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Eagles-Steelers analysis: Quez Watkins’ stock is rising, Jalen Hurts not shy about throwing down the middle

Watkins starred with a touchdown, and here are more of the biggest takeaways from the Eagles' preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Eagles wide receiver Quez Watkins runs with a reception for a 79-yard touchdown past Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Tre Norwood.
Eagles wide receiver Quez Watkins runs with a reception for a 79-yard touchdown past Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Tre Norwood.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Keep buying Quez Watkins stock.

It’s early, but the second-year wide receiver continues to be one of the quickest risers during training camp, and was the standout in the preseason opener Thursday — a 24-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The 2020 sixth-round receiver had a 79-yard touchdown on a bubble screen pass from Joe Flacco, and was an errant Jalen Hurts pass away from cashing in on a 98-yard touchdown catch as well.

Watkins clearly has the ability to separate on his routes, and he showed that he has the speed to break pursuit angles on the screen, outrunning Steelers safety Tre Norwood on the score.

It’s worth noting that J.J. Arcega-Whiteside starred during camp last year only to ride the pine for almost the entire season, but Watkins’ athleticism has popped often so far. Expect to see plenty of him to start the season.

Hurts’ targeting of the field

Hurts’ performance fell somewhere between so-so and encouraging. He went 3-for-7, but two of those incompletions were the result of drops. The biggest demerit of the night came on the aforementioned errant throw to Watkins. Hurts had a clean pocket and Watkins streaking down the sideline, but just misfired.

There was one promising development to take away from Thursday night, though. Hurts showed a willingness to throw to the middle of the field, targeting Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert often. Hurts was reluctant on throws in that area at times during his rookie season. Against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 15 last season, just two of his 44 passing attempts came anywhere near the hashes.

Hurts will need to be capable and ready to throw down the middle to succeed this season, so Thursday’s targets were a promising sign for him.

» READ MORE: Jalen Hurts looks composed in Eagles’ first preseason game, plus a glimpse at Nick Sirianni’s offense

Eagles’ new-look defense

The starting defense got only one series, likely because new defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon saw exactly what he wanted: a seven-play, 41-yard drive killed by a holding penalty.

It might be frustrating to some fans, but this might be the blueprint with Gannon at the helm. The Eagles played a good amount of off-coverage, giving up underneath passes in the interest of stopping big plays. The Steelers got into a rhythm, but a holding penalty on rookie tight end Pat Freiermuth stalled the drive.

With a disruptive defensive line, the philosophy of forcing teams into long series and playing for drive-killing plays like sacks, penalties, and turnovers could pay off.

Life on the edge

Milton Williams may have been listed as a defensive tackle on draft night, but the third-round pick lined up almost exclusively on the edge in his first game action.

He didn’t look out of place there, either. Williams shed Steelers tackle Joe Haeg to provide the pressure that led to a T.Y. McGill sack.

Williams figures to move around the line a good bit with Gannon running things, but it’s interesting to see him start out on the edge. At 6-foot-4, 278 pounds, he’s either a super-size defensive end or an undersize three-technique. If he’s fast enough to hang on the edge, he could be really effective there.

Mullens needs a mulligan

The Eagles’ third-team units left something to be desired during the second half.

The secondary gave up a wide-open touchdown on an apparent blown coverage. A few minutes later, Nick Mullens threw an interception partially affected by the offensive line giving up a free rusher. Mullens’ night didn’t improve from there, either. He finished with just four net yards and went 1-for-5 with two head-scratching interceptions.

Dwayne Haskins, the Steelers’ second-team quarterback, sliced the defense, completing 72.7% of his passes for 161 yards and a touchdown.