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What we learned from Eagles-Browns: Davion Taylor and defense struggle; Deon Cain makes his roster case; Josh Jobe may be a lock

The Eagles didn’t play most of their starters, but there was still a lot to takeaway from the Eagles' 21-20 victory.

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Deon Cain (85) walks on the sideline after an NFL preseason football game against the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2022. The Eagles won 21-20. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Deon Cain (85) walks on the sideline after an NFL preseason football game against the Cleveland Browns in Cleveland, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2022. The Eagles won 21-20. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)Read moreRon Schwane / AP

CLEVELAND — The Eagles hung on to defeat the Browns, 21-20, in their second game of the preseason at FirstEnergy Stadium on Sunday. They didn’t play most of their starters, but there was still a lot to take away from the outing. Win, lose, or draw, here’s what we learned:

Reserves struggled to get off blocks, pressure QB

Nick Sirianni, to no great surprise, sat his first team following two days of joint practices with the Browns. Overall, the Eagles appeared to have the edge in the controlled scrimmage setting, but that assessment came with various qualifiers. For one, the Browns were without several key starters on defense, namely their top two guys — defensive end Myles Garrett and cornerback Denzel Ward. And on the day the Eagles arrived, it had just been announced that Deshaun Watson would be suspended for 11 regular-season games, and that in turn, pushed Jacoby Brissett up in the quarterback pecking order. The drop-off in quality was evident. But quarterback Jalen Hurts and the Eagles’ starters on both sides had enough positive moments to satisfy Sirianni. The second and third units, especially on offense, didn’t fare as well.

I’ll get to how the offensive reserves looked in the game, but the backup defense wasn’t sharp. And most of those players will be on the 53-man roster and may play roles on defense. That had to be disappointing for Sirianni and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon. It was just a preseason game and only a half a game of work, and it’s not as if Gannon had game-planned for Cleveland, but fundamentals weren’t executed consistently and the Browns’ second unit was able to engineer long drives.

» READ MORE: No starters, no stakes, but plenty of sense in Nick Sirianni’s preseason schedule for his Eagles starters

Linebacker Davion Taylor’s performance was maybe the most discouraging because he’s entering his third season and shouldn’t look as lost as he did on certain downs. Rookies Jordan Davis (18 snaps) and Nakobe Dean (30 snaps) didn’t stand out as much as they did in their preseason debuts a week ago. The former did move a few pockets at nose tackle, and he did get some penetration when able to rush, but he just wasn’t around the ball as much. I wouldn’t worry much about the defensive tackle, but there will be a learning curve. The same goes for Dean, who finished with three tackles.

Cornerback Zech McPhearson started, but he was off the field after only eight snaps, which tells you what the Eagles think of their cornerback depth. McPhearson is currently the third outside cornerback behind starters Darius Slay and James Bradberry. Defensive end Tarron Jackson had a few pressures, but the pass rush was lacking. The Eagles finished with zero sacks and only two quarterback hits. Defensive tackle Milton Williams has had a quiet camp and the same could have been said about his 21 snaps on Sunday.

One of the bigger problems seemed to be the tackling. Most teams don’t tackle to the ground in camp, so I don’t think that can be used as an excuse. The Eagles work on the fundamentals every practice. Sometimes it just comes down to personnel or want to. The Browns rushed for 174 yards, averaging 5.4 yards a carry, and a lot of those yards came after contact. The upgrades made to the defense should filter down the roster, but Sunday’s effort suggested otherwise.

The second-unit offense fared better

The second-unit offense scored touchdowns on each of its two drives. The series were workmanlike — the first included 14 plays, the second 17 plays — that featured running backs Boston Scott (10 carries for 33 yards and a touchdown) and Kenny Gainwell (11 carries for 46 yards and a touchdown) on the ground. The offensive line opened up some nice holes, but it was also a bit of a grind. A week after Hurts dropped back to pass every play of the one possession he was under center, Sirianni seemed to want to get the run game going and to give his backup running backs — starter Miles Sanders has been out with a hamstring injury — enough work.

Cam Jurgens started for the second week in a row. On Scott’s first carry — a 13-yard outside zone run — the rookie center pulled and demolished a Browns safety. Jurgens will stay with the first unit through this week’s joint practices with the Dolphins as Jason Kelce rehabs following elbow surgery. Kelce started to do some on-field conditioning last week and is still projected to return in time for Week 1. Jurgens was the first O-lineman to be pulled from the game. My story from the game was on left tackle Andre Dillard, his improvement, and the possibility he may be traded.

» READ MORE: Andre Dillard may be traded — Jalen Reagor, too — but the Eagles’ former first rounders know how far they’ve come

Quez Watkins played 11 snaps and caught two of two passes for 19 yards. I was a little surprised to see the starting slot receiver in the lineup, but considering his up-and-down camp, Sirianni may have wanted to get his attention. “I felt like Quez had done enough,” Eagles receiver Jalen Reagor said. “He’s going to be a starter. He deserves it, for sure. He’s been playing his [butt] off.”

Reagor played 28 snaps. He caught two of four targets for 17 yards. On the first incomplete pass, Gardner Minshew’s throw was a one-hopper, but the question was if Reagor came out of his break too late. The timing between the quarterback and the receiver was off on the second errant throw. It looked like Reagor may have made one too many moves before he broke inside on a slant route. I wrote more about Reagor in the above-referenced column. He has seemingly improved this offseason, but not enough to supplant A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, and Watkins.

Zach Pascal has been more sure-handed since returning from food poisoning. But he’s more of a slot receiver. Deon Cain has made a strong argument for making the roster. The Eagles are pot-committed with Reagor because of the salary-cap hit, but Cain could slide onto the 53-man roster as the sixth receiver. He’s been one of Minshew’s favorite targets in camp, and their chemistry was evident on consecutive back-shoulder passes the quarterback tossed to Cain for 48 yards.

Sinnett moved Eagles closer to keeping three QBs

The Eagles typically like to keep three quarterbacks on the roster, especially if the third is a developmental prospect. The Eagles claimed Reid Sinnett off waivers last October, after trading away Joe Flacco, and kept him on the roster the rest of the season. They saw an arm worth developing. But has he warranted a roster spot a year later with the Eagles a deeper squad? He won’t be active on game days, unless there is an injury, but they risk losing him to another team if they want to bring him back on the practice squad.

I have Sinnett on the roster right now. I think he’s shown enough for the Eagles to envision him as a future No. 2. My guess is they wanted to see if he could push Minshew to the point where they could feel comfortable enough moving the backup if another team needed an emergency starter. I don’t think Sinnett has performed well enough for that scenario to be in play, even as poorly as Minshew has played in camp.

In two preseason games, Sinnett completed 13 of 26 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns. He flashed his arm strength on the 55-yard touchdown pass to receiver Devon Allen. The ball easily traveled more than 60 yards. He’s had some errant throws or reads, and has been prone to hold the ball too long, but the Eagles’ decision to heavily favor him over rookie Carson Strong has made sense.

Minshew has shown that he can win a game in a pinch as he did last season against the New York Jets. Despite his shakiness in camp, he’s looked solid in both preseason games. He completed 14 of 17 passes for 142 yards against the Browns, with many coming on short drops with quick throws. His one mistake could have been costly. Sirianni went for it on fourth down at the Browns’ 3-yard line and Minshew threw one right into the waiting arms of cornerback Herb Miller. He dropped it, but could have had a pick six.

In December, after the Jets victory, Minshew went to Sirianni about competing for the starting spot. He had an argument considering how poorly Hurts had played the week before, but Hurts is now entrenched as the season nears. Minshew has one year left on his rookie contract.

“All I want to do is get better,” Minshew said when asked about becoming a starter again. “In my mind, I have proved myself that I can play in this league. That is all that matters. I know if I continue to get better then I have a chance to have a really good career in this league.”

Strong finally saw some action. He’s been mostly a spectator during camp and didn’t play in the preseason opener. His job on Sunday was essentially to hand the ball off. He did have one pass attempt, but a back-shoulder toss on third down went incomplete.

With roster secure, bubble players make their case

Cain was probably the one player who increased his odds, however slim they may be. Cornerback Josh Jobe strengthened his case, as well. He finished with a team-high seven tackles and one pass breakup. He seems to make at least one play on the ball in practice and the undrafted rookie out of Alabama has intangible upside. It doesn’t hurt that he saw the best competition on a weekly basis in college.

Britain Covey’s bid to sneak onto the roster may be slipping away. He had some splash moments early in camp, but he struggled to get one-on-one separation in the Browns joint practices. His best shot is as a returner. He had only one return — on a kickoff — and netted just 22 yards. Safety Ugo Amadi, who came from Seattle in the JJ Arcega-Whiteside trade, was relatively active for someone who just joined a new team. If there’s a position with room, it’s safety. Josiah Scott was recently moved from cornerback to safety, but he left the game early with an unspecified injury. Andre Chachere played mostly in the slot against the Browns, but safety is his natural position. Rookie safety Reed Blankenship came up and made a nice stop against the run, but he looks like a prime candidate for the practice squad.

» READ MORE: Andre Dillard may be traded — Jalen Reagor, too — but the Eagles’ former first rounders know how far they’ve come

Allen looked utterly lost when he first arrived in camp. Considering how long the track star had been away from football, it should have been expected.

“You watch one of the military movies and a grenade goes off and they’re like [makes shocked face], and that is how I felt in the huddle the first couple of weeks,” Allen said. “Just trying to listen to the call, understanding my assignment, figure out what I am going to be doing, and then make a big play on the field. Be a football player.”

He has made noticeable strides. And when he took the field for the first play, the Eagles had the 110-meter hurdler use his speed and run a deep post. The Browns were in the ideal zone coverage for the route and there was no catching Allen.

Extra points

Aside from Scott, outside linebacker Patrick Johnson and defensive tackle Marvin Wilson left with unspecified injuries. Both would return. … Arryn Siposs averaged 43.0 yards on three punts and had a 36.3-yard net. Two of his punts were inside the 20 and one bounced into the end zone for a touchback. The Eagles decided not to add another punter for camp even though Siposs struggled late last season. Special teams coordinator Michael Clay said that the punter has improved his hang time, but Siposs’ struggles last season seemed at times to be more mental than physical. … Inactive players typically watch the game from the sidelines and offer guidance and support to their teammates. Hurts does all that, of course, but he spent a significant amount of Sunday’s contest on a stationary bike pedaling away.