clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Eagles vs. Steelers Five Questions: Can Philadelphia's defense step up?

New, comments

It's the final real regular season tune-up game, which means we get to see the starters for at least two full quarters. With that in mind, here are some questions we'd like to see answered.

Jim Rogash

Another game, another installment of the wildly popular, award-winning Kaye & Klausner/Klausner & Kaye series here on Bleeding Green Nation. The start of the NFL regular season is just two weeks away. Can you feel the excitement? Can you feel it in your loins?! Yeah, same here.

1. This is the third preseason game, which typically means the starters get the whole first half, if not some of the third quarter as well. Who on the first team offense and defense are you most interested in watching get extended action and why?

Dan Klausner: Hey, we finally get to see Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper on the field together, and with Jordan Matthews in the slot! It's the first time this preseason the Eagles will have their top-three wide receivers available to play in a game. Rusty or not, it's crucial that the trio and Nick Foles establish some in-game chemistry before the live bullets start flying September 7 against Jacksonville. Those four are, by far, the ones I'm most interested in seeing on offense.

As for the defense, my answer here is a surprising one given the unit's play last season: Defensive line. Fletcher Cox has not been impressive in training camp or preseason, and there are rumblings that he arrived out of shape for minicamp in June. Unfortunately, reports of his performance in training camp -- and from what we've seen in preseason -- thus far would seem to indicate he did not work himself back into optimal shape in that five-week window after the end of minicamp. It's really a disappointing development, as I was one of the people who pegged Cox as a breakout player in 2014. Hopefully this is merely a minor bump in the road and he can harness his immense talents in year two as a 3-4 DE -- because there were times last season when he was dominant, now it's about dominating consistently.

The only player along the defensive line who I don't worry about is Cedric Thornton. Swamp is the rock of that unit and among the best run-stopping defenders in the entire league. Not bad for an undrafted guy out of Southern Arkansas who spent his first full season as a pro on the practice squad. Bennie Logan is still the starter at NT, but it's my opinion that he's best suited as a jack of all trades along the defensive line, where he can play three positions and then serve as a penetrating tackle when the defense goes to a four-man line on passing downs. Beau Allen has been a revelation and is a real threat to steal regular NT snaps from Logan. Not that I think this would be a bad thing, especially if Cox falters and the coaching staff loses confidence in him to the point that his starting DE spot is usurped by Logan. The Vinny Curry saga continues and despite his limitations as a 3-4 down lineman, his explosive pass rush ability is so sorely needed up front that the Eagles must be creative and find ways to get him on the field as much as possible. I loved Taylor Hart in college and gave him a third-fourth round grade in my evaluation, thinking he could fill a Bennie Logan-type role as an effective rotational defensive lineman in the NFL -- and I stand by that. I'll have an extra close eye on him against the Steelers. I think Damion Square and Brandon Bair are fighting for the last roster spot allocated to the defensive line, and I give the edge to Bair right now. I liked Joe Kruger at Utah, but it appears he's destined for the practice squad -- if he makes it through waivers -- after a redshirt rookie season. Alejandro Villanueva and Frank Mays are also intriguing practice squad candidates.

Obligatory special teams mention: Alex Henery. It's no secret anymore that the Eagles aren't thrilled with Henery (with good reason), and, as has been reported, the next two preseason games could very well make or break the continuance of his career with the franchise. Almost half the teams in the league have two kickers in camp, and the Eagles have reportedly been heavily scouting those situations. The trade of David Fluellen for Cody Parkey (who seems like just a kickoff specialist in the NFL) is a bandaid. The real time of reckoning will come when final cuts are announced and the Eagles see which other kickers -- i.e. Dustin Hopkins (Bills) and Brandon McManus (Giants) -- are out there.

Mike Kaye: I am looking forward to Nick Foles possibly having "starter"-level wide receivers available to him. While he has been playing with the first team, it's gotten to the point where I feel like Mark Sanchez has the advantage with Zach Ertz and Jordan Matthews. That said, Foles should get time to play with the starters for the majority of the game. I am hoping for no turnovers and multiple touchdowns from the unit.

On defense, I'd just like to see the starters "give a damn." As we noted on the Preseason Review Show for BGN Radio this weekend, it just seemed like a lot of starters were going through the motions against New England. I want to see Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan show us something. It'd be nice to see Trent Cole or Connor Barwin get a sack.

2. Chris Polk continues to battle a hamstring injury and hasn't practiced in three weeks nor played a single down in the preseason yet (and he won't suit up against Pittsburgh). He's viewed as a core special teams player and appeared primed for a big season as LeSean McCoy's primary backup. How concerned are you about his current situation, and do you think the Eagles should end up keeping an extra RB -- hello, Henry Josey -- going into the season as an extra insurance policy? Also, if an extra RB is kept, how does this affect the numbers at other positions?

DK: In the interest of full disclosure, this question was concocted about 24 hours before news of the Kenjon Barner trade broke, as well as in advance of David Fluellen being waived and then traded to Indianapolis. Suffice to say the Eagles perhaps have some concerns about the depth at RB, which was viewed as one of the roster's deepest positions a month ago. However, with Polk's injury -- and injury history -- as well as the fact that Sproles will serve an "offensive weapon" role instead of as a traditional RB, all of a sudden the Eagles don't really have a designated, steady backup RB to McCoy that they can rely upon. Josey looked really good against the Patriots and is making a legit push for a roster spot. Now, with the addition of Barner, the RB picture is even more crowded. I still think Polk's roster spot is guaranteed going into the season, but if he continues to battle injuries and can't get on the field, the Eagles shouldn't hesitate to put him on IR. After all, it can be argued that Matthew Tucker provides the same tough, between-the-tackles running ability as Polk, though he certainly doesn't have the latter's hands. It's funny, I feel in my gut that Barner -- like Jeff Maehl last season -- is going to make the final 53-man roster, despite his late addition, as the fifth RB behind McCoy, Sproles, Polk and Tucker. I think he bumps Josey, whom the Eagles will try to sneak onto the practice squad.

If the Eagles do end up carrying five RB, I get the sneaking suspicion that the numbers at WR will feel the squeeze. Maclin, Cooper and Matthews are all locks. Despite negative MRI results on Josh Huff's shoulder, certain media members have floated the possibility that he'll get placed on IR. With Sproles set to see significant snaps split wide, I think the Eagles could end up keeping five WR instead of six. If Huff is not placed on IR, that leaves one final spot for Brad Smith, Jeff Maehl, Arrelious Benn and Ifeanyi Momah. Based on what I've seen thus far in the preseason, my personal preference is for Benn, who is a special teams demon and has previously demonstrated upside as a contributor on offense. If Huff does get IR'd, I think Benn and Smith get the nods and the team tabs Maehl and Momah as practice squad players. Under the brand new expanded practice squad rule, Maehl qualifies for candidacy.

I think the versatility of the backups along the offensive line allows for flexibility at other positions. Matt Tobin is a lock, Dennis Kelly and Andrew Gardner are battling for one spot, and David Molk is Kelce's backup. A roster move will have to be made when Lane Johnson returns from suspension and Allen Barbre retreats to his backup role.

MK: I think it is imperative that the Eagles keep four running backs, regardless of Polk's health. That said, I am concerned that Polk will be rusty heading into the season. I think he continues to be on the roster despite the injuries, but I don't know if he can be counted on for quality snaps early in the season. He is a quality special teams player so it'll be good to have him available in that role.

Back to the numbers, yes, the Eagles should keep four backs with Sproles' age and Polk's injury history. The trick will be seeing who deserves the job the most. I have been impressed with Matthew Tucker, Henry Josey and David Fluellen. Josey was among my top rated undrafted running backs and was in the top five overall of my undrafted offensive players. I think it'll come down to Josey or Tucker just based on Tucker's style differing than everyone else's and Josey was literally made for this offense.

With the Eagles keeping four backs, I think you will see either eight (instead of nine) offensive lineman or five (instead of six) wide receivers. I think at wide receiver, the five are set unless Josh Huff gets placed on injured reserve. If the team chooses to keep six wide receivers, I could see the offensive line only keeping three backup lineman (Matt Tobin, David Molk and either Andrew Gardner or Dennis Kelly).

3. Which five (5) fringe players battling for roster spots have to show the most in this game to strengthen their case to make the final 53-man squad?

DK: As mentioned, Smith, Benn, Maehl and Momah are battling for one roster spot (which becomes two if Huff gets IR'd). Based on what I've heard about Bair in training camp and what I've seen from him in preseason, I feel he's another player who could solidify his roster spot with a strong showing against the Steelers. No, never in a million years would I have expected to write the previous sentence a month ago, but here we are. Oh, and more Travis Long, too, who's had some shining moments in preseason but was also responsible for the Patriots' second touchdown because he got lost in coverage.

MK: The aforementioned two running backs (Tucker and Josey) and two offensive linemen (Gardner and Kelly) are the guys I would probably watch most on offense, but I also think fans will be mostly looking at the wide receiver battle between Jeff Maehl, Ifeanyi Momah and Arrelious Benn.

I know I gave you about eight guys, but the first five would be mine. I am also interested to see Ed Reynolds, Travis Long and Joe Kruger do something. They are either headed to the practice squad or will be mysteriously put on injured reserve if they don't flash soon.

4. Which position group that you had questions about earlier in camp do you find has done the most to gain your confidence going into this game -- and vice versa?

DK: Offensive line, no question. The depth will be thin until Johnson returns Week 5, but the skill level and versatility makes this a much stronger group than I anticipated going into training camp. As for which position has trended in the wrong direction in this regard, it's defensive line. I need to see someone other than Thornton step up and be a difference maker. I'm not going to include wide receiver here since my opinions on the unit haven't changed much at all.

MK: The backup offensive line has been better than I expected. I have been very impressed by Tobin, Gardner, Molk and Kelly. They are all very athletic linemen that have proved to be very productive on screens. Tobin and Gardner really stood out in Week 1 and Molk and Kelly were fantastic on the Josey screen-touchdown in Week 2. I am not comfortable, but I am a lot more hopeful of the unit.

As far as the other way, wide receiver. YIKES! If you thought Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper were an underwhelming starting pair, just take a look at the rest of the depth. Benn, Smith, Momah, Maehl and Huff have a combined eight receptions for 57 yards, one touchdown and two fumbles (both lost) in two preseason games. That is horrific considering the first three started games and the other two played against third-stringers. Luckily, Jordan Matthews seems to be at least be a solid third receiver with 13 catches for 118 yards. This team may need to watch the waiver wire closely for depth at wide receiver.

5. What's the number one thing you want to see from the Eagles as a team against the Steelers?

DK: It would be pretty sweet to see the offense and defense both come out like gangbusters, like they have something to prove. (Fucking) score points on offense, don't let the Steelers score points on defense. Fin. With the news about Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount getting their Cheech and Chong on in a car hours before the team charter was set to depart for Philadelphia, the Eagles defense could very well be looking at Stephen Houston and Dri Archer getting the first-team running back touches in this game. I just hope the Eagles players on defense don't exhale and let their guard down because then they'll surely get gashed by the two rookies.

(Parkey taking one of Henery's field goal attempts in the second half would be welcomed, as well.)

MK: I want to see the Eagles defense hold the Steelers first team to one touchdown at most. Let's see some fire from this defense before we really start to worry.