Good morning. The Eagles leave for Cleveland today and play the Cleveland Browns on Thursday in the third preseason game, which is the most important on the preseason schedule. The starters play the longest of any of the four games, and after this week, they'll start preparing for Week 1. Find up-to-the-minute coverage from Cleveland on philly.com.
This is a preseason edition of the Early Birds newsletter, which will arrive in your inbox three days per week until the season begins. If your friends haven't subscribed to Early Birds, it's free to sign up here. I want to know what you think, what we should add and what you want to read, so send me feedback by email or on Twitter @ZBerm. Thank you for reading.
— Zach Berman
Say it again: It's just the preseason. But it would be helpful if the starting offense could at least score a few points on Thursday. In eight offensive drives, they have no points this summer. They're missing key starters and they're not putting together intricate game plans, so the performances must be understood in context. (Five starters will be out Thursday: Carson Wentz, Jason Peters, Jay Ajayi, Alshon Jeffery, and Nelson Agholor.) However, the first-team offense is expected to play the first half and they spent more time on the practice field than usual this week. Nick Foles will start at quarterback, and he spoke on Tuesday about finding a rhythm. Foles might not be the starter on Sept. 6, but he can send the offense into Week 1 preparations with a good taste by leading them on a touchdown drive or two.
You might have heard about the NFL's new tackling rule. The Eagles defense knows it too well. The defense and special teams have been flagged five times this summer for a player lowering his head to initiate contact. That's a concern. Maybe the officials are less stringent in the regular season, but the Eagles cannot rely on that. They must adhere to the rules, or else they're going to cost themselves 15 yards at an inopportune time in a regular-season game. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had his players watch film from penalties around the league on Monday and knows they need the penalties to settle down. "The problem is [officials are] dealing with world-class athletes who are moving targets," Schwartz said. "A little bit easier said than done. Those fouls have hurt us in these first couple pre-season games and we just got to get to a point where they don't hurt us in the regular season. It's going to be very important work over the next couple weeks not just learning from our own mistakes but learning from other teams." Thursday would be a good start.
After five weeks of practice and the preseason, Thursday might be the final evaluation for the remaining starting-type positions on defense: weak-side linebacker and slot cornerback. Nate Gerry and Kamu Grugier-Hill are the top contenders at weak-side linebacker. Sidney Jones and Avonte Maddox are competing for playing at slot cornerback. "This week will go a long way to determine how we line up," Schwartz said. At linebacker, Schwartz isn't just thinking about the weak-side spot. He needs to figure out who will start at strong-side linebacker in Week 1, when Nigel Bradham is suspended. Although there were will be roster spots up for grabs in the preseason finale, the Eagles likely won't risk starters in that game. By Friday morning, Schwartz should know who won these competitions.
Halapoulivaati Vaitai had perhaps his worst performance since his first career start last week. "It wasn't Big V, for whatever reason," Pederson said. "He's definitely played better. We know exactly who he is." Vaitai will be challenged on Thursday by Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft. Nick Foles was injured last week when Vaitai was beat around Foles' blindside. The Eagles cannot afford to let that happen again. Although Vaitai is not a starter when Jason Peters is playing, he's their top reserve swing tackle and would step in if Peters or Lane Johnson suffer injuries this year. The Eagles are comfortable with Vaitai – he started in the Super Bowl, after all – but they need a better game from him this week.
The Eagles were supposed to have a spirited competition for the No. 4 running back spot. To this point, no one has grabbed the job. Adams missed last week's game with an injury, but he's expected to return on Thursday and he has a chance to distinguish himself. With Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Darren Sproles, and Donnel Pumphrey unlikely to play, Adams will have more opportunity than usual. Wendell Smallwood and Matt Jones are also in the mix, but neither player stood out last week. Adams rushed for 30 yards on six carries in the preseason opener. If he has another good game on Thursday, he could take the lead one week before the Eagles cut the roster.
Zach, I know you've rigorously covered the lack of competition at punter. But why hasn't there been competition for Elliott and Lovato? Sure, Elliott hit the 61 yarder but he missed several routine kicks that could easily have cost the Eagles a close game. And last year it felt like Donnie was bailing Lovato out at least once a game on punts/holds. What would it have hurt to bring in a couple guys to compete at K and LS?
I like special teams questions. Let's start with Jake Elliott. He had a terrific rookie season, 61-yarder aside. He was 18 of 20 from 40+ yards and 6 of 7 from 50+ yards. (Both statistics include the playoffs.) Plus, he was clutch late in games. I agree the routine kicks were a problem. He missed five extra points (including the playoffs) and three field goals from inside 40 yards. But he can improve those areas. It's hard to find a young, clutch kicker who has that type of consistency from deep. Add in the fact that Elliott is inexpensive and still improving, and I don't see why they'd try to replace him. Perhaps you think a kicker can benefit from competition in camp, but barring injury, Elliott was going to enter this season as the Eagles kicker. And rightfully so.