Eagles vs. Steelers: What to Watch for in Preseason Week 3 Opener

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystAugust 21, 2014

Eagles vs. Steelers: What to Watch for in Preseason Week 3 Opener

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    A fortnight.

    That's all that stands between NFL teams and the beginning of the 2014 regular season. Two short weeks. 14 days.

    With this being the third week of the 2014 preseason, that also means that it's "dress rehearsal" time. The starters will see their most action of the exhibition season this week, with many playing an entire half or more.

    The week kicks off with a battle for bragging rights in the Keystone State, as the Pittsburgh Steelers travel to face the Philadelphia Eagles.

    Here's a look at what to watch for on Thursday night.

LeSean McCoy's Toe

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    It might seem strange that the first thing I'd advise folks to watch for is a toe, but in the case of Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, that toe has become a very important appendage.

    The Internet was set abuzz earlier this week by the revelation that McCoy, who led the NFL with 1,607 yards on the ground, was battling a "minor" case of turf toe in the big toe of his left foot.

    The news sent fantasy football types who have already made the sixth-year veteran the first overall pick in their drafts this year scrambling for the liquor cabinet. After all, turf toe can be a nasty, lingering malady.

    Never mind that the big toe is the captain of the toes.

    However, head coach Chip Kelly downplayed McCoy's podiatric problem (while adding a heaping helping of sarcasm) on Tuesday, according to ESPN's Ashley Fox:

    I don't think he'll ever play again. He's fine. He practiced full yesterday. He's fine. It's not as big an issue as anybody's made it out to be. LeSean is a competitor and wants to be out there. It was just one incident. There's a lot of questions about a toe for a practice in August.

    On one hand, this appears to be much ado about nothing. Both Kelly and McCoy have downplayed the injury, and McCoy told Zach Berman of The Philadelphia Inquirer that he intends to play against the Steelers Thursday.

    Still, it's also understandable that even the thought of McCoy being banged up is enough to give fans a raging case of the vapors. McCoy is the engine that drives the Philly offense. Simply put, the odds of the Eagles repeating as NFC East champions without "Shady" are slim to none.

    For an indication of just how important McCoy is to the Philadelphia offense, one need look no further than the comparison drawn by center Jason Kelce while speaking with Gary Mihoces of USA Today:

    Shady is a special back. He's fun to block for because at any time he can turn something into a big play. He has that type of ability — almost like a Barry Sanders-esque type player — where even when the blocking assignment is not going so well ... he can make something happen.

    Mind you, no one's saying that McCoy's as good as Sanders was, but the two are/were equally vital cogs in their respective offenses.

    Seeing McCoy on the field Thursday, even briefly, will go a long way toward dropping the average blood pressure in the Philadelphia area back to manageable levels.

For Whom the Bell Toils

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    The Eagles aren't the only team with a bit of drama at the running back position.

    That drama ratcheted up about eight notches on Wednesday. As ESPN's Adam Schefter reported, both Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount of the Steelers were arrested and charged with possession of marijuana:

    Bell and Blount will be charged with marijuana possession following a traffic stop Wednesday afternoon. Ross Township detective Brian Kohlhepp said traffic officer Sean Stafiej pulled over a Camaro operated by Bell around 1:30 p.m. after Stafiej, who was on a motorcycle, noticed a strong odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle. Stafiej found a 20 gram bag of marijuana inside the car. Bell, Blount and a female passenger all claimed ownership of the marijuana according to police. Bell, 22, was taken to a hospital to have blood drawn and is expected to be charged with driving under the influence of marijuana. Bell, Blount and the female passenger were arrested and released. All three are expected to receive notice of formal charges through the mail said Kohlhepp. The possession and DUI charges are both misdemeanors.

    These charges could eventually lead to discipline from the NFL, but that isn't the only question swirling over the pair.

    There's also the matter of how carries will be distributed between the pair in 2014.

    No one questions that Bell is the lead back. The question is how much work Blount will siphon from Bell after Blount's career year with the New England Patriots in 2013.

    Head coach Mike Tomlin told Dave Richard of CBS Sports that the workload division remains a work in progress:

    We're trying to work both guys, but at the same time we want to get them enough extended action that we know them as fatigue sets in. Playing consecutive plays is a big part of that. Both guys are going to get their share but I want both guys to have the lead dog mentality, and in order to have that and do that you gotta see them for spurts of extended period of time. But don't read too much into it, we're just still growing and developing in terms of our division of labor. I like both guys, obviously, and both guys are going to be big components of why we're successful.

    Bell himself told Richard that he expects to lose goal-line and short-yardage carries to Blount.

    "They probably will do that, that's probably what will happen," Bell said. "He's a big, strong guy, so when they put him in, he's in. We hopefully get that touchdown and I'm glad. I don't care."

    With the starters set to see their most work of the preseason this week, Thursday's game against the Eagles was probably the best "preview" we were going to get so far as to how the carries in the Steel City will be divided.

    That is, until Wednesday's arrest. Now, as Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reports, Bell did not even make the trip to Philly with the team.

    However, according to Ed Bouchette of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Bell made it to Philly on his own Wednesday night, so we may just get that backfield preview we were seeking after all.

The Eagles' Offensive Defense

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia Eagles won the NFC East last year thanks to one of the NFL's most prolific offenses.

    The defense was another story. The Eagles ranked 29th in total defense last year, dead last against the pass and a mediocre 20th in sacks.

    So far, those struggles appear to have carried over into the preseason. Through two games (both losses), the Eagles have allowed 76 points. Last week against the New England Patriots, the Eagles allowed Tom Brady to complete 80 percent of his passes and let the Pats convert on two-thirds of their third-down opportunities.

    Still, defensive coordinator Bill Davis told ESPN's Ashley Fox that's he's seen improvement as he continues to evaluate his defense this summer:

    This is the evaluation phase. And sometimes evaluation looks painful, but sometimes it looks promising. I think we had both of that the other night. We are rushing four for the most part on third downs and playing coverage trying to tighten our coverage up and evaluate who can cover and who can’t, evaluate who can rush and who can’t, grow pass-rushers and cover guys. The only way you’re going to get better at it is at that speed practicing our coverage, our leverage and our finish at the ball, and that’s what preseason is about and that’s what we’re grinding through right now.

    Of course, that would be much easier to get on board with if the Eagles first-team defense were to make a few stops against Pittsburgh Thursday.

Can Ryan Shazier Continue to Shine?

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    Vincent Pugliese/Associated Press

    As NFL debuts go, it doesn't get a whole lot better than Ryan Shazier's first game with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    The first-round pick out of Ohio State, who missed the preseason opener, made up for lost time in last week's game against the Buffalo Bills.

    Shazier recorded nine tackles on defense, added two more on special teams and made a wildly athletic interception of an EJ Manuel pass. Shazier had four solo stops on the Bills' first drive of the game alone.

    It was a performance that drew rave reviews from fellow inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, according to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

    His pass coverage is awesome. You saw the tackles; he was making tackles left and right. He has the pedigree. He has all the talent and the intangibles you want in an inside linebacker.

    It's almost unheard of for a rookie to start on defense for the Steelers in the Dick LeBeau era, but with the Steelers badly in need of both youth and speed, that's exactly what Shazier is slated to do in 2014.

    Of course, if Shazier shines against Philly like he did against the Bills, then starting him from Day 1 seems a lot less like a reach and a lot more like common sense.

Young Wideouts on Display

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    We'll wrap up this look at Thursday night's showdown in the City of Brotherly Love with a look at a pair of young wide receivers from whom big things are expected in 2014.

    With Emmanuel Sanders now catching passes from Peyton Manning in Denver, the Steelers entered the summer with a hole in the starting lineup at wideout opposite Antonio Brown.

    As Brown told Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, it's essential that someone step up and fill that void. “It's absolutely important (for him to succeed) or teams are going to come to the stadium and put two or three guys on me,” Brown said. “We're going to need other guys (contributing) to win.”

    Luckily, as Robinson points out, second-year pro Markus Wheaton appears to be up to the task:

    The starting wide receiver job opposite Brown is Markus Wheaton's to lose — and, so far, the third-round draft pick from last season is winning it. He turned an inside-out move and solo coverage into a 16-yard touchdown catch against Buffalo.

    Wheaton himself agreed that the starting job is his for the taking, but the youngster also realizes he has little margin for error.

    "We have a lot of good receivers that are shooting for that spot,” Wheaton said. “I would still say it's still up in the air, but I would definitely say it's my spot to lose.”

    For the Eagles, Jordan Matthews isn't penciled in as a starter yet, but if the rookie second-rounder from Vanderbilt keeps playing like he did against the Patriots, that may change soon.

    After a drop-filled preseason opener, Matthews bounced back in a big way against the Pats, catching all nine passes thrown his way for 104 yards.

    It was an eye-opening performance, but head coach Chip Kelly told Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com that he wasn't surprised at all:

    He was a little over-excited playing in his first NFL football game against Chicago, and the Jordan that we’ve seen in practices is the Jordan that you kind of saw today. I think he had nine targets, nine catches. He did a good job with the run after the catch. It’s the same thing that we’ve seen when we’ve been at our training sessions at the NovaCare is what we finally saw tonight. He’s just such an emotional guy and plays at such a high level that I think he was probably just ramped up a little bit too (much) in the Chicago game, so I’m glad with what we saw tonight.
    It will be interesting to see if Matthews' performance translates to extra playing time with the starters Thursday and what Matthews can do with that opportunity if he gets it.