7:31 PM PDT, August 10, 2012
No matter how you look at Thursday night's preseason opener and the lapses the Philadelphia Eagles' first-team defense had at times, it's still impossible not to be impressed with the overall defensive product, albeit against a vanilla Pittsburgh Steelers attack.
Simply put, the Eagles' defense played on the other side of the line of scrimmage more than Pittsburgh's offense did in a game the Eagles won, 24-23, with a field goal in the closing seconds.
The final numbers were staggering. In addition to 18 tackles for losses, the Eagles produced seven sacks for a total of 25 negative-yardage plays. What's more, six incompletions and three other plays that went for no gain meant the Steelers gained positive yardage on just 31 of their 65 offensive snaps on their way to 230 total yards.
No question the Eagles would be beyond thrilled with those kinds of statistics for their opponent every week, time-of-possession disadvantage be damned.
On the other hand, there also is no question they would trade all of those 25 negative-yardage plays for, say, two turnovers, which would be two more than they generated on this night. In a remarkably clean preseason game, the Steelers almost won anyway — mostly because they wound up punting on all drives in which they didn't score and the Eagles did not.
In the second quarter, backup quarterback Mike Kafka made a bad first-half situation worse by forcing a throw directly into the chest of Steelers defensive end Al Woods, who went 53 yards the other way to set up a field goal.
They would have had a touchdown except for the blazing speed and hustle of running back Bryce Brown, who caught Woods from behind at the 4-yard line, and the defensive penetration of defensive tackle Derek Landri, a surprise starter due to various injuries.
Landri first stuffed Baron Batch for a 1-yard loss. On third-and-goal from the 4, he then dropped Chris Rainey for a 9-yard loss.
Those were Landri's only two tackles of the night, but they might have been the most important two plays in determining the final score.
"On the first one, they ran a trap, just got off, [Antonio Dixon] played it real well and crushed it down ... and allowed me to grab him," Landri said. "The second one, I was just playing the defense. We had a blitz on and I had a good get-off and was able to get in the backfield and make a play."
Landri obviously wasn't the only one.
Rookie defensive end Vinny Curry had team highs of three tackles for losses and five overall. Fellow rookie Mychal Kendricks stuffed two ballcarriers behind the line, as did Landri, defensive tackle Cedric Thornton and defensive end Brandon Graham, who not only will have no problem making the team this year but might just wind up starting by season's end.
Phillip Hunt contributed two sacks.
However, the Eagles were hurt too much on some big gains in which their linebackers and secondary were caught out of position or failed to get off blocks or both.
"There are times when you have to react to the screens and the draws and get off the blocks," coach Andy Reid said, "and we can do that a little bit better. But there were just some good things in there by the young players. There were a variety of them on both sides of the ball. The guys up front were coming off [the ball] and doing a nice job of that. It looked like everybody got plenty of reps too, so we should have good film on them and we should be able to evaluate them."
While he's at it, Reid and defensive end Juan Castillo might want to go back to the drawing board themselves and correct an annoying little red-zone scheme that's been bugging this defense at times for the better part of the last decade.
Ever since Lito Sheppard was the team's shutdown cornerback, the corners tend to give more cushion to receivers instead of less the closer the opponent gets to the goal line. This behavior is especially puzzling for a defense that wants to rebuild its identity with "press coverage," a term the Eagles have been using as their unofficial mantra for more than a year.
This fundamental flaw was evident again Thursday night, when Nnamdi Asomugha allowed slot receiver Emmanuel Sanders to run unmolested on a slant from the 2-yard line. The short, quick throw by Byron Leftwich and catch by Sanders 3 yards into the end zone could have been duplicated by any two of the thousand fans in the stands — it was that easy.
Of course, the situation was exacerbated by what appeared to be confusion after the snap. Asomugha might have allowed Sanders to run free on purpose because he thought linebacker Brian Rolle had the inside covered. But Rolle froze. Touchdown.
Regardless, with the back of the end zone just 12 yards behind them, there's no excuse for not at least trying to jam or disrupt Sanders (and all other receivers) at the line of scrimmage in that situation.
But the feeling here is that the Eagles have more than enough defensive talent to advance in the playoffs if they can just put it together.
Copyright © 2013, The Morning Call