Importance of the third preseason game

Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

IN A GENERAL sense, the third exhibition game of the NFL preseason is little bit different in evaluating what a team might look like once the regular season kicks off.

Sure, it is still primarily driven by player evaluation, but it is the only one of the four exhibitions where the emphasis is shifted, however slightly, toward getting the players you are going to count on to drive your season into a mode where they are working as a unit.

The offensive game plan against the Pittsburgh Steelers tonight at Lincoln Financial Field still will be vanilla and reveal little of what the Eagles plan to do in the season opener, Sept. 7 against Jacksonville.

The defense played tonight still will be base and offer a limited view of the schemes the Birds will employ against the Jaguars.

But until now, the emphasis has been about individual player evaluation.

During the first two preseason games, the goal of the Eagles coaches was seeing how a particular player or players would perform in specific situations.

Some of the plays called and some of combinations put together were for that purpose, with the actual success of the play being secondary.

The mentality switches a bit in the third preseason game. It becomes more critical to see how the offense and defense work together as cohesive units.

What you should see from the Eagles against the Steelers, for at least the first half and possibly into the third quarter, are the groupings and rotations of players likely to take the field against Jacksonville.

If everyone is healthy, you'll see the first-team offenses and defenses get some extended action together, with the focus on developing some in-game chemistry and familiarity.

Frankly, in this game it is more important that quarterback Nick Foles starts to get his timing down with starting wide receivers Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper than if Damaris Johnson, Jeff Maehl or Ifeanyi Momah will win the final receiver slot on the roster.

It is more important that a linebacking unit of Connor Barwin, DeMeco Ryans, Mychal Kendricks and Trent Cole regain their natural instincts of playing together in a game than testing to see if rookie outside linebacker Marcus Smith II is hastening his development curve.

Basically, the third exhibition game is more about who is actually going to play than who is simply going to make the roster.

"There is a lot of good in the evaluations," Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis said. "There are a lot of places where you see growth and you say, 'Wow, we have somebody there.' Then there are some places that are ugly.

"We continue to move forward through the evaluation process, but now this week the [starters] will get a lot more [work], so we'll have more continuity with who is in what position and practicing together and playing together.

"We're moving closer and closer to the season, so the evaluations - we've got a pretty good bucket of plays that we can look at and evaluate. Now, we'll start grabbing guys and working together more, and that whole process of the end of the preseason will start looking more like what the regular-season defensive units will look like."

The same can be said about the offseason.

Because of various minor injuries, the Eagles' projected starting receiving trio of Maclin, Cooper and rookie Jordan Matthews has had little time to work together as a unit with Foles.

Tonight, Foles should have all of his main weapons he will be relying on.

Considering Maclin missed all of last season with a knee injury and Matthews is a rookie, this will be the first live game action for Foles and the top three receivers for the 2014 season.

You want to see this unit get in some good work with Foles and running back LeSean McCoy and tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz before the games start to count.

"It's important," Maclin said. "It feels good to have us all on the field playing and playing together.

"We all have our own relationship with [Foles] and it's building by being out there together."

Every coach will say that every preseason game is equally important, and they are. It is just that the reasoning may be different.

To a coach, even next week's preseason finale against the New York Jets, which won't feature many significant players because of fear of injury, is a big deal because there is thought put into every roster spot, and guys battling for those final, precious slots will be open for critical evaluations.

But everyone knows what the deal is tonight.

"I just want to see guys play," Eagles coach Chip Kelly said. "It's just, go and play and get valuable reps. You'd like to get in situations. But we're not going to manufacture a bad situation to see how we respond.

"We just need reps. There are some guys that need a lot more reps because they haven't played in the first two preseason games. You have to get out there and run around with the officials when it's loud and they're tackling and doing all those things."