On this week’s version of preseason Monday Night Football, the Eagles face off against the New England Patriots, a team that handily defeated them, 38-20, in a Week 11 matchup last season.
During that lopsided contest, which was more of a bloodbath than the score may relay because the Patriots were letting go of the gas towards the end of the game, things got so bad that offensive coordinator Marty Morhinweg and defensive line coach Jim Washburn got in a fight on the sidelines after Morhinweg bumped into Washburn.
Therefore, as long as the Eagles can keep their coaches from fighting on the sidelines, the game will contain telling signs about the current state of the team.
Because the Eagles will be playing their starters as they normally would in a third preseason game, resulting from the fact that they face the Cleveland Browns in both their third preseason game and the first week of the regular season, the Eagles’ starters, who will play a majority of the first half of the game, will be competing against the Patriots' second-string players during the early part of the contest.
However, with the degree of depth the Patriots have, they still may be able to give the Eagles a challenge at all levels.
In the Eagles’ first preseason game against the Steelers, both the offense and defense looked lost in the first half.
Michael Vick, who is still hoping to obtain a first down in a game this preseason, had an underwhelming start to the season, including two three-and-outs and a sack before suffering an injury to his throwing hand.
Behind him, backup quarterback Mike Kafka looked overwhelmed, too.
Kafka was making good throws and decisions at the beginning of his first drive, but he displayed his overall confusion about the nature of the game when he threw an interception during a screen play at the Pittsburgh 39 yard line that Al Woods ran back 53 yards.
The mistake negated the positive aspects of the drive and further fermented questions about Kafka’s abilities. Kafka followed that up with five-play, 18-yard drive, concluding a night that set up serious question marks about his ability to manage the team.
In all fairness, though, wide receiver Marvin McNutt, a 2012 sixth-round draft pick who is challenging for the No. 4 spot on the roster, used sloppy technique while running his route, and a receiver using better execution may have made the third-down catch. Also, since Kafka broke his non-throwing hand on the drive, the injury could have affected his performance.
Nick Foles, the Eagles' third-round pick out of Arizona, who was third on the depth chart during the Pittsburgh game, and Trent Edwards, a 2012 free agent acquisition who was the fourth-string quarterback, were the only quarterbacks to earn points while they were on the field.
Foles was especially efficient, throwing a pair of 70 and 43-yard touchdowns to Damaris Johnson and Mardy Gilyard. However, even though he looked poised and confident in the pocket and displayed the requisite arm strength to thrive in this league, it must be noted that he was playing against the Steelers’ third-string defense.
Therefore, he did not have to face up against key members of a defense that ranked No. 1 in the league in defense last season. Against the Patriots, though, he will get the opportunity to play as the No. 2 quarterback since Kafka’s injury will likely keep him off the field for the rest of the preseason. He needs to prove he can have continued success in his performances.
Protecting Foles’ blindside is another issue the Eagles face after demoting Demetress Bell from the starting position after he played just six snaps in the first preseason game. The Eagles signed Bell to fill in for Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, but they obviously did not seem pleased with his performance because Bell was playing with the second-team following the 24-23 win against the Steelers.
In the game, Bell was beaten on the play where Michael Vick smashed his thumb into the helmet of center Jason Kelce, so the injury could have brought with it a spotlight analyzing the perception of Bell’s performance on Thursday night.
The Eagles could just want to see how King Dunlap performs in a starting role before the start of the season, but the move appears to have more connotations in the background. Regardless of the reasoning, however, the situation at left tackle has the potential to be a serious weakness for the Eagles.
On defense, the Eagles need to see more from their linebackers and secondary. Jaiquawn Jarrett especially needs to prove that he can be a starter, for he was one of the weakest spots on a defense that allowed the Pittsburgh Steelers to manufacture points on their first two drives of the night: a 16-play, 52-yard drive ending with a field goal that took a whopping 9:48 off the clock and a 10-play, 70-yard drive ending with a touchdown that took 6:32 off the clock.
Penalties, soft tackling, and missed coverages left the Eagles with one offensive drive in the first quarter, and Jarrett, playing in relief of Nate Allen, was allowing the left side of the field to be preyed upon. After the game, he was moved to the third-team defense, and, if he does not improve, he could become a victim of the cut.
Nnamdi Asomugha, who was playing cornerback primarily on the same side of the field as Jarrett, also looked lost during parts of Thursday night’s game, missing coverages and displaying poor tackling, so Tom Brady’s ability to play against that side of the field will be important to watch.
Asomugha may not be playing against the Patriots, however, after he crashed into Nate Allen earlier in the week at Lehigh and has been a limited participant in practices. In his absence, Curtis Marsh, a 2010 draft pick of the Eagles is listed at the team’s third cornerback, but he has been limited by a hamstring strain. If he cannot start, Brandon Hughes may see time in the spot.
For New England, the main issues remain with a defense that ranked 31st
in the league last season. Since they used six of their seven draft picks on the defensive side of the ball, the newcomers are important to watch as the regular season looms in the background.
At the top of the list, the Patriots’ two first-round draft picks, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, a prolific defender against both the pass and run in college, and defensive end Chandler Jones, a player whom the Patriots traded their 27th
overall pick and a third-round selection to move up the to the 21st
spot to take, will be key players to watch.
They were both dominating players in their college careers, so their ability to convert their skills to the NFL field will be important to analyze. As far as veteran players go, cornerback Devin McCourty is a key player to watch. He was a Pro Bowler in his rookie campaign; however, in his sophomore year, he faltered considerably, and, at one point last season, he was moved to safety. Will he come back and take the reins at the cornerback spot?
The linebacker spot is also in developmental phase. Dane Fletcher suffered a knee injury in the first preseason game against the Saints, and the team released him. As a result, Brandon Spikes, an oft-injured player, will have to step in and take the reins at the middle linebacker position.
Therefore, the chemistry between Spikes, Jerod Mayo, and Dont’a Hightower is important for the team. The Patriots held Drew Brees to two consecutive three-and-outs before backup quarterback Chase Daniel entered into their first preseason game, and, as we all know, stopping Brees can be a daunting task.
The defense is entering their second season after changing from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme, so the familiarity should bring with it strength, but, at the same time, the change means the linebackers will have to play a more important role.
On offense, the Patriots are looking to find a suitable replacement for Benjarvus Green-Ellis, who signed with the Cincinnati Bengals during free agency. The production of up-and-comers Steven Ridley, who had 441 yards on 87 attempts (5.1 average) last season and Shane Vereen (57 yards on 87 attempts, 5.1 average) along with incumbent Danny Woodhead (351 yards on 77 attempts, 4.6 average) will be important to watch.
Ridley received the majority of the first-team snaps in the Patriots’ preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints, but he left the field during Thursday’s practice with a knee injury.
The wide receiver position is also an area on which to keep an eye on Monday because they are currently stacked at the position. The Patriots headed into the preseason with six wide receivers.
Wes Welker, the leading wide receiver on the team last season; Brandon Lloyd, a quality free agent acquisition from the Rams who could become a leading receiver on the team; Jabar Gaffney, the Washington Redskins’ leading receiver last year with 68 receptions for 947 yards and five touchdowns.
Deion Branch, who is entering his 12th
year in the league (his sixth year with the Patriots); Donte Stallworth, a journeyman entering his tenth season who played for six different teams in his career — including the Eagles in 2006; and Julian Edelman, who is entering his fourth year with the team but has had only 11 receptions for 120 yards the past two years.
In addition to the wideouts added, the Patriots also signed Visanthe Shiancoe, even though they have a superstar tandem of tight ends in Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Thus, the Patriots have developed a diverse set of offensive weapons that they can use to attack many different levels of an opposing team's defense.
Aaron Hernandez has been used as a wideout and tight end during his time in the league, so the Patriots can use unique formations now that Shiancoe is aboard. With Welker’s contract issues enveloping the team’s offseason — and possibly Welker's performance — the Patriots could call upon Hernandez to take some of Welker’s duties.
The Eagles have had considerable trouble dealing with tight ends in the past, and they tried to improve upon that deficiency by selecting Fletcher Cox and Mychal Kendricks with their first two draft choices this year. It is an interesting situation to watch.
The matchup between the two teams should be a tight contest, and, even though the Eagles will be playing their starters for a longer period of time than the Patriots, the depth on the Patriots’ roster should present a challenge to the Eagles’ offense throughout the game.
The Patriots’ offense seems to be the most sound group of the matchup, but the Eagles are looking to find ways to maximize the potential of their young guns - LeSean McCoy, Jeremy Maclin, and DeSean Jackson - and the Patriots’ defense has vulnerabilities that can be exposed.
On the other hand, though, the Eagles will have a difficult time contesting with the firepower vested in the Patriots’ offense.