Philadelphia Eagles: Questions That Still Must Be Answered This Preseason
For all the talk of the Philadelphia Eagles being way ahead of where they were this time last year, it sure didn’t appear that way in their 2014 preseason opener. If anything, the exhibition game against the Chicago Bears created more questions than answers.
Obviously, less than a quarter of action for the starters isn’t necessarily telling one way or another. That being said, the Birds’ performance didn’t exactly instill confidence, either.
Two of three offensive possessions for Philadelphia’s starters ended in a turnover, the other a punt. And while the defense did manage to force one three-and-out, the same unit also surrendered a 13-play, 69-yard touchdown drive that included three third-down conversions.
Perhaps these issues shouldn’t be cause for worry, especially considering it was only the first preseason game after all. Yet most of the problems the Eagles experienced in Chicago are related to legitimate concerns that already existed heading into the regular season.
The starters will appear in two more preseason games before the real thing gets underway. The following is a list of questions they must answer beforehand if the Eagles intend to contend in 2014.
Can Eagles Defense Get off the Field on Third Down?
Philadelphia’s inability to stop the Bears on third downs of 11, 10 and seven yards—the final of those going for a touchdown—was nothing new. The Eagles defense finished 24th in the NFL a season ago, allowing opponents to convert on 40 percent of attempts.
The crux of the problem is twofold.
No. 1, the Eagles have been unable to generate consistent pressure on quarterbacks. Philly was 20th in sacks last year. In addition to the issues up front, the secondary is lacking many shutdown players. The Birds’ pass defense ranked dead last in 2013.
The exact same flaws were on display in Chicago. Then again, there’s good reason for that. As defensive coordinator Bill Davis explained to reporters, the coaching staff was using this game to evaluate their base personnel and scheme. Via PhiladelphiaEagles.com:
Yeah, third down wasn't a good night for us. But one of the products of that is I really am trying to evaluate. It's harder than you think to hold to base four-man rushes and coverage calls to evaluate a four man rush and evaluate our coverage.
I knew halfway through that we were struggling on third down, and we were losing different one on one battles, but you can go to the pressure package, if you want. But it takes you away from the evaluation process. So the whole goal is to evaluate and grow the players, and that's what we're working on right now. It hurt a little bit on third down.
In other words, Davis wasn’t throwing his fastball against the Bears. Sooner or later, though, he’ll have to. The blitz packages and disguised coverages need work, too—and the Eagles need to prove third-down defense will not continue to be a backbreaker for the unit.
Is the Offensive Line in Decline?
What was a little more out of left field was the poor showing by Philadelphia’s offensive line. Or was it?
Three of the unit’s five starters are well into their 30s, when decline can be swift and unexpected? Actually, make that four starters now that journeyman Allen Barbre was promoted to starting right tackle, at least while Lane Johnson serves a four-game suspension.
The Eagles O-line was on the hook for three holding penalties in just 18 snaps against the Bears, plays that contributed to the deaths of at least two drives. Furthermore, blown blocks or missed assignments led to some heavy pressure on quarterback Nick Foles, which in turn contributed to a pair of interceptions.
All five players were at fault. Left tackle Jason Peters and left guard Evan Mathis—players who were voted first-team All-Pro in 2013 mind you—accounted for all three yellow flags.
Barbre wasn’t a total disaster, but he struggled visibly in his first start at right tackle. To a lesser extent, right guard Todd Herremans whiffed on a key pull block on one running play, while center Jason Kelce turned a pass-rusher loose right up the middle on a pass attempt.
All of the penalties and miscues had the offense completely discombobulated. So should Eagles fans worry?
Not yet. The sample size is far too small to pass judgment. Peters, Mathis and Herremans may be in their 30s, but all of them have a track record. Theoretically, Barbre only needs to survive four games if Johnson is ready to return as soon as he’s eligible.
Having said that, some drop-off in the play of the offensive line is not out of the question. Stronger outings in the next two preseason games would go a long way toward making any such thoughts go away.
Are the Wide Receivers Skilled/Deep Enough?
Riley Cooper didn’t play in the preseason opener. In his place, Ifeanyi Momah got the start, a wide receiver who hasn’t played a meaningful football game since September 2011 at Boston College, where he recorded 39 career receptions. Even Cooper is coming off a breakout year that was more like a breakout three games.
Jeremy Maclin was a game-time decision, although he ultimately played. Minor injuries have cost him practice time throughout the summer, not to mention he’s coming off a torn ACL. Plus, Maclin is unproven as a feature receiver, having never recorded 1,000 yards receiving in a season or even served as the No. 1 target in an NFL offense.
Behind Cooper and Maclin are rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff. While Matthews has been the unequivocal star of training camp and the team likes Huff, rookie wideouts seldom make major contributions as first-year pros.
Overall, there are simply a ton of questions with this group. Can Maclin stay healthy and anchor the unit? Who replaces Maclin if he’s out? Is Cooper any more than a replacement-level No. 2? Can Matthews or Huff play significant roles in 2014? Can Momah make the team?
This is the post-DeSean Jackson world in Philadelphia, which is nothing more than question after question. Yes, running back Darren Sproles and tight end Zach Ertz can help replace some of Jackson’s production, but the offense still needs literal wide receivers.
The receivers' health, depth and skill level are major question marks that I doubt can be answered during the preseason. Regardless, this group needs to show something over the next two games to put minds at ease.
Can Nick Foles Pick Up Where He Left off Last Year?
There is a certain amount of skepticism surrounding Nick Foles heading into the 2014 season, which is understandable to an extent. Nobody’s ever thrown 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions before, least of all a relative unknown second-year quarterback who ascended to the starting job due to an injury.
How could anybody possibly follow that?
So when Foles went out and heaved two picks in the first preseason game—as many as he threw in 14 regular-season and playoff appearances in ‘13—naturally it was taken as a sign of the Eagles’ apocalypse.
Look, odds are Foles won’t come close to matching his efficiency from a season ago. And it’s still fair to wonder whether he really is the man to lead the Eagles franchise to its first world championship since 1960.
The reality is Foles’ value as a potential franchise quarterback is not a question that can be answered during the preseason. That being said, he does need to show he can carry over the momentum from last year’s historic campaign and parlay that into a quality year. Whether the games count or not, that starts in August, not January.
Foles doesn’t own all of the blame for his poor performance in Chicago. He was under pressure, penalties dumped the offense in impossible situations and he wasn’t working with the full allotment of wide receivers.
The regular season begins in less than a month, though. Is Foles ready to pick up where he left off? That is the biggest question the Eagles have faced all offseason—not just for 2014 but for years to come.