By Pete Baxter
Last month I published an all-encompassing season preview for the Philadelphia Eagles. I was optimistic then and predicted the team to show considerable improvement. I confidently predicted that the team would post a winning record this season.
The Eagles played their first preseason game of the 2021 season on Thursday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. They got off to a strong start, leading 16 – 7 at the half. However, their second and third units were held scoreless in the second half and they ultimately fell to the Steelers 24 – 16.
Despite the loss, I am happy to report that my overall opinion of where this team is headed has not changed. This team is going to surprise a lot of people and post a winning record. They could even compete for a playoff spot.
Let’s break down some of the key takeaways from the Eagles’ first preseason game:
Jalen Hurts is The Starter and The Future
Jalen Hurts finished with pedestrian statistics for the game. He completed just three of seven passes for 54 yards. He also ran the ball once for four yards, while playing just the first two drives of the game.
That said, those statistics were deceptive. Hurts looked extremely confident and competent in his limited snaps. Of his incompletions, one was a blatant drop, and another was just out of reach for Quez Watkins to turn a 98-yard touchdown. With slightly better luck he could have finished five of seven for 150 yards and touchdown. At that point he would have made serious headlines.
His mobility and awareness was clearly on display, as expected. He did a great job moving to avoid pressure to keep plays alive, including on his first completion to Zach Ertz. We will talk about the tight end tandem more in a moment, but his very next pass was a beautiful bullet under pressure to Dallas Goedert for a first down.
Eagles fans should sleep soundly knowing that Nick Sirianni’s claim of an open quarterback competition is for propaganda purposes only. Hurts rolled with the starting unit, showed out for two drives, and then safely took his place on the sideline, as any surefire starting quarterback should. Regardless of what Sirianni says or doesn’t say in a press conference, this is Jalen Hurts’ team. The Eagles have a roadmap and a direction at the most important position again. That is priceless.
Joe Flacco looked like a serviceable backup against the Steeler’s second and third units. He completed 10 of 17 passes for 178 yards and a touchdown pass on a screen that Quez Watkins took for 79 yards. More on Watkins in a moment. Nick Mullens was a disaster, going just one of five for four yards and two interceptions.
In retrospect, as I noted in an offseason piece, I still wish the Eagles had acquired a veteran backup with a more similar skillset to Hurts. This would have allowed for more continuity in the offense should Hurts miss time. This also could have provided a better mentor for the young passer as he develops his game. Tyrod Taylor or even Robert Griffin III could have been useful additions.
But I digress. This is Hurts’ team, and Flacco still appears capable of keeping the team in some games if his name his called.
Quez Watkins Can Be an Impact Player
The Eagles’ young, unproven receiving corps has been one of the team’s biggest question marks heading into the 2021 season. Devonta Smith should be a star after one of the most decorated college careers by a wide receiver in history. He was taken number 10 overall by the Eagles in this year’s draft after taking home AP College Football Player of the Year honors and the Heisman trophy at Alabama. His experience playing with Jalen Hurts is also a huge plus.
However, the one concern with Smith is his frail build, and he is already missing time with a knee injury. Who will step up if Smith misses extended time? The hope was 2020 first-round pick Jalen Reagor will be that guy, but he has been inconsistent through training camp to say the least. He let a ball fly through his hands and allowed two punts to be downed within the 10-yard line on special teams.
Reagor still has a great deal of potential and a high ceiling, however, and recorded two catches on the night. Greg Ward Jr. led the team in receptions last season with 53 but averaged an incredibly low 7.9 yards per catch. Travis Fulgham is another youngster with potential but has just 38 career receptions himself.
Enter Quez Watkins. Watson was a sixth-round draft pick in 2020. He looked hard-pressed to make the Eagles final roster heading into the offseason after catching just seven passes his rookie season. That said, he was an intriguing prospect, having run a 4.35 40-yard dash at last year’s combine.
As the 2021 offseason and now preseason have progressed, Watkins is ensuring himself a final roster spot. In fact, he may just be fighting for a place in this team’s starting lineup as the regular season approaches.
Jalen Hurts had proclaimed his disappointment that Watkins’ skill was no longer a secret after an impressive training camp. Darius Slay touted him up as having the best training camp of any Eagles’ receiver. In the team’s first preseason performance, we saw a glimpse of why.
As noted earlier, he came up just short of what would have been a guaranteed 98-yard touchdown bomb from Jalen Hurts in the first quarter. Later, he turned a quick screen pass from Joe Flacco into a 79-yard touchdown catch and run. He blatantly torched the Steelers’ defensive backs.
Once again, Eagles fans, we can sleep soundly. We already knew the potential of the Smith/Reagor combination, but Quez Watkins may be an ideal third weapon. Great news for the team, but bad news for Greg Ward Jr. who suddenly has serious competition as the team’s top pass catcher in the slot.
This Tight End Duo Will be Critical to Hurts’ Success
Zach Ertz is a three-time Pro Bowler, highly skilled and with a high football IQ. He is still an athletic 6’5” and 250 lbs. but is entering the back-nine of his career at 30. Meanwhile Dallas Goedert is a younger, more athletic tight end just entering his prime. This combination could make all the difference for Jalen Hurts.
In their brief time on the field together, Ertz made himself available to bail out a pressured Hurts on his first pass of the game. Immediately after, Goedert took advantage of a defensive mismatch and channeled a young Gronkowski on a big 34-yard first-down.
This duo of talented tight ends could be exactly the safety blanket that Jalen Hurts and his young receiving corps needs. Hopefully it is enough to keep Ertz, disgruntled after last season’s debacle and the franchise’s failure to offer him a contract extension, happy and on the field in Philly.
Don’t Sleep on Jordan Howard
It feels like an eternity ago that Jordan Howard exploded onto the scene in Chicago in 2016 as a fifth-round draft pick. He rushed for 1,313 yards on an outstanding 5.2 yards per carry in his Pro Bowl rookie campaign. He took a slight step back his sophomore season, with 1,122 yards at 4.1 yards per attempt in 2017. He would never reach 1,000 yards again. He dealt with injuries and bounced between Philadelphia and Miami for the past two seasons.
With the Eagles bringing on former Lion Kerryon Johnson this year, Jordan Howard looked hard-pressed to even make the final roster. However, Howard made the most of his limited opportunities in the Eagles’ first preseason game.
He had a phenomenal pass block, single-handedly saving Jalen Hurts’ blind side from an aggressive Steelers’ blitz. He pancaked linebacker Robert Spillane and made highlight reels across the internet.
Howard is just 26 years old. Even if he has lost a step as a rusher, having a veteran running back capable of reading blitzes and willing to sacrifice his body as a blocker could be a great influence on the younger backs on this team and could be another huge safety blanket as Jalen Hurts develops. He could even be used creatively as a situational fullback.
There is a lot of competition at the running back position with incumbent young starter Miles Sanders, speedy undersized Boston Scott, and newcomer Johnson. Howard is making a serious claim for a roster spot, however.
The Defense Looked Decent
This defensive squad came in with energy and aggressiveness. New defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon had this group prepared. Tackling looked on point. Even coverage looked solid. Granted, Ben Roethlisberger was not involved with the Steelers’ offense.
The defensive front looked strong as expected and should give Gannon the ability to be creative with how he uses his linebackers moving forward. Shaun Bradley, who could push for time as the weakside linebacker, looked strong with the second unit and made an impact all over the field.
Elijah Riley had an impressive interception off Joshua Dobbs and is making a great push to not only make the roster but make an impact as a backup safety and special teamer.
Zech McPhearson, a promising rookie cornerback who is expected to push for legitimate playing time this year, struggled to contain Dwayne Haskins and his second unit receiving corps. He turned a bad Haskins’ throw into an endzone pass interference penalty. He was targeted often, eventually giving up two additional receptions while registering four solo tackles. That said, McPhearson looked outstanding throughout training camp, and should still be a big part of the future of this defensive backfield.
Gannon certainly isn’t going to show all his cards early in the preseason, but this continues to look like a solid, relatively young group that should, at the very least, be a mid-level, top 15 defense this year.
Maybe Nick Sirianni Knows What He’s Doing, Afterall
After Sirianni’s early, seemingly insecure press conference performances, Eagles fans were seeing terrifying flashes of Adam Gase. Fortunately, as the offseason has progressed and we approach the 2021 season, it is looking like the Gase similarities end at his handling of the media.
Sirianni had the team playing hard. They came out aggressively on both sides of the ball, and the “dog” mentality he has been pushing was evident. The key starters played well, and there were some standout performances from hungry players fighting for roster spots.
Minus the late-game Nick Mullen-led dumpster fire, the team looked efficient overall. Sirianni trusted Hurts to air it out and avoided over-using his legs. Sirianni and Hurts both showed their leadership ability, as they have throughout training camp.
After seeing the Eagles’ first full-blown preseason performance, the forecast looks bright despite the loss. While they may not be returning to their championship form just yet, a winning season could be on the horizon.
More to come from Philly.