The preseason is for working out kinks, fine-tuning and identifying strengths and weaknesses.
With that in mind, the Philadelphia Eagles have some work to do in the next few weeks. Not as much on offense, although Nick Foles and the first-team unit was just good Friday, not great. But rather with the defense, the same unit that ranked dead last against the pass last season and added very little to help that beside safety Malcolm Jenkins, who has had a quiet summer so far, and first-round pick Marcus Smith, who has been running with the third-team defense until recently.
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Tom Brady and the Patriots went to work on that Eagles defense right away. They picked their way with a series of short runs and passes, all going for 6-10 yards, and were poised to score before Eagles CB Cary Williams got lucky on a 77-yard pick-six when Patriots tight end Steve Maneri (who might be sent packing any minute now) ran the wrong route.
Like in the Eagles' first preseason game against the Chicago Bears, there was little pressure or disruption up front to affect the Patriots' rhythm. Granted, like the Eagles, the Patriots play with a quick rhythm in the passing game with a lot of three- and five-step drops where the ball is out the second that final foot hits the turf. Brady's a master at that, and the Patriots were using a series of heavy sets (tackles playing tight end) to give extra support.
But the Eagles had few answers of how to stop it. On top of that, it wasn't just Brady. Rookie Jimmy Garoppolo, who has been the third-string Patriots quarterback to this point (although he relieved Brady tonight), picked apart the Eagles on two scoring drives. Yes, the first drive came off a turnover on a kickoff and only went 28 yards, but his following possession he drove the Patriots 13 plays and 75 yards, capped with a touchdown pass in traffic in the back of the end zone in which the Eagles secondary looked a bit lost.
Several Eagles defenders struggled. Cornerback Curtis Marsh had a nightmare evening, committing two bad penalties (three, really, but one was picked up) and being torched multiple times in coverage. Even corner Brandon Boykin, one of the Eagles' most reliable defenders, had a rough night. Vinny Curry figures to make the roster because he's one of the few true pass rushers the Eagles have, and he was very active in this game, but he also overran one play, committed a penalty and was engulfed on a run block another time.
Adding injury to insult, Williams — one of the few Eagles standouts on defense — went down with a hamstring injury on that INT return, and Boykin suffered some kind of leg injury near the end of the first half. A position of some depth now looms as a potential worry, especially because Marsh might be playing his way out of a roster spot.
The Patriots showed teams the way to beat Chip Kelly's Eagles: crush them on time of possession. Oh, sure, it's a misleading stat, especially when the Eagles can score in two minutes flat. But when the Patriots took a 21-7 lead with both teams' first units in, they held a 18:39-2:37 time-of-possession edge and the first downs were 17-1, New England.
If this defense can't get enough third-down stops or at least create the odd turnover twice a game, there will be limitations to what the Eagles can do this season
The Seattle Seahawks — you heard of 'em?
Yeah, they're the champs, but other than some Marshawn Lynch drama, it has been a bit quiet around the champs since the start of training camp, has it not? As ebullient as head coach Pete Carroll is, he can't see this as a bad thing.
There have been no major injuries. There have been no holdouts. There has been no gratuitous hubris, at least none that is visible to the naked eye. Oh, and their players are good. Still.
That was on display in the Seahawks' clinical performance of the first units against the Chargers. Russell Wilson looked like Bobby Fisher toying with a 13-year-old in chess, constantly appearing two and three moves ahead of the Chargers defense and rarely letting it get within sniffing distance of him.
And that Seahawks defense looks best-in-the-league good again, as a fierce rush short-circuited most of what the Chargers tried to do, even if starting quarterback Philip Rivers only made it through one series. That likely was a smart move by Chargers head coach Mike McCoy. No need to expose Rivers to that defense. Cliff Avril was screaming off the edge. Greg Scruggs, who missed last season, had a sack. You want the Chargers' offensive line, which could be very good this season, to face some live bullets. But this was a semi-automatic assault.
Yes, the defense allowed a Chargers 10-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to Kellen Clemens in the final minutes of the first half, but that was against a slew of second-team defenders. Still, a fair number of them are fighting for key reserve jobs, and few of them stoof out on the drive.
Wilson was 11-of-13 passing for 121 yards, and one of those incompletions was a would-be touchdown catch where Doug Baldwin was ruled to be out of the back of the end zone after review. Wilson also rushed for two touchdowns and escaped pressure beautifully.
There are still a few battles to settle in Seattle, such as the backup job to Wilson between Tarvaris Jackson and Terrelle Pryor, along with a few key spots such as right tackle. But there hasn't been a defending champion who appears to be in as good of shape as the Seahawks look to be right now.
Tennessee Titans wide receiver made news this week for the unform he was wearing in practice. Instead of "Hunter" on the back, it read: JAG, as in "just a guy." Not the kind of name a player wants to stick. The coaches gave it to Hunter because of some repeated mental mistakes he was making in practice and in the preseason opener. It must have driven home the point.
Luckily, Hunter turned the beat around, at least in Friday's preseason game against the New Orleans Saints. He caught two touchdown passes in a four-catch, 111-yard performance that reminds us of just how much talent he has.
On his first touchdown, Hunter caught a fade pass in the back of the end zone and managed to get both feet inbounds, showing tremendous concentration and body control. It's the kind of jump-ball play the Titans would love to get consistently this season, especially with Jake Locker — not regarded as the most accurate passer in the NFL — at quarterback.
On the 64-yard catch and run by Hunter from rookie quarterback Zach Mettenberger, Hunter caught the ball in traffic and ran away from the rest of the secondary. If you squinted, it looked like Alshon Jeffery or even Josh Gordon running with the ball out there.
Hunter made a series of flash plays as a rookie, including a game-winning catch (his first grab in the NFL) in Week 3 against the San Diego Chargers, another score the following week against the New York Jets and a pair of 100-plus-yard, one-touchdown games after Week 12. But Hunter was very inconsistent, only catching more than two passes in a game twice despite playing in 14 contests.
In the preseason opener against the Green Bay Packers in the driving rain, Hunter was silent with one catch for five yards. On Friday, it was Hunter making it rain — metaphorically, of course, because the game was in the Superdome — with a huge night that could be the kind of thing he shows more consistently in the regular season.
Saints 31, Titans 24: The Saints did some good things in this game, but Sean Payton was steamed after the game about the lack of discipline to the tune of 22 penalites (!) for 184 yards (!!). "It's the first sign of a team that has no discipline," Payton said. "I'm very upset. … Next question." And to further drive home the anger part, Payton issued another "next question" on a penalty follow-up. The Titans were no angels, either, with 1 flags for 111 yards. But flag-happy refs or not, 22 penalties is ridiculous. Payton had every right to be peeved.
• Eagles tight end Zach Ertz looks like a star in the making. He caught two passes Friday — a 6-yard touchdown from Foles and a pretty, 20-yard grab from backup Mark Sanchez that displayed the seam-route ability Ertz can add to this offense in his second season. The Eagles lost a vertical element of their offense when DeSean Jackson left for the Washington Redskins, and the offense figures to attack more horizontally because of it. But Ertz, who gave Patriots defenders fits during the teams' joint practices this week leading up to the game, figures to be a considerable weapon for this offense.
• The Patriots still have a tight end problem. Maneri, who was picked up this week, made a few nice blocks in the run game, but that miscommunication with Brady will go down as a big strike against him in his pursuit of a roster spot. James Develin is more of a jack of all trades, but he has had to take major reps there, and the Patriots fiddled a lot Friday with using a lot of tackle-eligible plays to help block up the run game in lieu of a traditional tight end. If Rob Gronkowski truly is 50-50 to play in the opener, and assuming he's not full strength even if he is a go early, the Patriots will be shorthanded at the position, it appears.
• The Lions' kicking battle between Nate Freese and Giorgio Tavecchio rages on. Freese missed a 33-yard extra point but nailed a 55-yarder off the Oakland Coliseum infield dirt. Tavecchio made an extra point. Freese made 37- and 32-yard attempts last week against the Browns and would figure to have the edge. But a missed extra point, even from 33 yards, shows that the Lions could be a bit worried. The remainder of their special-teams units were pretty bad against the Raiders, too.
• Mettenberger, the Titans' third-stringer, opened some eyes with his 20-of-25 passing, 269-yard, two-TD effort against the Saints, and he made some terrific throws in doing so. No one can question his arm talent. But Mettenberger still has mechanical things he must clean up. He made a questionable decision on his one interception, and for the second week in a row he had a fumble when a ball he was holding too low was stripped away. No. 2 QB Charlie Whitehurst left the game with a throwing-hand injury, giving Mettenberger a chance to put up some big numbers. But he still has plenty of things to clean up, and the Titans have to hope that Whitehurst's hand isn't a long-term concern. If so, it would be among the more unsettled quarterback positions on any team in the NFL.
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