The Eagles’ first-team offense has been on the field this summer for only five drives, which is a blip in the regular season but can cause hysteria in the preseason. The unit has scored one touchdown and had three three-and-outs and one turnover. Hence, the hysteria.
But the panic hasn’t found its way inside the gates of One NovaCare Way, where one sentiment is often expressed: It’s only the preseason!
“Just a little bit better execution,” coach Doug Pederson said. “We need to start … the game a little bit better. You’d love to see points, obviously, and score maybe a couple of times. But we just need to clean up – we had too many penalties last week. … The execution, the turnovers, the penalties, we need to come out and play a clean football game.”
The preseason for the starters will effectively end Thursday night against the Miami Dolphins. The game at Lincoln Financial Field will likely be their final test drive before the car is taken off the lot. The starters seldom play in the preseason finale, and there is no definitive word on how long they will last Thursday. Pederson said he would typically keep them in into the third quarter, although two long practices with the Dolphins could change that plan.
But the starters will play their longest stretch of the preseason, and it will help ease the agitation if they can put a few productive drives together to amp up the excitement for the Sept. 10 opener against Washington.
“The big thing was third downs,” quarterback Carson Wentz said. “Red zone, we weren’t great, either. …We’ve got to get the run game going. I have to be sharper. We just have to be cleaner with everything. With the last couple of days of practice, really kind of game-plan for these games, we expect to be a lot sharper.”
The lack of game-planning has been the excuse du jour since last week’s outing. The game-planning won’t be sophisticated Thursday, but it will be more advanced than in the previous two games because the Eagles saw the Dolphins defense for two days this week. Pederson has been consistent in insisting that the emphasis is on getting ready for the opener – the handling of Alshon Jeffrey and keeping Darren Sproles on the sideline during games are examples – but the offense’s biggest problem has been creating high-percentage third-down opportunities. Turnovers and penalties have been problems farther down the roster. Unfruitful early-down plays are plaguing the starters.
The Eagles’ average third-down attempt with the first-team offense this summer has required 8.6 yards for a first down. That’s a frightening precedent to set for the season. Wentz emphasized the need for “positive plays on first and second down,” and that’s where the running game comes into play. The starters have faced four third downs of 11 yards or longer. Three were preceded by negative rushes by LeGarrette Blount. Even if he gains two yards instead of losing two yards, third downs will be easier to convert. When Wentz referred to the need “to get the run game going,” it was not hard to figure out where it must start.
It will help the run game that the first-team offensive line will be together Thursday for the first time this preseason. Brandon Brooks missed the opener with an ankle injury. Jason Peters missed the second preseason game, excused for a personal reason. The Eagles need the linemen together – the team struggled last season while playing with a jumbled line – and it will benefit from keeping the same quintet in place Thursday.
“We’ve had opportunities to be out here [in practice] to work on our chemistry, too,” Brooks said, noting that it doesn’t all depend on this preseason game.
No matter the result, no conclusions should be drawn from the game – barring injury, of course. Two years ago, Philadelphia fans were ready to book Super Bowl travel after the third preseason game. Last season, the Eagles started a quarterback in the third preseason game who wasn’t even on the roster in Week 1. And come the winter, no dissection of the season will focus on the third-down efficiency on Aug. 24.
But the game will still be played, Wentz and the starters will be out there for an extended period, and then there will be two weeks to worry about Washington. Wentz is hoping they can start those preparations on a good note.
“Judging success is always an interesting thing,” Wentz said. “In a preseason game, we ultimately want to win the game. It brings on a different element. I think we want to be sharp, and situational football is a big thing.”