The Eagles had an initial scare Thursday night when rookie Brandon Weeden and the Cleveland Browns drove the ball down the field efficiently on their first drive, creating serious question marks in the incipient stages of the game.
The Cleveland Browns were able to manufacture a starting drive that traveled to the Eagles’ two-yard line before a penalty brought them back 10 yards.
Then Derek Landri was able to stop the bleeding when he sacked and stripped Weeden and Trent Cole deftly jumped on the ball.
Nonetheless, mistakes before the stop were left littered all over the field.
Nnamdi Asomugha had no clue about the ball being thrown his way on the Browns’ first reception of the night before giving up another reception due to loose coverage. Middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, an offseason free-agent acquisition whom the Eagles brought in to be a guiding veteran presence to a group of young linebackers, was sloppy with his tackling and was ineffective in reading the offense.
Starting weak-side linebacker Brian Rolle committed two offsides penalties on the drive, one of which came on third-and-one, and both Pro Bowl cornerbacks Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie looked lost while covering the Browns’ wideouts.
The deep depth of the defensive line bailed them out, though, a situation that has become a frequent theme for the team recently.
After that first drive, the Eagles’ defense shored up, and the defensive line continued to display its prowess. By halftime, the Eagles had four sacks and two fumble recoveries after the second fumble recovery coming on a blocked punt by Keenan Clayton. Moreover, they held the Browns to three points in the duration.
Brandon Graham, a player who labeled himself a bust during offseason training, led the team with 1 ½ sacks and is starting to prove himself worthy of the Eagles’ moving up to the 13th spot in the 2010 Draft to draft him.
In his two seasons with the team, he has three sacks — which all occurred in his rookie year — in six starts due to nagging knee injuries that plagued him during his college years at Michigan and have persisted during his transition to the NFL.
In 2011, he dressed for three games but sat on the bench for two of them. However, he has been a standout dominating in the backfield this preseason, and, if he can stay healthy, he could have a big year.
Since the Eagles acquired him before they converted to the wide-9 defensive-line scheme employed by Jim Washburn, Graham has had to learn a completely new technique, but he is apparently catching on well.
Darryl Tapp, who obtained a role with the first-team defensive line after Trent Cole suffered an injury, notched a sack, and he, who was on the edge of the roster before Cole suffered an injury, has likely earned a spot on the finalized roster.
Phillip Hunt, an ex-Canadian Football League player who was on the second-team defensive line after Cole suffered the injury, was notably dominating in the backfield and likely secured a roster spot for himself.
He added weight to his frame in the offseason, and his added size has made him even more effective than he was last year. Frank Trotter, a long shot to make the cut, also had a sack in the matchup. Derek Landri, who led the Eagles in tackles-for-loss last season with eight, had the big strip sack in the first quarter along with three tackles, cementing a spot on the roster.
Mychal Kendricks, the fastest linebacker at the Combine and the Eagles’ second-round pick in the 2012 Draft, displayed the speed that made him a standout star at California University. Cornerback Curtis Marsh is in danger of becoming a victim of the roster cut, so it will be interesting to see whether or not his performance last night, when he also had a couple of good defensive stands, will keep him on the team.
On offense, Nick Foles continues to make a strong argument for unseating Mike Kafka as the backup quarterback as he has admittedly been the best quarterback for the Eagles this preseason — even though we have seen only six snaps from Michael Vick and 16 from Mike Kafka.
Now, when Kafka gets healed from his injury, a fractured non-throwing hand that occurred in the first preseason game, he will see some significant competition at the spot. Kafka has the experience, but Foles has an air of poise in the pocket and awareness of the game that Kafka has not displayed during his time with the Eagles.
Plus, Foles has a rocket arm capable of throwing a long bomb at a moment’s notice while Kafka’s most limiting weakness is his arm strength. Experience, however, could be the common denominator in Kafka’s corner. On the other hand, though, Foles entered the game with not only the best quarterback rating on the Eagles’ offense after completing 24 of 38 passes (63.2 percent) for 361 yards with four touchdowns and one interception in his first two games, but his 118.4 passer rating bested the league.
Throughout the preseason, he has completed 36 of 57 passes (63.2 percent) for five touchdowns with two interceptions. Sure, those two interceptions are an issue, but he has bounced back well in both instances.
His first interception came on the Eagles’ second play of the night. The offensive line, which was playing without Todd Herremans and had sixth-round draft pick Dennis Kelly at the position, gave Foles plenty of time in the pocket, and, as a result, Foles decided to use his now-signature arm strength to throw a deep bomb to DeSean Jackson, who was double covered.
As the slightly under-thrown ball reached the area around where the three players stood, Joe Haden snatched the ball while Jackson, who should have made more of an effort to make the catch or, at least, knock the ball out of Haden’s reach, could not come up with the reception. Instead of sulking in disappointment, though, Foles regrouped and led the Eagles on an 80-yard drive ending with a touchdown.
Against the Patriots Monday night, Foles, he also bounced back well by leading the Eagles on an 81-yard touchdown scoring drive after throwing his first interception. That sign bodes well for the Eagles as they head forward. Mistakes will be made because, after all, this is preseason football, but the way he bounces back from mistakes is the most important aspect of the situation.
A player’s tendencies are one of the most important behaviors to learn in preseason, and Foles has displayed the tendency to move on from a mistake and create positive plays, evidenced by how he completed 11 of his next 17 passes, finishing the night 12-for-19 for 146 yards, two touchdowns, and a 99.9 quarterback rating.
In three preseason games, he has gone 36-for-57 (63.2 percent) with five touchdowns and two interceptions.
During his first touchdown drive, Foles displayed his unique awareness of the game by calling audibles at the line, which he did frequently Friday night, displaying his knowledge of the Eagles’ offensive scheme. He also used his eyes and body to trick the Browns’ defensive players on the 7-yard touchdown pass to Brent Celek.
On the touchdown play, Foles took the snap and initially looked left, and the defensive players in coverage who were following his eyes immediately shifted in that direction. Then, he pivoted to the right, where a heavy blitz was coming, and found a wide open Celek, who then proceeded to barge his way into the end zone. Foles’ poise and pocket awareness is mature well beyond his years.
Damaris Johnson is another player who shined last night and has undeniably solidified a slot on the 53-man roster. He has displayed a unique quickness that allows him to get separation from a cornerback in coverage and excel as a punt returner. He had a couple good punt returns to go with a 45-yard reception and a spinning 23-yard catch that was initially called a touchdown before the referees reviewed the play and realized he stepped out of bounds.
Even though the referees overturned the touchdown, the fact that he was able to make that type of catch is incredible, and the throw by Foles, a back-shoulder heave, was impeccably eloquent.
Johnson, a 5-8, 170-pound speed demon of a wide receiver looked like a younger version of DeSean Jackson, who is listed at 5-10, 175 pounds.
As an undrafted rookie, he started the season with a $15,000 signing bonus on top of $2,000 base salary. Now, however, the Eagles may have to open their checkbook; he appears to be a keeper.
With Riley Cooper out for the preseason with a broken collarbone, Marvin McNutt, aided by his 6-2, 216-pound frame that is similar to Cooper, who is 6-3, 222 pounds, has had the ability to make his case for becoming the fourth wide receiver, but he has not made the most of his time on the field.
He dropped a third-down pass by Mike Kafka in the first game preseason game because of sloppy mechanics and finished Friday night with no receptions after being targeted three times. Of all the rookie receivers, Damaris Johnson has, by far, been the most impressive.
Brett Brackett, a former wide receiver from Penn State who received time with the first-team offense during training camp after Celek suffered a slight MCL sprain at the start of training camp, had a pair of standout catches that could keep him with the team.
He has looked impressive in training camp; However, he will have to unseat ClayHarbor to earn a starting spot. That situation seems unlikely considering Harbor has been solid in training camp and the preseason despite displaying a habit of dropping balls during OTAs.
Given Celek’s recent injury history, including two offseason surgeries, though, it may be prudent to hold onto another tight end for depth. Behind him, the Eagles could use Emil Igwenagu, an interesting prospect who played tight end, fullback, and linebacker in college.
He is also locked in a position battle with Stanley Havili for the starting fullback position. Havili, who has seen more snaps with the first-team offense, had a nice run vs. the Patriots, so that could leave a lasting impression that lingers onto the 53-man roster. Igwenagu, a standout player in training camp, then, could see be the odd-man-out.
Although the team finished with seven penalties for 48 yards, that performance was a vast improvement over their second preseason game, where they had 16 penalties for 131 yards, preceded by seven penalties for 62 yards in their second preseason contest.
The most important factor, however, is that the team sustained no major injuries throughout three preseason games. As the Eagles head into their final preseason game, where few starters will see significant playing time, followed by the regular season, they will be a healthy team.
They will start the season with the attitude of riding the momentum of a four-game winning streak that put a somewhat-positive note on last year’s underwhelming 8-8 season.
They have gone 3-0 in the preseason, so far, and the regular season looms closely in the background.