Before I get into the meat of the Patriots game, I'd like to briefly offer a word or two about the Panthers game. The weather made for an ugly contest which I firmly believe would have been canceled were Joe Buck and Troy Aikman not in attendance and I wonder why we didn't see a 70-30 run-pass ratio from both teams. As far as what was learned from the game - and I can't remember where I read this - I think John Fox surmised it best: "What did we learn from the game? Their third string is better than our third string."
On to the Patriots then. I think it's easy to forget, but the first thing to remember is the league MVP was sidelined with a foot injury. Peter King, in his Monday Morning QB column, had this to say about Matt Cassel:
2. I think for years we've all assumed the most indispensable player in football was Peyton Manning, because he played every snap for the Colts and they never had a backup quarterback. But have you seen Matt Cassel try to run the Patriots' offense in the last two weeks? That is some ugly football. I think the Colts stand a better chance of winning with Jim Sorgi than the Patriots do with Cassel.
That noted, I think that this was the Eagles most complete game of the preseason and offered tremendous promise for the real games to come. After the break, I run down what I saw from the offense, the defense and the special teams.
This game showed us a number of remarkable things about this offense. Our first string offense was able to move the ball effectively against the Patriots first team defense and our second stringers acquitted themselves admirably as well. In fact, that 90 yard drive at the start of the second half that Kolb and Co. put up against the Patriots first string was a thing of beauty. That drive featured two long completions to Michael Gasperson - you know, our other big receiver. I'd be surprised if he didn't get extended playing time against the New York Bretts and he just might be making a push for the roster. Play well on Special Teams my man.
Three of the Eagles first four drives ended inside of the New England 10 yard line. They netted one field goal, one touchdown and one fumble. I'll forgive Hank's blunder, that was good individual effort from both players, Hank going for the score as hard as possible and Sanders coming up with the strong effort defensively to force the fumble.
Jason Avant's touchdown catch was just tremendous. It culminated a strange, very un-Andy-like drive which saw 8 of its 11 plays runs from a 2 back set. I believe the first seven plays were runs out of an I formation featuring 2 wide recievers and 1 tight end. This drive was all about getting film on Tony Hunt the Fullback. There was a third and one play where Tony and Corell lined up split behind Donovan and Tony crashed into the line behind Shawn Andrews for 3 yards and the first down. That was good to see.
David Aker's first field goal came after LJ made a remarkably acrobatic adjustment to a tipped ball. Unfortunately he had stepped on the end line in the process of turning his spine into a pretzel so there was no catch. All three of these trips into the red zone had touchdown scoring opportunities and I just don't see the red zone struggles of last year haunting us again this year.
One last thing I wanted to note about the offense is that if you remove the "Tony Hunt" film session, the Eagles ran 14 of 29 plays out of a shotgun formation in the first half and they looked good doing it. According to the Pro Football Prospectus, last year the Patriots were the first team in history to average 50% of their plays from shotgun. Are the Birds following suit? Again according to the PFP the Eagles were one of the worst teams in the league when running plays out of the shotgun, hopefully (if this games blueprint stands) they will be more effective this year.
It's hard to single one guy out here - the offense as a whole was firing, but I really liked the play of LJ Smith in this game. It's a simple play, but after Avant got the illegal contact penalty on Rodney Harison, Donovan and LJ hooked up for a quick 5 yard completion setting up second and 5. "Big deal," I know, but this is an absolutely prototypical play from Andy's West Coast offense and one that seemed to be missing from last years team. His other 2 catches were for 21 and 18 yards respectively. Really nice contribution LJ.
It's tempting to say Jamaal Jackson here. He did miss the block on the only sack the Birds gave up during the game, but Runyan was also beat on the play and the Patriots did send six. So, I've got to say Shaheer McBride didn't do himself any favors in this game. Kevin Kolb targeted him on a few passes and he didn't take advantage. He even had a shot at a TD, but couldn't haul in the pass. He was a real longshot to make the team before this game and now he's going to have to hope for several injuries in Thursday's game to have even a remote chance of getting a September 7 roster spot.
First off, let's reiterate: Matt Cassel is not Tom Brady.
Even though Brady had the night off, the rest of the Patriot starters were on the field all the way into the 3rd quarter. The PE.com Gamebook (12 page pdf) breaks out the first half statistics and they are interesting. The Patriots ran the ball 8 times for 22 yards in the first half - that includes Matt Cassel's 22 yard scramble. There were 7 other rushing attempts for a total of 0 yards. The Pats also tried throwing the ball (10 times) and Cassel was only able to complete 5 of those passes. In truth the Eagles Offense was on the field for over 19 minutes so the defense didn't really have much to worry about.
Once the starters were gone, the second string looked fair through the third quarter and awful in the 4th. They were able to keep Cassel and the first string from scoring in the third quarter by virtue of a Jerome McDougle sack. Against Gutierez, our back up corners looked bad, they gave up 217 yards passing in a quarter and a half.
Granted the game was well in hand by the time he came in but... Kyle Arrington did nothing to impress me (except get beat deep). I suppose if the coaches see something in him - he'd be a decent guy for the practice squad. Nick Graham? Therrian Fontenot? This roster only seems to only have room for 4 cornerbacks.
The front seven were active in this game. They were disruptive, got to the QB 3 times and gave up an average of less than 2.7 yards per carry (discounting Matt Cassel's scramble). Toward the end of the game Andy Studebaker was playing in a 3 point stance and getting decent pressure coming off the edge.
Going back to Cassel's 22 yard gainer, I think Omar Gaither could have made the play had he just stretched out his arm a bit. I wonder if Omar needs to lose a couple of pounds to be truly effective at the Will position. He bulked up to be the Mike last year, and that bulk isn't allowing him to play as quickly as he needs to on the Weak side. As the season progresses he'll probably lose some weight, let's hope that translates into greater quickness. I'm not terribly worried about it right now, but he is currently playing the worst of our three starting linebackers.
Jerome McDougle has officially made my unofficial 53 man roster. What a tremendous story - I'm absolutely stoked for him. As several people have noted, this creates some roster juggling issues but he seems to be in the backfield of the opposing team on every play. It's a good problem to have. Dude's arms are as big as my legs, I'd like to see if he can learn the Nickel DT position that Howard plays.
The second string secondary, specifically Nick Graham, Kyle Arrington and Therrian Fontenot. Allowing 14 of 20 completions for 217 yards in 19 minutes? Awful. Three easy cuts there.
I don't want to get my hopes up too far, but wow. I think that the special teams might actually be returning to respectibility. We gave up one ugly looking return of about 37 yards, and we had 2 holding penalties on DeSean's first long punt return, but this was easily the best special teams performance from an Eagles team in 2 years.
Special Teams Standout
I could say DeSean or Demps here, but I thought Sav Rocca really deserved this honor. He netted 48.5 yards per punt and put 3 punts out of bounds inside the 10 yard line. This sequence of plays made me laugh:
4-4-NE 48 (3:15) S.Rocca punts 39 yards to NE 9, Center-J.Dorenbos, out of bounds. PENALTY on PHI-J.Mays, Illegal Formation, 5 yards, enforced at NE 48 - No Play.
4-9-PHI 47 (3:08) S.Rocca punts 52 yards to NE 1, Center-J.Dorenbos, out of bounds.
Of course the ensuing drive brought back flashes of Chicago last year, but the 3 responsible won't be on the team on September 1 (see Defensive Goat).
Special Teams Goat
Until we have a penalty free special teams performance, I will single out those players who commit fouls on special teams. Therefore GLew and Quentin Demps you both must go down in infamy. It is certainly possible that your holding penalties were not what sprang Desean for 44 yards, but we'll never know because you didn't play clean.
After a first drive scare against the Pittsburg Steelers our run D has looked stout. The offense doesn't seem to need a healthy wide reciever to move the ball at will and the special teams are coming around. I've been disappointed so many times by the Eagles that I hate getting my hopes up, but this years edition has the feeling of a team that could end up 13-3 if Donovan McNabb stays healthy. I hope Andy keeps both 5 and 36 out for Thursday night's game. If Reggie can go, give him a series otherwise let the bubble battle begin.