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Eagles Preseason: personnel and scheme to watch against Pittsburgh

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My big three topics to watch tomorrow night as the Eagles kick off the preseason

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

FOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOTBAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLL!!!!!

Is back, folks.

1) Back-seven deployment

Here are some funky fresh mix-ups among the linebackers and secondary I’ve seen in training camp thus far:

  • 1st team defense: Kamu Grugier-Hill (SAM), Nate Gerry (MIKE), Jordan Hicks (WILL). Jalen Mills/Ronald Darby boundary corners, Rodney McLeod box safety, Malcolm Jenkins free safety.
  • 1st team defense: Nigel Bradham (SAM), Kamu Grugier-Hill (MIKE). Sidney Jones/Ronald Darby boundary corners, Tre Sullivan nickel corner, Rodney McLeod box safety, Malcolm Jenkins free safety
  • 2nd team defense: Kamu Grugier-Hill (SAM), Joe Walker (SAM), Corey Nelson (WILL). De’Vante Bausby/Sidney Jones boundary corners, Rasul Douglas nickel corner, Tre Sullivan single-high safety.

Camp is experimentation time. You get players in as many alignments as possible to stress their abilities and instincts; to see who might give you interchangeability; to just see what happens, really.

The preseason is still experimentation time, but you can’t really mess about with the longshot ideas anymore. The Eagles spun their safeties constantly in camp when responding to motion, which put players like McLeod in the box and Jenkins up high—the opposite of what you want. Will they keep doing that in the preseason? Maybe, but I’d be surprised to see it on every snap.

Obviously slot corner is also one to watch, but I’ll only get interested if they rotate Mills in with the first-team, which I doubt. Bausby and Jones are still technically fighting for the spot, but it’s tough to imagine Bausby being the starter over the investment Jones represents to this team.

And the linebackers? At this point, I’m less interested in labels and more interested in responsibilities. Who gets the most man coverage responsibilities (I think Kamu); who do they play mostly zone with (I think Gerry); who gets taken off the field on clear passing downs (Joe Walker!) and who gets sent on (Corey Nelson!).

2) Studfeld’s process

Breaking: we’re about to watch a ton of Nate Sudfeld on Thursday. Thrilling times.

Honestly, watching Studfeld in camp is fun. At this point, reading the tea leaves with Carson’s return from injury is beyond boring and fruitless. He’s gonna be back at some point, it’s gonna be when he’s 100%, and we won’t learn anything from watching how steadily he walks the sideline or badgering Doug during another press conference.

And Foles? Foles is a known quality. He is what he is--inconsistent and not much of a gamer. His practice reps are very checkdown heavy. He’s not pushing to make any big throws or earn any reps. He’s happy where he is.

Joe Callahan’s just a camp arm at this point, which is fine. But Studfeld? He’s a young, contract year player who has seen a decent amount of investment from some really good offensive minds. He’s got the requisite tools in terms of height, weight, mobility, and arm strength--though his arm isn’t as strong as some would have you believe.

What Studdy does need is a lot of work going through his progress with crispness and understanding. He’s very first-read reliant, even when his first read is quickly taken away post- or even pre-snap. He has a bit of a panic button after his first read goes covered, and won’t smoothly work to his next progression, thereby leaving open players out on the field.

In 11 on 11s in practice without a live pass rush, perhaps he just fails to replicate gamelike urgency in the pocket. If he truly represents a developmental piece worth retaining and building up, I’d love to see some flashes of full-field mastery and poise in the game against the Steelers. Certainly, Rome was not built in a day. But panic mode is a tough nut to crack, and if Sudfeld can’t show growth there across his career, he’ll never pan out the way we all hope.

3) Pre-snap motion

Eagles ran a ton of pre-snap motions in the last leg of training camp: orbit, rocket, return, jet, everything under the son. Lotta college-y sort of idea naturally stem from those motions. You can freeze EDGE defenders and leave them unblocked to go +1 in the running game; throw quick bubble and flare screens if the defense doesn’t adjust in time. It’s easy yardage created by the numbers game.

I asked Ol’ Dougie about it, and he said that the Eagles were primarily deploying the motion so that Jim Schwartz’s defense could get a look at adjusting to it. I referenced spinning the safeties earlier, which is a common response to jet motion--whichever safety was on the slot receiver that goes across the formation drops back into high coverage, and the safety previously in high coverage moves down to cover the receiver in his new alignment on the other side of the formation. So the story tracks.

But I’m not so sure our friendly neighborhood offensive innovator Douglas is as disinterested in the advantages of these motions as he’d like for us to believe. Let’s say this team rosters Corey Clement, Darren Sproles, and Donnel Pumphrey--three very active receiving backs. And let’s throw Shelton Gibson and Nelson Agholor in the mix as well. That’s five players you can motion into and out of and around the backfield to cause all sorts of consternation for a defense that lacks the personnel to match that much ability in space.

The Eagles are still a very high-frequency motion team, and I doubt they’d reveal their newest designs--likely grafted from Auburn and UCF and Utah--in the preseason. But I’ll be keeping a close eye on how Doug moves those space players from the slot to the backfield. Remember, in 2017, he only really had two of the five listed active on gameday. He might have four come 2018.

There’s a whole lotta fun to be had with that much talent on the roster.