CLEVELAND – The preseason games don’t count in the standings, and they’ll be long forgotten by the time Eagles fans collect any meaningful memories of the 2018 season. But the games begin to count in two weeks, and the Eagles must look much better than they did in Thursday’s 5-0 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Thursday to defend their first Super Bowl title.
If the Eagles are ready for the season opener on Sept. 6, they didn’t show it against the Browns. The offense hasn’t shown it yet this summer. Still playing without many key contributors, the Eagles could not generate the offensive momentum coach Doug Pederson hoped to see in the final dress rehearsal for Nick Foles and the starters. However, the defense looks ready. It has been ahead of the offense throughout the summer, although it’s not nearly as undermanned.
“When you don’t score and you play the way you play on offense, and being an offensive guy, I’m not very jovial in [the locker room],” Pederson said. “I’m not patting guys on the back. Praised the defense — I think the defense played lights out, played like they should. Offense just didn’t do enough. They understand it. And I want to make sure they heard it from me. We fix it, we move on, and the season begins in a couple of weeks.”
The first-team offense played six drives in the first half. The first drive ended when the Eagles couldn’t convert a fourth down, the second drive ended with a safety, and the next four drives ended in turnovers. Of course, it’s not the same starting unit the Eagles will rely upon in the regular season. They played without five starters on Thursday and without three other players who will have a role in the offense.
Even with that caveat, it’s been a discouraging summer for the offense. The starting unit has been on the field for 14 drives. It hasn’t scored any points. (Opponents have scored points on those drives, though.)
“I’m disappointed in the offense; I don’t want to single out one player,” Pederson said. “Don’t put this all on Nick. It’s not what you want obviously in the third preseason week. It’s one of those things where we still keep things very vanilla, we still want to evaluate and make sure we’ve got the right guys in the right spots. But now we turn our attention — we got one more preseason game — but now we turn our attention to Atlanta.”
Foles won a Super Bowl MVP, became a best-selling author, and etched his name into Philadelphia lore. But he’s had an ugly preseason. He went 13 of 17 for 127 yards with two interceptions and a fumble on Thursday. He was sacked three times. The offensive line did not give him much time – left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai looked closer to the 2016 version than the 2017 version – but there were head-scratching plays Foles made. If he had them in January and February, there wouldn’t have been so much partying on Broad Street. But when they happen in August, they could be quickly forgiven come September.
“Obviously, I haven’t been myself,” Foles said. “And I expect a lot of myself. I’ve got to keep looking at it, keep learning. I’ve played this game a long time. I know how to address this, and just keep moving forward. …I made too many mistakes at critical times that hurt us as a team. I clean that up, we win this game.”
On the Eagles’ second drive, after an impressive goal-line stand by the defense, Foles tripped while taking a snap at the 5-yard line. He fell into the end zone and was touched before he could regain his footing, resulting in a safety upon official review. (Foles actually had a nice pass on the play, but the play should have been whistled dead.)
On the next drive, Foles fumbled on a strip-sack. This was one that the offensive line will bemoan. Vaitai was beaten around the edge, forcing Foles to step up in the pocket. The ball was knocked out of Foles’ grasp, resulting in an Eagles turnover.
The one starting receiver the Eagles fielded on Thursday was Mike Wallace. Foles tried connecting with Wallace on a deep pass on the next possession, but he underthrew the free-agent acquisition and the pass was intercepted.
The offense produced an impressive drive when it returned to the field, with Wendell Smallwood establishing himself as the front-runner for the No. 4 running-back spot with some hard running into Browns territory. He had consecutive 14-yard rushes in the no-huddle offense before the Eagles sent Matt Jones into the game for Smallwood. Foles threw a short pass to Jones, who fumbled the ball after running into a Browns defender. Ball security was Jones’ problem in Washington. It didn’t help his hopes of making the roster in Philadelphia.
The fact that the Eagles moved the ball could be seen as a positive. But first downs only matter if they result in points. That gripe was applicable on the Eagles’ final drive of the first half. Foles led the Eagles to five first downs, and they brought the ball inside the Browns’ 10-yard line. They could have at least ended the summer on a positive note. But Foles tried improvising when he rolled to his left side. He threw a pass to Zach Ertz, except Ertz had two Browns defenders swarming him. Jamie Collins intercepted the pass, thwarting Foles’ best scoring opportunity.
“We have too much talent on this team — it doesn’t matter who’s out there, who’s not out there — as a Philadelphia Eagles offense, we play better than that,” Ertz said. “We’re best as a team, as an offense, when everyone’s counting us out. …I have all the confidence in the world in the guys that we have. It’s just little things. We have the ball inside the 30 twice and didn’t get any points. It’s unacceptable for the Eagles offense. We pride ourselves in being an elite offense. When we’re rolling, we’re rolling. When stuff hits the fan, the past two weeks, we didn’t look good. We looked terrible. But we’ll get it right.”
Pederson pulled his starters after the first half, as planned. He briefly considered putting them on the field, but he wanted to get Nate Sudfeld and the reserves their work. (Sudfeld went 11 of 21 for 72 yards, and he had a touchdown called back.) He’s not going to play the offense in the fourth preseason game.
But it wasn’t just the first-team offense that came off the field. The defense was finished after a good night. Playing against both Tyrod Taylor and No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield, the defense limited Cleveland to only a field goal in the first half. It held the Browns without points on four consecutive plays from the 1-yard line in the first quarter. It also had three sacks and forced three punts. So if the Eagles’ offense shoulders criticism, the defense deserves credit. Of course, the defense played with nine of its 11 projected starters, so it won’t look much different come September.
“I thought the defense played outstanding,” Pederson said. “They were flying around, they were making plays. Goal line stand was pretty impressive. That’s what you want from the defense. It kept the offense in the game the entire game. And the offense has to do their part and capitalize on opportunities.”
The Eagles return to the practice field on Sunday. Although the preseason finale is next week against the New York Jets, that game is reserved for roster hopefuls. The core of the 2018 team will begin preparing for the regular season this week. Those players will put the preseason behind them – it will be easier for some than others – and the team will begin to get some of the injured players ready for the regular season. The big question becomes whether Foles takes the first snap against the Atlanta Falcons on Sept. 6, or if Carson Wentz is able to return.