The Eagles valiantly overcame the inefficiency of their offense – at all levels – to defeat Buffalo, 20-16, in Thursday night’s second preseason game. Here’s what we learned:
1. The offense can’t afford to lose Jason Peters. You think 10 games without Lane Johnson was rough? Imagine losing the Pro Bowl left tackle for the same amount of time. Yikes. Peters was excused from the game for a personal reason. Johnson switched sides and took his place, but struggled. In Johnson’s defense, he practiced on the left for only one day earlier this week. But he didn’t have many answers for Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes. The entire first-unit offensive line wasn’t very good. Brandon Brooks was back at right guard after sitting out last week. But Matt Tobin stood in for Johnson at right tackle, and his blocking was a hot mess. The Eagles went three-and-out on their first three possessions. LeGarrette Blount rushed four times for zero yards in those series. Carson Wentz completed 1 of 3 passes for 11 yards. On his two other drops, he was sacked and nearly sacked before he scrambled for a yard. Doug Pederson had to use tempo on the fourth drive to compensate for the o-line’s inefficiency. In the larger picture, four series in a preseason game don’t amount to much, especially when the left tackle is missing. But the Eagles would love to have the starting five on the field together for a few successful drives before the start of the regular season. They have one more preseason game to work on chemistry.
2. Carson Wentz is like any quarterback who has almost no time in the pocket. That isn’t a knock. It’s just a fact. Wentz can occasionally escape from pressure because of his athleticism. But living that way in the pocket is unsustainable. And it could get the quarterback injured. It’s too early to push the panic button on the o-line. Sometimes all it takes to click is for the regular-season green light to go on. Pederson and Wentz stressed that the Eagles hadn’t game-planned for the Bills. But the same could conversely be said of Buffalo. “Was the performance great? By no means,” Wentz said. “It was definitely not where we want to be, but I definitely don’t have doubts. We have the right guys. We have the right team. We just have to put it together.” They have two intersquad practices with the Dolphins on Monday and Tuesday and then Thursday’s third preseason game – and final for most starters – to get on track.
3. The first-team defense could be legit. If I’m not going to make a big deal about the ineffectiveness of the offense, I won’t overstate the performance of Jim Schwartz’s crew. But the first-unit defense looked nasty against the Bills. On Buffalo’s first four possessions, the Eagles allowed only 2.8 yards per play and forced two interceptions. A well-timed Rodney McLeod blitz set up the first turnover. The safety deflected quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s pass and linebacker Mychal Kendricks was Johnny-on-the-spot and had his second pick of the preseason. Kendricks returned the favor a series later when he forced an errant Taylor heave that cornerback Ronald Darby caught. The Bills don’t exactly have an explosive offense, of course, aside from running back LeSean McCoy. They just traded their best receiver (Sammy Watkins) and didn’t have the receiver they got back in the Darby trade (Jordan Matthews, hurt). But that was an impressive showing no matter the opponent or the circumstances. Buffalo strung together a few plays on its fourth possession, but if it wasn’t for a Destiny Vaeao roughing-the-passer penalty, the Eagles would have gotten off the field and the Bills’ first offense would have left without scoring a point.
4. Ronald Darby should be able to get the job done. That’s all the Eagles want out of their new cornerback. Darby had an impressive debut in Eagles green. He had two pass breakups and a tackle to go along with the interception. He had good technique on the passes thrown his way, and even when he might have been a touch off, he used his considerable speed to compensate. He might have benefited from knowing the Bills’ scheme and players, something he acknowledged afterward. “They were running a lot of routes that looked similar,” Darby said, “so I was just being patient with everything and cutting them off.” Taylor isn’t exactly a strong quarterback, either. The Bills are stockpiling drafts picks for a reason. But Darby still had to go out there and make the plays. He gives the Eagles a legitimate starting corner, something they lacked, quite frankly, with Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson. I thought Mills had another solid outing, but I want to see a consistent 60 minutes out of the second-year player. The same really could be said of Darby. We don’t yet know if he can be a shutdown corner. But he looked the part at least for one night.
5. Mychal Kendricks could be playing his way into a starting role or out of town. More than likely, it’s neither. Kendricks should be here when the season starts in September, and he should still be the third linebacker, behind Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham. But that was an outstanding 27 snaps he played. He finished with two solo tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack, a hurry, an interception, and a pass defensed. Kendricks has strung together two impressive preseason games. Are the Eagles showcasing the linebacker, who has made it clear he isn’t happy with his role? Maybe. It’s difficult to showcase a defensive player and it’s not as if he played an inordinate number of snaps. But Kendricks does have value and the Eagles did try to trade him this offseason. The team doesn’t have any glaring holes – as it did at cornerback a week ago – and it’s always difficult to incorporate a new player into the system at this late juncture. But would the Eagles part with Kendricks for just a draft pick? I guess it depends on the round. It would have to be worth it, though. Kendricks is slated to play about 25-30 percent of the time on defense this season. What are the chances that Hicks and Bradham play all 16 games this season, though? How much should the Eagles trust their backups – Najee Goode, Joe Walker, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Nate Gerry – if Kendricks was to be dealt? Kendricks has always had the ability. And there have been long stretches when he showed it on the field. But it’s been years. What should the Eagles do?
6. Derek Barnett can ball. I think I’ve seen enough. The rookie defensive end might struggle for long stretches this season. He might not record more than the 4 1/2-sack over-under for first-round edge rushers over the last decade. But he has the ability to be an impact player in the NFL. Will he eventually pull it all together? Will he avoid major injury? Will he stay committed? It’s too early to answer those questions. But he’s popped off the field – and off the screen when I’ve rewatched him – and he’s played in only two preseason games. Barnett recorded his third sack of the preseason against the Bills. He was in the backfield and in the quarterback’s face on other rushes. And he showed an unstoppable motor, once running down a ballcarrier to the sideline. Is it too early to start wondering when he’ll start stealing snaps from Vinny Curry? I think not.
7. Alshon Jeffery and the other post-Matthews receivers should be fine. It was virtually impossible to evaluate the receiving unit on a night when the offense could muster little. But Jeffery caught two of five targeted passes for 23 yards. He looked fine, although his rhythm with Wentz seemed a little off. I wrote more extensively on Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and the loss of Matthews in my column for the newspaper. But I wanted to touch on some of the other receivers. Torrey Smith still doesn’t have a catch in the preseason. It’s no biggie. But you’d like to see a little more out of the veteran. Rookie Mack Hollins, who shined last week, was targeted five times and had only one catch for 6 yards. Matt McGloin was all over the field, so I’m not sure how many of those errant passes were on the quarterback. Marcus Johnson, who sat last week, caught two passes for 45 yards, including one for 38. I think he’s done enough to be the fifth receiver on the roster. Bryce Treggs, who was out with hamstring injury, needs to get back on the field to make a push.
8. It’s not too early to be worried about the run game. Yeah, I know, I wrote several times that the Eagles shouldn’t be overly concerned about Wentz, the offensive line, and the receivers. The line is obviously instrumental to the run game, but do the Eagles have a running back who can offset blocking that is subpar? They had that guy with McCoy. Even Ryan Mathews could power through when the holes just weren’t there. But Blount has looked ordinary. Darren Sproles hasn’t yet played, although I’m not as concerned about him. But he is 34 and can’t be expected to shoulder the load if Blount struggles. Donnel Pumphrey doesn’t look remotely ready. And Wendell Smallwood (hamstring) can’t get out of the tub. “Obviously we have a lot to improve on. We have a lot of corrections to make,” Blount said. “It’s not going as smoothly as any of us want it to go. But like I said, it’s the preseason. We are still in camp; this is the time to make the corrections and not take it over into the regular season, so we are going to work on it.” Maybe if Pederson stopped running Blount north-to-south on sweeps, the Eagles would have had more success against the Bills. Corey Clement (eight carries for 34 yards and a touchdown) was a bright spot. Could the undrafted rookie supplant Smallwood or Pumphrey? I can’t see the Eagles keeping five running backs, but stranger things have happened.
9. Caleb Sturgis hasn’t been the preseason Sturgis of 2016. The Eagles kicker connected on field goals from 24 and 48 yards, but he also missed his second 45-yard attempt this preseason. There wouldn’t be any reason for concern if Sturgis was as accurate as he was in camp a year ago, but he hasn’t been consistent. He has a natural draw to his kicks, but many – such as Thursday night’s miss – have hooked wide left this summer. Pederson, though, had the appropriate response when asked about his confidence in Sturgis. I have a “lot of confidence with him going forward,” the coach said. It’s “something he’s working on every day, and [he’s] got a couple weeks to get it straightened out.”
10. And some leftovers: The Eagles had six sacks a week after notching five. Defensive end Stevens Means had two. End Alex McCalister had one. Hicks had another. I think Means has the edge on McCalister if the Eagles keep five defensive ends. … Rookie tight end Billy Brown finished with a team-high four catches for 34 yards. He’s a plus-receiver, but he needs to work on his blocking. Could he force the Eagles to keep four tight ends? … Walker had five solo tackles. He had looked much better in practice the last week and carried that over into the game.