The Eagles played about half of their projected starters Thursday night against the Patriots. Those 13 players averaged just 12.2 snaps. No. 1 quarterback Jalen Hurts, three-fifths of the starting offensive line, and the top six defensive linemen, meanwhile, were held out for whatever reason.
The Eagles weren’t playing to lose, but considering the product they fielded and the fact that New England played its second preseason game straight, the resulting defeat must have come of little surprise. But to fall 35-0 and play dreadfully in the process wasn’t ideal, even if the Eagles placed more emphasis on joint practices with the Patriots earlier in the week.
“We had a good day on Monday,” coach Nick Sirianni said. “Tuesday, we competed pretty hard against the Patriots. And today wasn’t good enough.”
Sirianni called the practices “games essentially,” but tackling was prohibited and quarterbacks were off limits. Team periods consisted of situational football, and the length of the practices — about half of Tuesday’s 75-minute session consisted of actual competition — paled in comparison to what happens on Sundays in the fall.
The Eagles aren’t alone among NFL teams that have increased the number of joint practices and decreased regulars’ playing time in the preseason over the last decade. But they have been more conservative in the latter department than most in recent years — an organizational philosophy of keeping key players on ice that had previously been decried by some staffers.
Hurts was apparently slated to start. He participated in warmups, was caught on video dancing between snaps, and looked prepared to play, however long. But when the offense lined up for its first down, Joe Flacco was under center.
Sirianni said after the game that Hurts showed up at Lincoln Financial Field not feeling well and that his condition didn’t improve following warmups. The coach then decided to sit him, along with center Jason Kelce, right tackle Lane Johnson, and right guard Brandon Brooks.
Five projected starters on defense were already given the night off. Derek Barnett and Javon Hargrave are injured, but Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham and Darius Slay are not, and weren’t in pads. Josh Sweat was also rested.
The Patriots, on the other hand, started quarterback Cam Newton and played their first-unit offense for three series. They picked apart an Eagles defense that was severely lacking up front. Newton looked shaky Monday and Tuesday, but with a clean pocket, he completed 8-of-9 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown.
The drubbing continued after the New England first team sat. Whether on the ground (the Patriots rushed for almost 200 yards in the final three quarters) or through the air (rookie Mac Jones completed 13 of 19 passes for 146 yards), the Eagles’ defensive reserves were overmatched.
It wasn’t much better on offense. After two 10-plus-yard plays on the first possession, backup center Nate Herbig airmailed a snap over Flacco’s head that resulted in a turnover. The Eagles’ first- and second-unit offenses scored 16 points in the first half of last week’s preseason opener, but since then the team has been outscored 52-0 in the last six quarters.
“It’s terrible. Anytime you don’t put up anything — I don’t care what you’re doing, if you’re in the nature of competing and being in competition — it’s not acceptable,” Johnson said on Derrick Gunn’s postgame show on YouTube. “It is what it is. I don’t care if it’s preseason or whatnot, there’s still a standard to play at this level and to represent yourself and to represent this team.
“We got a lot work to do. We haven’t done nothing yet.”
While the uneven competition might have contributed to the first-half deficit, the Eagles’ lack of depth showed after the break. But how many of those players will be on the 53-man roster? It’s also important to note that Sirianni and defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon continued to keep their calls basic.
The Patriots’ offense, though, went up-tempo to start the second half. Their defense blitzed. Sirianni has talked about the advantages the Eagles might have because their coaching staff is relatively unknown. But when you keep it vanilla or give starters the Han Solo treatment, you do so at the expense of building a winning culture.
Even if it’s just the preseason.
“I think Peyton Manning back then used to go 0-4 or 0-5 if they played in the Hall of Fame Game,” Flacco said, “and it didn’t matter at all.”
The Eagles, of course, don’t have Manning at quarterback or a roster near that of the Colts of the mid-2000s. Indianapolis did finish the 2005 preseason 0-5 and would go 14-2 in the regular season before losing in the divisional round of the playoffs.
But the following year they went 4-0 in the preseason and 4-0 in the postseason.
The first target of DeVonta Smith’s NFL career pretty much summed up his evening. The rookie receiver was open at the top of his route, but Flacco hesitated, and when the ball finally came his way, he dropped it. A series later, Smith ran a go route but was covered, so Flacco threw to his back shoulder. He turned late. “I took too long to look back at the ball,” the receiver conceded. Two plays later, a pressured Flacco dumped to a crossing Smith, but he couldn’t pull that pass in either. “Looked like he was a little antsy at first,” Sirianni said of Smith. “Dropped a couple balls, and he was a little late with his eyes on the deep ball that Joe threw him.” But Smith rebounded. He created space with a little shake off the line and picked up yards after the catch for his first reception. And he lost a cornerback with a double move on his second and gained 10 yards. “Once you get that first one, then it’s like ‘I got it now,’” Smith said. There were other routes where he was open, but Flacco elected to go elsewhere. But that’s the life of a receiver. Despite the miscues, it was a positive start for Smith, who has missed most of training camp with a knee sprain.
Smith’s explosiveness and agility were evident Thursday night, and have been the few times he has participated in practice. But the 170-pound receiver is beginning to answer questions about how he would handle the more physical part of playing in the NFL. “It was good to see him get out there and run some routes against some press-coverage,” Flacco said. He faced few jams off the line, but partly because he evaded contact. He wasn’t shy about taking on tacklers in the open field on his first catch, when he powered north and flung forward. There will be greater tests, naturally, and adjustments to be made. For instance, the pace of the play, Smith said, was different than in college. “NFL’s a lot slower,” he said. “You come back to the huddle … and you got a little more time. Whereas in college, everything’s a little faster. It’s a little slower here. You got a little more time to process things.”
As bizarre as Hurts’ late scratch was, subterfuge was unlikely at play. Did he test positive for COVID-19? (The Eagles said no.) Did the front office overrule Sirianni for fear of Hurts playing behind a patchwork line? (The coach said he had intended to play all five starters.) Sirianni offering up that the quarterback went to the hospital further seemed to dismiss any conspiracy theory. The coach said that Hurts was diagnosed with a “stomach infection” and was released. He reportedly may need a few days of rest before returning. The Eagles don’t practice until Sunday night at the Linc, have another day off Monday, and then travel to North Jersey for joint practices with the New York Jets Tuesday-Wednesday. If Hurts participates in the scrimmages, it’s unlikely he plays in the preseason finale Friday. “I’m pretty confident that we’ll get a lot of good work against the Jets,” Sirianni said, sounding like he already has made his decision.
Smith wasn’t the only receiver who that to be affected by playing with Flacco and a second-unit line. Jalen Reagor, who made a spectacular grab in one-on-one drills Tuesday, caught just 1-of-3 targets for 5 yards Thursday night. He showed mettle on the catch, though, when he held on despite getting sandwiched between two tacklers. Flacco went to him on one fourth down, but Reagor wasn’t open as he couldn’t shake his man. Quez Watkins, star of camp and the first preseason game, saw just one pass come his way — a fourth-down fade into the end zone that was intercepted. Watkins had a step on cornerback Jalen Mills, who lightly tugged on his jersey, but Flacco was late and the safety over top made the easy pick. As for the most prominent receiver on the roster bubble, JJ Arcega-Whiteside played just eight snaps and dropped his lone target.
K’Von Wallace detailed in back-to-back plays why the Eagles have given him first-team reps at safety and also why they haven’t awarded him the job. He did well to shed a blocker in the box and make a run stop in the first quarter. But a play later, when he dropped into a zone, his eyes deceived him, and he was late to pick up a crossing Jakobi Meyers, who would score a touchdown. Wallace apparently reinjured his groin on the play and didn’t return. He recently returned to camp and made headlines earlier this week, not as much for his play, but when he dissed Newton by calling him “The Checkdown King” at practice. The Eagles don’t have an obvious counterpart to Anthony Harris at safety, or at least until Rodney McLeod returns. Marcus Epps might have the spot by default.
Milton Williams. The rookie defensive end again made an early impression with a quarterback hit and two drawn holding penalties. Williams seemed to wear down toward the end of his 38 snaps, but the Eagles are unlikely to need him to play as much once the season opens.
Alex Singleton. He plays like he’s got a roster spot on the line, and while anything is possible, Singleton has done more than enough to secure his place. In just 19 snaps, he recorded seven tackles. There was a missed open-field opportunity, but the good outweighed the bad.
Kenneth Gainwell. There were slim pickings on both sides, but Gainwell was relatively productive. He rushed five times for 21 yards and caught three passes for 23 yards. He hasn’t shown the necessary gear smaller running backs often need to survive in the NFL, but he should make the roster.
Matt Pryor. Is it possible to get progressively worse in each of your first four seasons? Pryor had a rough go at right tackle Thursday night. In his defense, he’s more of a guard. But he didn’t even do that very well last season.
Zech McPhearson. The cornerback has had his ups and downs in training camp, but games have mostly been on the latter part of the spectrum. Patriots receivers caught 4-of-5 passes for 57 yards with McPhearson in coverage. He also had a holding penalty. The lack of a pass rush left him exposed, but he’s clearly not ready, like many rookies.
Shaun Bradley. The Eagles’ tackling, or lack thereof, was brutal. They missed 18 chances, according to Pro Football Focus. That’s going to happen when you don’t tackle in camp. But Bradley’s six missed chances stood out.
By the numbers
The Eagles are 2-for-18 on third-down conversions in the preseason. That isn’t good, for those keeping score at home. There have been all sorts of reasons why they’ve failed to convert. One prime example came on their first chance Thursday night. Faced with third-and-1, the line opened a crease up the middle. But running back Jordan Howard didn’t run through it and was dropped for no gain.
“He was cheerleading a lot on the sidelines. You know, cheerleaders usually have glitter on, so.”
— Newton, when asked to explain why he called Wallace “Glitter.”