Steelers 31, Eagles 14: Fletcher Cox, first-team defense have strong showing in first preseason game

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Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox sacks Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Landry Jones during the first-quarter in a preseason game on Thursday, August 9, 2018 in Philadelphia.

The Eagles played their first game since the Super Bowl on Thursday night, but this was a far different team than the one that made history in February — and they will look much better in four weeks when they begin defending that title.

That’s because the Eagles offense lacked nearly half of its starters in a 3114 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, limiting any evaluation of that unit. The good news for the Eagles is that the starting defense impressed in the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field, although it did so against a Steelers offense that lacked its top players.

The Eagles played without quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Nick Foles, their top three wide receivers, Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz, and Hall of Fame-worthy left tackle Jason Peters. Most, if not all, of those players should be back by the Sept. 6 season opener against the Atlanta Falcons.

“A lot of pieces are moving around here and you’re still evaluating players,”coach Doug Pederson said, “but I think you can take away that both the O-line and D-line really played well tonight.”

Nate Sudfeld played quarterback in the first half, performing the way he has for much of training camp. There were passes that offered evidence of the Eagles’ optimism about the 24-year-old quarterback, and there were plays when he looked closer to the third-stringer who was waived by the Washington Redskins last year. He finished 10 of 14 for 140 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

“Obviously, the two turnovers are a big, glaring asterisk on whatever my stat line is,” Sudfeld said. “I’m not really worried about stats. I was just trying to play fast and efficient. … Outside of those turnovers, it was really fun to be in a rhythm.”

His top target was Dallas Goedert, the second-round pick who impressed in his Eagles debut with four catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. Even while running a vanilla offense, Pederson designed plays for Sudfeld to target Goedert.

On defense, the Eagles forced three-and-outs on Pittsburgh’s first two drives, helped by a pair of sacks from Fletcher Cox and a Malcolm Jenkins-Nigel Bradham combo. However, the Steelers played without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell, and wide receiver Antonio Brown, so the defense’s performance must be kept in perspective, too.

“I thought they played really aggressive, really fast,” Pederson said. “Something you want to see from your defensive unit early in games.”

Pittsburgh scored first when Landry Jones aired out a deep pass on a free play to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Rasul Douglas was in coverage and appeared to slip while trying to judge the ball. Smith-Schuster, one of the top rookies in the NFL last year, leaped for a catch and had no defender impeding a 71-yard touchdown.

“When you jump, you can’t really throw yourself in the air, but it wasn’t a big push where the ref would call it,” Douglas said. “That’s a good play by the receiver.”

The Eagles took the lead in the second quarter after Sudfeld extended a play and found Goedert open for a 15-yard score. A Pittsburgh penalty on the extra point put the Eagles in position for a two-point conversion, which they converted for an 8-7 lead.

Douglas redeemed himself later in the quarter when he stepped in front of a Steelers receiver for an interception two plays after Sudfeld threw one away to Pittsburgh. It was Douglas at his best, using the ball skills that allowed him to lead college football in interceptions in 2016 while at West Virginia and record two interceptions as a rookie with the Eagles.

That led to the highlight of the night for the Eagles. On a second-and-4 from the 37-yard line, Sudfeld connected with Shelton Gibson sprinting down the Eagles sideline for a 63-yard touchdown. Gibson, a 2017 fifth-round pick, could not distinguish himself last summer. The Eagles kept him on the roster believing he could develop into a deep threat, and he showed why they think so on Thursday. Gibson streaked past the defender early in his route and ran untouched to the end zone.

“I haven’t seen that ball in the air in a long time,” Gibson said. “Last preseason, I thought I was going to have one. …That was the last time I’ve seen the ball in the air. Just seeing that today, just made me think about [starring in college at] West Virginia.”

That was the last offensive highlight of the night. The Steelers scored the next 16 points to add to their lead, revealing that it’s not the Eagles’ deep reserves making this team a contender this season.

However, preseason results are long forgotten come the autumn. The Eagles lost their preseason opener last August. The team they field when games count will look considerably different. The preseason is instead for evaluation, and the Eagles will have better understanding about some of their younger players than they did before the game. They also saw some good signs from the high-profile players who played.

Cox, who is determined to win defensive player of the year, looked unblockable in the first quarter. Running back Jay Ajayi, entering his contract year, showed good burst on a 22-yard run in the first quarter, too. And Jordan Hicks played a game for the first time since tearing his Achilles tendon last October.

Thursday offered valuable film for Sudfeld and Goedert. Sidney Jones, the promising second-year cornerback, spent most of the first half as the slot cornerback before walking off with a left ankle injury. Australian import Jordan Mailata looked like someone still learning how to play offensive tackle. Fellow Aussie Cameron Johnston, the only punter on the roster, showed that his leg strength is not a question, with an 81-yard punt nullified by a penalty. He must prove he can be consistent, though.

The Eagles will be back in the stadium on Saturday morning for a public practice, and they play a Super Bowl rematch in New England next week. The Eagles offense might have more players back by then, but the Thursday night game they’re most concerned about doesn’t kick off until September.