In one of pre-season week three’s “Bragging Rights” bowls, the Steelers seemed closer to being ready for the NFL regular season than their instate rivals as they piled up 398 yards and 19 first downs on their way to a 27-13 victory. Usually the third pre-season game on team’s schedules are used to put the final touches on the team’s regular season week one game plan and if that is the case the Eagles need to get out their tools to do some fine tuning before the September 9th opener at Green Bay. The game highlighted the two team’s different approaches in preparing for pre-season games. Eagles Head Coach Andy Reid was more focused on the regular season and that a bad pre-season is no cause for alarm. The Steelers (3-1 in pre-season) took a totally different approach with Head Coach Mike Tomlin game planning for the Eagles, which is something that most teams don’t normally do in the preseason. The planning paid off as the Steelers despite not scoring in the first quarter, looked dominant gaining 297 total yards to the Eagles 89 yards in the first half when both teams had their starters on the field. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sharp throwing for 247 yards (19 yards per catch) including a 38 yard strike to emerging TE Heath Miller and engineering three second-quarter scoring drives (a touchdown and two field goals). Steelers running back Willie Parker looked like he was ready for another Pro Bowl season rushing for 32 yards, including an electrifying 18-yard touchdown run plus he also had three receptions for 40 yards. Parker did have a bad football at the goal line and that was the kind of mistake that had Steelers quarterback Roethlisberger happy, but not overly pleased with his team’s dress rehearsal. Big Ben said of the performance “We missed a couple of things, some things could have been better, but I told some of those guys I’ll get better and I’ll be sure to hit them.”
Offensively, the Eagles numbers don’t look good compared with the Steelers and “yes” they do show that the unit has work to be done. Eagles Coach Reid, who is now 13-23 for his career in pre-season games, decided that he was more concerned with the health of his starters rather than exposing his key offensive veterans to undo injury. Reid was happy to come out of the game relatively injury free, but he understood that work needs to be done. He said, “We did some good things, and there are some things we obviously need to work on”. “Number one, we need to get everybody back in there at practice and ready to go. We need to cut down on the penalties and some of the alignment problems we had. There was some good and there was some bad.” Injuries played a role in the Eagles problems as they missed picking up the blitz without injured Pro Bowl right guard Shawn Andrews (high ankle sprain) and LJ Smith still recovering from a groin injury. But expect problems areas (fumbles, drive killing penalties, pass coverage, tackling, drops, etc) to be their number one focus in practice in the next two weeks before the real games begin.
Reid played a very vanilla style choosing to run backup running back Correll Buckhatler (10 carries for 43 yards in first half) up the middle early and often, with starter Brian Westbrook touching the ball once on a 2-yard carry. But even with the conservative game plan and Westbrook mostly sitting, some offensive work needs to be done as three first-half drives started in Pittsburgh territory and only three points were put on the scoreboard. Fumbles also were a major factor in the Eagles offensive struggles as they had four fumbles losing three of them, including a game changing one by wide receiver Zac Collie that was recoverd by Steelers DB Jovon Johnson and then returned 77 yards for a touchdown. Quarterback Donovan McNabb wasn’t able to re-produce his strong effort from the prior week when he dissected the Panthers, but he did show some guts in taking some hits and continuing to keep fighting despite some drops by wide receiver Reggie Brown. McNabb’s line for the game (5-for-11 for 60 yards, two sacks, three drops, and a 62.7 passer rating) was nothing to write home about, but he did show that he has command of the huddle, can take a hit (I had to feel for him when 340 pounder Steelers NT Casey Hampton landed on him), and threw the ball well. McNabb pretty much agreed with Reid that work needed to be done saying, “There were some good things we did but there’s work that needs to be done”.
Defensively, all eyes were on new middle linebacker Omar Gaither, who was making his debut as “the man” in the middle. Gaither contributed one tackle and two assists, but overall he had an unspectacular start. The Eagles looked like they were going to have a good night early when the Steelers’ first possession ended with a diving interception by DE Trent Cole. On the play SS Sean Considine (later left concussion) and DT Mike Patterson pressured Roethlisberger into throwing a head-scratching pass where no receiver was located. But after the offense didn’t capitalize on the turnover, the game became a series where the Eagles defense tackled poorly, let up big plays, and couldn’t get off the field. Sometimes the errors and big plays didn’t equate to points for the Steelers (turned it over 3 times), but the concerning part was the defense’s inability to stop the Steelers when it counted most (converted 4 of 7 third down attempts) and some sloppy tackling. “We made turnovers when we had to and, for the most part, except for one drive, we got off the field,” Eagles OLB Takeo Spikes said. Spikes added “The thing that we didn’t do so well was get off the field on third down.” The effort may have been due to the unit playing their first game without their former leader Jeremiah Trotter (cut last week). But defensive leaders safety Brian Dawkins first pre-season game) and CB Sheldon Brown were not happy with the units overall effort. Brown said unhappily after the game, “Obviously we have to go back and work on the tackling”. He added, “We missed a lot of tackles. They caught us with a couple good plays on screens, and they got us off balance a little bit. Overall, I think we need to work on tackling.”
With the NFL’s grim reaper the “Turk” on his way this week to ending several players’ NFL aspirations (Cut down to 75 players on 8/28), tough decisions will need to be made by both teams. One decision that will be easy will be that you will probably not see anyone of interest play for either team in the fourth and final pre-season game. The Eagles will take on the Jets at home on Thursday and the Steelers travel to Carolina on Friday. Friday’s game will end an extended preseason for the Steelers that included five games (Hall of Fame Game) and lasted seven weeks.
- Bloom looks banged up – The Eagles will need to take a long look at skier turned kick returner Jeremy Bloom in the Thursday’s Jets game. Bloom seemed to be a bit slower than normal and a toe injury maybe bothering him more than expected. Bloom averaged 19 yards a kickoff, had one catch for 22 yards, and was replaced on kickoff returned by veteran Correll Buckhalter. The Eagles may think about bringing in a backup after cuts on Tuesday as insurance.
- The ‘Aussie Boomer” has the inside track – Eagles Head Coach Andy Reid didn’t come right out and say it, but the Eagles punting appears to be in the hands of former Australian-rules football star Sav Rocca. Rocca had a great first half including his first punt of the night landing at the 5-yard line, which was nullified by a penalty. After moving back 5 yards, he put the next punt down at the 9-yard line. A 59-yard booming punt that was fumbled by Steelers returner Willie Reid and eventually recovered at the Steelers 2-yard line highlighted Rocca’s night. While Rocca was having success veteran Dirk Johnson was on the sidelines finishing without a kick. Rocca also did a decent job holding on David Akers field goals and I am hearing that Akers has confidence in the big (6’5) punter.
- Holcomb ready to hit the road – Barring injury to one of the Eagles’ other three quarterbacks, backup Kelly Holcomb is probably headed out of Philadelphia via a trade. Holcomb who can probably be had for a 6th or 7th round pick is getting looks from reportedly four teams including the Falcons and Vikings.