McMullen’s Quick Hits: Eagles Get Defensive
(973espn.com) - There was no Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown or Le'Veon Bell in Pittsburgh on Thursday night so it’s not the time to schedule the parade just yet but it’s clear that the identity of the 2016 Philadelphia Eagles is going to center around Jim Schwartz’s defense.
The Eagles’ stop unit picked off four Landry Jones’ passes in the opening half, including a 38-yard pick-six by cornerback Nolan Carroll en route to a dominating 17-0 Week 2 preseason victory over the Steelers.
Malcolm Jenkins, Aaron Grymes and Jaylen Watkins also victimized the Steelers’ backup in the first 30 minutes of the contest.
In Pittsburgh’s three possessions in the the first quarter with Jones piloting things, the Eagles’ first-team defense forced a punt and then ended back-to-back drives with interceptions, one the Carroll pick-six, and the other a Leodis McKelvin deflection that ended as a Jenkins theft in the end zone with Pittsburgh threatening.
Jones stayed in for the second quarter as Schwartz moved to the reserves in the back seven but Philadelphia hardly softened as emerging ex-CFL star Grymes also intercepted a Jones offering in the end zone to stop another Steelers’ drive before Watkins also got the former Oklahoma star.
Doug Pederson’s offense, however, continued to be a work in progress as the group only ran four plays in the first quarter so the starters stayed in and worked until halftime, longer than expected.
Quarterback Sam Bradford ran 26 plays and the Eagles offense managed a total of just 122 yards. Bradford himself finished 14-of-19 for 115 yards with Nelson Agholor, Zach Ertz and rookie Paul Turner serving as his favorite targets.
Backup Chase Daniel was a lot sharper this week and led Philadelphia to its only offensive TD of the night on his first opportunity in the third quarter, a drive that culminated with a 5-yard Kenjon Barner scoring run.
Carroll may have locked down the starting cornerback opposite Leodis McKelvin when the veteran corner jumped a route and took the football away from the Steelers’ Sammie Coates en route to a 38-yard pick six that puts the Eagles on top early.
"The way he was standing in his alignment, I just knew right then and there, and I jumped the route," Carroll said.
It’s looking more and more likely that Carroll and McKelvin will be the outside corners with Ron Brooks handling the slot work when Robert Griffin III and Cleveland arrive on Sept. 11.
Rookie Jalen Mills, who missed tonight’s game with a hamstring issue, and Eric Rowe are next in line from there. If the Eagles keep six CBs, keep an eye on Grymes, who has been separating himself from players like Denzel Rice and JaCorey Shepherd. Grymes, though, was forced to leave with a shoulder injury so that could be a concern.
Schwartz should take the “co-” off Brandon Graham, who is the Eagles most well-rounded edge defender despite being the third man in the rotation with left end Vinny Curry and right end Connor Barwin.
Lately, though, Graham has been getting the majority of the work with the ones at left end and is Philadelphia’s best run defender on the edge by a wide margin. When it’s all said and done, Graham, who had a nice tackle for loss tonight, is the one who should be getting the most reps among the three co-starters and the nickel rush should have Curry kicking inside while Graham and Barwin handle each side.
Doug Pederson said he wasn’t going to play but Dorial Green-Beckham was in uniform for the Eagles and talked himself into the game by the third quarter. DGB was targeted just once and Daniel could not connect with him.
As for the other wideouts Nelson Agholor made a nice, leaping catch late in the second quarter and has nary a play to celebrate as the embattled second-year receiver dropped a catchable ball on the very next play.
The former first-round pick made a bit of news earlier this week by claiming that the acquisition of Green-Beckham wasn’t a message to the existing group of receivers who have been so disappointing. That, of course, was exactly what it was and Agholor showed a little more life but should still see a 6-foot-5, 240-pound DGB in the rear-view mirror.
Rookie Paul Turner, meanwhile, continues his push to make this team with a novel approach, actually catching the football. The Louisiana Tech product caught three more passes in three targets against the Steelers for 44 yards. In two games he’s been targeted 10 times and hauled in nine with the only misfire Carson Wentz’s interception last week on a play Turner was wide open on.
The former first-round pick returned to the lineup after missing the preseason opener with a concussion. During his absence, the unheralded Steven Means opened a few eyes with his ability to make plays on the pass rush. The new coaching staff seemed to be enamored with Smith’s skill set before his latest setback and he seems like a better fit in Jim Schwartz’s scheme but at some point, and he showed it tonight, racing off the edge from a wide-9 stance to sack Steelers QB Dustin Vaughan.
ACT OF GOD
On Thursday’s Sports Bash with Josh Hennig and Pete Thompson, I mentioned to the boys that Caleb Sturgis had basically lapped Cody Parkey in the kicking competition. In the unofficial count entering tonight’s game Sturgis had missed just three field goals throughout camp and Parkey was up to 10.
Parkey needed a miracle to get back into the mix and he may have gotten it before the game when Sturgis suffered a concussion (yes, a concussion) during pre-game warm-ups after being hit in the head by an errant punt. Parkey nailed a 40-yard field goal to end the first half in his lone FG attempt on the night.
As expected receivers Jordan Matthews (knee) and Hunter Sharpe (hamstring), linebacker Mychal Kendricks (hamstring), Mills (hamstring), defensive tackle Mike Martin (knee), and Wentz (rib) were all ruled before the kickoff and, among that group, only Wentz made the trip to Pittsburgh.
Meanwhile Shepherd (hamstring) couldn’t get on the field again and his chances for making this team are dwindling by the day. Rookie running back Wendell Smallwood (quad) was also ruled out for the second straight game.
In-game injuries were Grymes (shoulder) and rookie linebacker Joe Walker (knee).
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen