The most important thing that happened during a 24-23 victory by the Philadelphia Eagles over the Pittsburgh Steelers in their preseason opener was the result of an X-ray. Starting quarterback Michael Vick left the game in the second quarter after banging his left thumb on the helmet of teammate Jason Kelce while throwing a pass. Vick, who throws left-handed, was in obvious pain on the sideline and spent the rest of the second quarter icing the thumb.
The Eagles announced at halftime that an X-ray taken on the thumb was negative, and cameras caught Vick on the sideline during the fourth quarter gripping a ball with his left hand. Coach Andy Reid said after the game that Vick had a thumb "contusion" and that the issue was a nerve on the top of his thumb that made it numb for a while, but that he was fine by the end of the game. So it appears the Eagles survived a scare, but the scare was a jarring reminder of Vick's importance to the Eagles' hopes and the low point of a very poor first-half performance by the team as a whole.
We make no broad conclusions based on the first preseason game (or any preseason game) -- only observations. The Eagles were playing without three of their starters on the defensive line, and starting wide receiver Jeremy Maclin injured his hamstring in pregame warm-ups. And of course, the Eagles have had a rough week following the death of Reid's oldest son on Sunday morning. All of that matters as we assess what happened -- good and bad -- in this game. So here goes.
1. They need to stretch more. Maclin strained his hamstring before warm-ups even started, Reid said. And defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins strained his during the first quarter. Reid said he didn't think Jenkins' injury was too serious. He sounded less happy about Maclin's. Starting defensive end Jason Babin is already out with a strained calf. Muscle pulls are an August bane for a lot of teams, but this has something of an epidemic feeling in Philly, no?
2. They need to tackle better. I'm sure they will, but after such a poor tackling 2011, this was not the way the Eagles wanted to look in the first half of their 2012 preseason. Missed tackles by everyone from Jaiquawn Jarrett to DeMeco Ryans were a problem as the Steelers marched down the field against them in the first half. The length of the Steelers' drives was the reason Vick was even in the game in the second quarter. The offense got to run only three plays in the first.
3. They're not kidding about that defensive line depth. I thought 2010 first-round pick Brandon Graham played like a star. Which, of course, is exactly what he is supposed to be. Finally healthy after a year and a half's worth of knee problems, Graham should be a significant addition to the pass rush. But overall, backup lineman Derek Landri, Darryl Tapp, Phillip Hunt, et al looked very good, especially on the pass rush. And assuming Jenkins, Babin and Trent Cole can all get back healthy, the Eagles' plans to rotate eight defensive linemen and "throw fastballs at the offensive line" has a good chance to work. They still need to at least pay some attention to the run and toughen up in the middle, but a lot of that is the responsibility of the linebackers in this defense.
4. Damaris Johnson is a factor. He was the starting wide receiver in place of Maclin, which was something of a surprise. But he's been practicing well and is obviously a help in the return game. He had a long punt return wiped out by a penalty.
5. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie needs to find his checkbook. Called for a penalty for launching himself into a receiver, Rodgers-Cromartie can expect a well-deserved fine. Stupid penalty that would have been costly had it been a real game. That play is on every instructional video the league shows players to tell them what not to do.
6. Vick versus the blitz. Vick didn't do much while in the game, but the one play that stands out for me was a negative one. The Steelers showed a blitz look but didn't blitz, and it confused Vick, who was surprised not to find anyone open and took a sack as he tried to leave the pocket. Reading defenses and identifying coverages and blitz schemes has long been a problem for Vick, who says he's working on it and still has a month left before the real games start.
7. Oh yeah. Nick Foles. Everybody on Twitter was all fired up about Foles and his two long touchdown passes. Foles makes a remarkable impression. He's a giant (6-foot-6) with a great big arm. Everything physical about him shouts, "star quarterback." But it's important to remember that he's a rookie who doesn't yet know the offense and still needs to refine his footwork and other mechanics. The Eagles drafted Foles because of his physical tools -- his arm in particular. But he's no threat right now to Mike Kafka as the backup. Unfortunately for Kafka, whose struggles to throw the deep ball are a particularly bad deficiency on the Eagles' speed-based offense, Foles profiles as the better player down the road. But not yet. No matter how good he looked Thursday night, Foles is still the No. 3.
8. The winning kick. No, the game doesn't count. But Alex Henery's 51-yard field goal with 12 seconds left that set the final score is a nice confidence booster for the Eagles' second-year kicker. Also take note that it was second-year punter Chas Henry who held on that kick. Henry also unleashed a 54-yard punt earlier in the game and is trying to hold off a serious challenge from former Cowboys punter Mat McBriar.
OK, that's more than enough off the first preseason game. In conclusion: No, they didn't look good, but it probably doesn't matter, and the most important thing is that Vick appears to have dodged a serious injury. On to preseason Week 2 for the Eagles, whose priority right now is to get everyone healthy.