he is too often resigned to take a check down rather than force a few attempts down the field. Of course, does he have any receivers who can consistently get open downfield? (The answer in a few …). You can go back and forth on Bradford, which is a fairly accurate way of summing up his career. Can he carry the offense on his shoulders if need be? I’m not sure if Doug Pederson is capable of out-scheming most defensive coordinators. So a lot of the pressure will fall on Bradford to get the Eagles in and out of the right play pre-snap. It’s early. Bradford played only three snaps and tossed one pass last week. He played the entire first half and was able to knock some rust off against the Steelers. Next week’s third preseason game against the Colts will have more significance. He’ll likely play into the third quarter. It would be nice to see Bradford direct the offense to one long, touchdown-scoring drive before the regular season.

4. Eagles first-team receivers showed mild improvement. Nelson Agholor made a fine, leaping 22-yard grab on a high Bradford toss. Last week, he couldn’t hang onto a similar pass by Carson Wentz. Rueben Randle caught two passes for 10 yards a week after he put up a doughnut. It might not sound like much, but on the heels of last week’s dismal outing, it was a positive for a group that has been (deservedly) maligned. But that was about as good as it got. Agholor followed up his one bright moment with a drop. The pass was thrown slightly behind him, but he has got to make that grab. Randle seemed all too concerned with running out of bounds after his catches. Josh Huff had another drop. He just isn’t a receiver. Why not move him to running back? Sure, he has trouble hanging onto the ball, but with Wendell Smallwood moving along slowly, there is an opportunity there. Chris Givens has yet to catch a pass this preseason. He has had just one target. The absence of Jordan Matthews has clearly affected the passing offense. But he won’t be an elixir – particularly when the Eagles need someone on the outside to make downfield catches and stretch defenses. 

5. Dorial Green-Beckham isn’t Superman. To some surprise, the Eagles’ recently acquired receiver played six snaps and was targeted twice. He caught neither pass. The first was a corner fade from Chase Daniel that was underthrown. The second was a short toss by McLeod Bethel-Thompson that sailed through Green-Beckham’s hands. It was a minor miracle that he was even on the field, so it’s difficult to criticize Green-Beckham. But there will be a learning curve as he is integrated into the Eagles offense. He is far from a finished product, which is what makes Green-Beckham an intriguing prospect. The bet here is that he moves ahead of most of the outside receivers on the depth chart. A quick shout-out to Paul Turner. He has been arguably the Eagles’ most consistent receiver since training camp opened. He obviously has a steep climb if he is to make the roster. But the 5-foot-10, 193-pound receiver has earned mention as one of the few undrafted rookies who could sneak on. He caught three passes for 44 yards and made a splendid one-handed snag Thursday night. His first catch came out of the slot with the first-team offense.

6. The offensive line showed mild improvement. Considering the shuffling the Eagles had to do this past week – promoting Isaac Seumalo to left guard and moving Allen Barbre to right tackle as Lane Johnson’s likely suspension looms – the starting unit had a solid night. The run blocking was shaky – Ryan Mathews rushed five times for 18 yards – but Bradford was kept clean for most of the night. Seumalo has obvious talent, but I’m not sure if he’s ready to start. He took a holding penalty and was beaten a few other times. Stefen Wisniewski is waiting in the wings. He didn’t look so hot last week, so it’s not as if his exclusion is a travesty. The rest of the first unit was sound. Jason Peters was back in the lineup doing Jason Peters things. Barbre held his own on the other flank. Right guard Brandon Brooks had a few early run-down issues, but he’s a pro. Center Jason Kelce didn’t have any glaring errors. The second unit was significantly better than last week. Of course, there was really only one place to go after that performance.

7. Chase Daniel had better protection and, thus, played better. It’s amazing what an extra second in the pocket will do. Daniel completed 10 of 16 passes for 82 yards in more than a quarter of play. He wasn’t perfect by any means, but he needed a confidence boost after the Bucs game. I would still move Wentz ahead of Daniel on the depth chart – even if the rookie misses the rest of the preseason – but if Pederson is reluctant, Daniel needs to have a few solid outings before the season starts. Kenjon Barner, meanwhile, has the third running back spot in his grasp. He’s a yearly preseason MVP, but he has shown enough to likely make the 53-man roster. Barner rushed six times for 41 yards and a touchdown and caught a pass for 4 yards. He had some nifty runs and ran skinny through a few holes. He struggled in the return game. Barner runs backward too often on punt returns.

8. There is growing depth on the defensive line. Schwartz kept his first-unit rotation to six, but he could go as deep as eight once the season starts. Defensive end Steven Means continued to impress. It would be a shock if he didn’t make the team. He hit Jones just as he threw in the second quarter and Watkins ran under the short-armed pass. Means has forced three turnovers in two games. He has done enough to play on Sundays alongside Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin. The Eagles have been light at defensive tackle with Mike Martin sidelined by a knee injury. But his absence has given Beau Allen, Taylor Hart and undrafted rookies Destiny Vaeao and Aziz Shittu additional opportunities. Allen looks as if he has the edge over the other three for the fourth spot. The Eagles could keep five tackles on the roster, though, and either Vaeao (half-sack) and Shittu (1 1/2 sacks) could jump ahead of Hart.

9. The loss of Joe Walker could be costly. Walker suffered a knee injury and will have an MRI this morning. There were ominous signs emanating from the Eagles locker room that his injury could be significant. Yes, Walker was drafted in only the seventh round. And, yes, he’s only a backup. But he plays probably the most important position in Schwartz’s defense – middle linebacker – and the Eagles are strapped for capable linebackers. Najee Goode is already the Eagles’ fourth linebacker, but with Mychal Kendricks still out with a hamstring injury, he has had to play weak-side. Goode will probably have to back up Jordan Hicks at MIKE now. The Eagles could bring in veteran Stephen Tulloch, who started for Schwartz in both Tennessee and Detroit. But does he want to come in as a reserve? The Eagles will need someone if Walker is out for an extended period. Undrafted rookies Mike Taverres, Quentin Gause and Don Cherry haven’t stood out.

10. And some leftovers: Caleb Sturgis suffered a concussion when he was hit on his helmetless head by a Donnie Jones punt during pre-game warm-ups. Cody Parkey took all the kicks and did well. He had touchbacks on two of four kickoffs, hit a 40-yard field goal and connected on both PATs. Sturgis has been stronger and more consistent during camp, but Parkey has come on lately. This competition isn’t over. … Cornerback Aaron Grymes had the best interception of the four. He stretched for the ball in a back corner of the end zone and stayed inbounds. He suffered a shoulder injury on the play and eventually left the game, but he said afterward that it was only a bruise and that he should be back this coming week. … Safety Blake Countess left the game with a possible head injury.

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