Eagles-Steelers: What did we learn?

The Eagles did mostly what they had to do in their third preseason game – generally considered the most important because it will be the longest the starters will play – and beat the Steelers, 31-21, at the Linc. The offense, near full strength, was sharp. The defense rebounded from an ugly effort against the Steelers. And Alex Henery … well, that’s another story. The lessons:

1. Alex Henery hindered his chances of staying in Philadelphia when he missed a 31-yard field goal. If you saw Chip Kelly’s face when I asked him whether the addition of Cody Parkey affected Henery’s confidence, you might have had the same impression: That Henery could be days away from being cut. But the fact of the matter is this: The Eagles don’t really know what they have in Parkey, who looked OK on two kickoffs. It’s probably not fair to judge the undrafted rookie yet, especially when he landed in Philly just Thursday and was kicking at the Linc for the first time. The Eagles already dropped the ball when they initially signed the wrong undrafted rookie. Carey Spear, by the grace of God, is still on the roster. But Henery has not responded the way the Eagles had hoped he would. He missed a 47-yarder last week, which was excusable. But to slice a chip shot in a meaningless preseason game has to make the Eagles wonder if he can ever make a big kick. Henery’s comments, along with Kelly’s are here.

2. The first team offense was a little shaky early, but strung together three drives that produced points in the first half. Nick Foles was solid for the second straight week. He looks ready for the regular season. He completed 19 of 29 passes for 179 yards and a touchdown. He tossed an interception, but Kelly said it wasn’t the quarterback’s fault because the intended target – Darren Sproles – had fallen. Foles spread the ball around to eight receivers in one half. Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley continued their preseason success. Sanchez was 7 of 9 for 85 yards and drove the Eagles to a touchdown. Barkley was a perfect 4 of 4 for 37 yards. The Eagles quarterback situation is as set as any team heading into September.

3. Jeremy Maclin scared the bejesus out of Eagles Nation when he fell to the ground clutching his knee in the second quarter. There wasn’t any contact on the play – the Steelers defender held up his arms as if to say, “I didn’t do anything” – and Maclin was down for several moments. He said he initially feared the worst because the way his leg buckled was similar to when he tore his ACL last July. Many of his teammates would later say they feared the worst, too. Maclin said he hasn’t sensed that many are with bated breath every time he falls down or appears to get hurt. But there can’t be many that are confident that he’ll play all 16 games after several scares since the spring. Maclin returned, however. He caught six of eight targeted passes for 43 yards.

4. Riley Cooper played in his first game since missing most of camp with an ankle injury. He looked a little rusty. He dropped two balls in the end zone. He did have a few nice grabs, including an 11-yard catch against tight coverage, and also drew a few flags. Eagles tight ends were once again the best downfield passing option for Foles. Brent Celek caught two passes for 41 yards. He has four catches for 86 yards and two lost helmets in the preseason. Zach Ertz finished with two catches for 24 yards. He showed great body control when he snagged a 12-yard toss thrown slightly behind him. The Eagles’ outside receivers haven’t done enough this preseason to calm fears about their ability to stretch the field, but Kelly has a pair of tight ends that should condense the middle of defenses.

5. The Eagles first and second team offensive lines were very good. The starters, for the most part, gave Foles plenty of time in the pocket. Right tackle Allen Barbre did appear to allow an early sack. His pass protection hasn’t been consistent. But he seemed to settle down in the second quarter. The good news for the Eagles is that the backups are progressing and if Barbre falters or any of the starters get injured, they should have more trust in their options. Matt Tobin has been at left guard, but he would probably be the first tackle off the bench. He’s been rock solid this preseason. Left tackle Andrew Gardner looks like a keeper. He’ll make the roster. David Molk is the odds-on favorite to be the backup center with Julian Vandervelde out after back surgery. Kelly was very pleased with his line play.

6. On the defensive side, the Eagles were nowhere near as sloppy as they were against the Patriots. The starters finally got off the field on third down, denying the Steelers conversions on three of their first five attempts. The pass rush was OK. Mychal Kendricks pressured Ben Roethlisberger, who threw high and was intercepted by a diving Nolan Carroll. The Eagles cornerback started for the injured Cary Williams (hamstring). Carroll went inside in the dime defense. Rookie Jaylen Watkins filled in for Brandon Boykin (hamstring) in the slot. I have to check the tape, but he didn’t look as lost as I thought he might. I wrote more about Kendricks and the defense in my column for the newspaper here.

7. With LeSean McCoy sidelined early with a sprained thumb (he said he was OK), Matthew Tucker got a ton of reps. He ran ten times for 46 yards and two touchdowns. Kelly praised his play and noted once again that Chris Polk (a nagging hamstring injury) better be looking over his shoulder. Rookie Henry Josey had his second straight solid rushing game. He finished with four carries for 48 yards, including a 27-yard scoot. Kenjon Barner, who the Eagles traded for earlier this week, rushed seven times for 32 yards. He muffed a kick return.

8. It looks like defensive end Brandon Bair has the roster made. He was active once again and tipped a pass. Bair spent most of last season on the practice squad. Almost no one predicted the 29-year old would make the team before camp, but he kept showing up in practices and most important in the preseason games. The Oregon product in the prototypical two-gap end the Eagles now want for their 3-4 front. “It’s a system I excelled at in college,” Bair said. “I knew coach [Jerry Azzinaro] required of me there.”

9. Bair’s Cinderella story shouldn’t spell trouble for Vinny Curry. He isn’t going anywhere unless the Eagles get an offer they can’t refuse. Curry isn’t the ideal 3-4 end, but he’s the Eagles’ best inside pass rusher. He notched another sack this preseason. The other sack against the Steelers came from perhaps the Eagles’ best edge rusher – Brandon Graham. The outside linebacker has a tougher road to making the roster. The Eagles have five other outside linebackers that are virtual locks to make the team – Connor Barwin, Trent Cole, Marcus Smith, Bryan Braman and Travis Long. The Eagles kept only four outside linebackers last season. Could they keep six? It’s not likely, but Graham has done enough to stick around for another year.

10. A few quickies … Arrelious Benn left with a head injury. … Tight end Trey Burton made a leaping 25-yard catch. He’s a practice squad candidate. … Sproles rushed six times for 33 yards. … Jordan Matthews was quiet. He caught two passes for 16 yards, but had a number of solid downfield blocks. … Smith seemed to rebound for a rough game against the Pats. … Cornerback Bradley Fletcher was called for illegal contact twice.