Observations from the Eagles' 24-14 preseason loss at Pittsburgh.
I'm going to start with the good news, Eagles fans. Ready?
LeSean McCoy looked really good, Jason Babin got a sack and Michael Vick made one heck of a tackle on Troy Polamalu after his third interception of the first half. Mike Kafka threw the ball extremely well in the fourth quarter after everybody stopped caring.
Oh, and the coaches now have a whole bunch of really awful-looking, mistake-riddled tape on which to base some real serious lessons this week in meetings and practice.
Other than that, pretty ugly. We can sit here and say everything we want to say about how it's only preseason, the games don't count, some teams devise game plans while others go vanilla and it's a bad idea to draw sweeping, upsetting conclusions based on preseason games. All of that stuff is true and must be said before we delve into what we saw. But the fact is that the Eagles looked bad, in almost every possible way, in Thursday night's exhibition loss to the Steelers. And since I am tasked with offering you an evaluation of what I saw, I have no choice but to detail the ugliness.
1. Bad matchup. The Eagles' new defense, under Juan Castillo and Jim Washburn, is predicated on aggressiveness, especially by the defensive line. This makes Ben Roethlisberger the worst possible quarterback for the Eagles to face. He dances through and around pressure, stays upright far longer than he's supposed to, keeps plays alive forever and generally feasts on defenses that don't show enough patience. All of this was on display Thursday, as Roethlisberger was three steps ahead of Castillo and the Eagles' defense at every turn. He drew them offsides with a hard count. He stepped up to avoid pressure. He pump-faked. He handed the ball off to Rashard Mendenhall and watched him gash the Eagles' backup defensive tackles and suspect linebacker corps. The Eagles helped him out, as when Asante Samuel guessed wrong on a route and Antonio Brown got past him and caught a 29-yard touchdown pass. And I'm willing to bet, when they gather for their defensive meetings in the coming days, the Eagles hear a little bit about how to control their aggressiveness a little bit better.
2. Casey Matthews may not be the answer. The Eagles' defensive play calling was very basic, perhaps because they're trying not to overtax their rookie middle linebacker. This is a key element of preseason evaluation. The Steelers looked as though they devised specific offensive plays to beat the Eagles, and the Eagles looked as though they did not prepare specifically for the Steelers. Happens all the time in preseason, and it's a big reason not to draw big conclusions from these games. But even with the basic play calling, Matthews looked slow and confused at times, and physically overmatched at others. The decision to start Matthews at middle linebacker is a surprising one by the Eagles, especially in light of all of the work they did to upgrade at other spots on defense. You wonder if the way he played Thursday might make them look around to see if there's a veteran on the market who can help, but on the other hand, they don't seem to be placing a very high value on the linebacker position in general. On one third down in the first quarter, they loaded up with three safeties and four cornerbacks, leaving Jamar Chaney as the only linebacker on the field. Their strengths are at corner and defensive end, so they'll lean on those. But when you have a back who can get through the line as quickly as Mendenhall can and it's up to the linebackers to make a play to stop him ... that's where Matthews and the Eagles look shaky.
3. Asante Samuel has to learn to play without Quintin Mikell. Samuel bit on a move and a fake that Brown and Roethlisberger didn't make on that 29-yard touchdown. It was a pure guess, and a bad one -- the kind that's worth taking if you know you have a responsible veteran safety backing you up. But the safeties were elsewhere on that play, and the new scheme plus the absence of the veteran Mikell (who signed with the Rams) could mean Samuel has to take more responsibility for playing the receiver he's covering instead of trying to jump a route to get an interception.
4. Vick was very, very, very not good. The bad throws were one thing, but the worse part was that he just didn't do a good job of reading the defense. He struggled against the blitz, which was supposed to be his area of focus this preseason. He never saw Ryan Clark on his first interception. He threw behind Chad Hall on the second. And the third was a bad decision -- he shouldn't have thrown the ball downfield after that play broke down as badly and as many times as it did. "Obviously, tonight, I didn't make the best decisions," Vick told Fox's Pam Oliver during a fourth-quarter sideline interview. That included the hit on Polamalu, which was very impressive but must have terrified his coaches. No reason for Vick to take a risk like that in a game whose outcome doesn't matter. He's too important to the Eagles to try something like that, and he's at least as lucky he didn't get hurt as the Eagles are that this game didn't count.
5. The defensive line misses its starting tackles. Antonio Dixon and Mike Patterson are out due to injury and illness, and that's part of why the run defense looked so vulnerable. I imagine the linebackers will look better once they're at full strength in the middle of the line. But if those guys are going to be out for an extended period of time (as is surely possible with Patterson, at least), this could continue to be a problem.
6. Ronnie Brown is going to be a huge asset in the backup running back role. He's a starting-quality running back whose role is to give the electrifying McCoy a rest. So, when McCoy is on the sideline, the Eagles are still going to be better at running back than many of their opponents are when their starting back is playing. Brown looks great so far this preseason, which brings up another as-yet unmentioned point: The work-in-progress offensive line didn't look too bad. Okay, so Point 6 wasn't really a bad-news point. But hey, it's true.
7. Can Howard Mudd really not coach from the press box? Poor guy really has a hard time getting around on those bad legs of his. Don't know why they wouldn't let him coach from up there. Unless he doesn't want to. I admit I don't know.
In conclusion, it's like this: As the Giants did Saturday, the Eagles looked lousy in almost all respects Thursday. So I point this out, as I did with the Giants on Saturday. What I am not saying here is that the Eagles are in trouble as a result of anything we saw Thursday. The sky is not falling. This game matters not at all, except as a potential learning opportunity. Did it point to some potential trouble spots? Sure. But it doesn't mean the team isn't as good as people thought it would be. It just means the Eagles had a bad night in August. Kind of like the Steelers had last week against the Redskins. And you saw how they bounced back from that.