Football season is officially upon us with the first Philadelphia Eagles preseason game is in the books. The Eagles are a team in flux, a team that could go many different ways this season. Many positions are up for grabs, and with a new coaching staff and a relatively new offensive core, the preseason is actually pretty important. The Eagles kicked off their preseason with a 24-16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but despite the L there were actually quite a few positives and things to like in the game. Of course, with any loss there were a few negatives as well. Here are a few likes and dislikes from the first look at the 2021 Eagles.
5 Things to Like and Dislike From the First Eagles Preseason Game
Quez Watkins Continues His Growth as a Deep Threat
Big plays through the air were incredibly uncommon last year. Whether from a lack of fast receivers (especially with DeSean Jackson’s frequent injuries) or a lack of quarterback ability to hit the receivers, explosive passing plays were few and far between. The one bright spot in that area was Quez Watkins. He only got time later on in the season, but had two of the biggest plays in 2020 for the Birds, a 32 yard screen he took for a score against the Arizona Cardinals and a 43 yard snag the next week against the Dallas Cowboys.
Watkins has reportedly had a very good camp, and he showed out Thursday. Just like against the Cardinals, he took a short dump-off to the house, this time going for 79 yards. He showed burst and top end speed, accelerating past the Steelers’ defenders before easily breaking away from the rest of the pack. Watkins also had a near miss on what would have been a 90+ yard score from Jalen Hurts. You don’t get points for close, but at the very least it’s clear Watkins is a threat. Not every deep shot needs to be successful and Watkins’ presence means that defenses have to be aware of him and that leaves space for everyone else.
Watkins was somewhat on the outside looking in before camp started, with names like DeVonta Smith, Jalen Reagor, Travis Fulgham and Greg Ward ahead of him on the depth chart at least and John Hightower and J.J. Arcega-Whiteside fighting as well. With his stellar preseason though, Watkins is making it hard to sit him, and he could become the premier deep threat on this squad, a role that has gone missing since Torrey Smith.
Kenneth Gainwell Looks Legit
Kenneth Gainwell was the prospect I was most excited about, despite the logjam the Eagles have at running back. His body of work in college was superb, and he has a bundle of tricks and skills in his bag that make him a great prospect. He fell in the draft in large part to opting out of the 2020 college season, and there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have been available where he was if he played. Gainwell got in with the second team, after Jordan Howard and Boston Scott but before Kerryon Johnson. Gainwell touched the ball four times (two rushes and two receptions) for a total of 30 yards, which isn’t bad at all. He showed solid hands, and although he got overpowered a bit in pass protection, Gainwell is auditioning hard to be a third down back or even a slot receiver.
The Starters Did Their Job
Neither team played their starters, or even the primary backups that much, which is expected in the preseason. Still, at half with some starters and the first names off the bench the Eagles were up 16-7. Hurts’ numbers are misleading. He only went 3/7, but one pass was totally dropped, and he had another that Reagor had a good shot at even if it wasn’t a perfect pass, and a throwaway. The only incompletion that was truly a missed pass was the deep ball to Watkins. Overall, he played well, and showed a strong connection with the tight ends in particular, finding Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert for big gains. His legs looked just as dangerous as they did last season, evading pressure and showing off his ability to throw on the run during the game.
Jake Elliot had by far his worst year as a pro last year, only making 73.7% of his kicks. With how often the Eagles went for it on fourth down, his services weren’t as necessary, but it still made Eagles’ fans wonder if it was time to find a new kicker. One preseason game won’t change the rumblings, but Elliot had a great showing, nailing all three of his kicks. All three were fairly long too, with the first two coming from 47 yards away and the last one from an even 50.
The Defense Had Some Issues
Even though the defense only surrendered 150 or so yards and one score in the first half, the Steelers led by Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins (two names that shouldn’t inspire fear) didn’t seem to have much trouble moving the ball. They had two drives that ended more due to penalties than the Eagles direct intervention, the first drive in particular was saved by a timely holding penalty. The second half defense was much worse. Haskins and a trio of running backs had no problem carving up the Eagles second and third stringers. Even Josh Dobbs had a quality drive at the end of the game, which didn’t end in anything solely because it was a preseason game and the Steelers were up.
All told, the Steelers had 410 yards of offense, and they were 29/37 passing as a group. The Eagles defense was the side of the ball I was most concerned about, and at the end of the day it was a preseason game without the starters. Still, the Eagles are an oft-injured franchise and it’s pretty clear the depth of defense is thin to non-existent.
Third Down Was a Problem
This goes for both sides of the ball. The Eagles were 0/8 on third down on offense, which includes drives by Hurts and Flacco. They weren’t long distances either. 3rd-and-6, 3rd-and-7, 3rd-and-4, 3rd-and-5, they weren’t unmanageable at all and they failed each time. Overall, the Eagles only had 10 first downs in the game, and after the first half the time of possession was heavily skewed towards the Steelers.
On the flipside, the Steelers were 11/17 on their third downs. That’s not a recipe for success. To be fair, just one of those successful conversions came in the first half, but again it’s not a good look for the second and third stringers of the defense. Letting opposing teams’ convert time and time again demoralizes and tires out the defense. The Steelers had 80 plays to the Eagles 42, and more than doubled up the Birds in time of possession.
All in all, it was a solid debut for Nick Sirianni and the 2021 Eagles. Jalen Hurts and Joe Flacco looked good and a few of the skill position depth guys made great cases for increased minutes. Jake Elliot looked like his normal, non-2020 self, and the first half was a solid win for the Eagles. Of course, it was overall still a loss, and there were problems. Most notably, the second half defense was pretty awful, and there wasn’t much to like on either side of the ball in terms of third down efficiency. There’s no point in freaking out and overanalyzing the first preseason game, but for a pretty much brand new team and new identity there were quite a few encouraging things to take away. Overall, it could’ve been a lot worse. Hurts could’ve played like Nick Mullens for one.