Eagles' offensive line makes progress vs. Dolphins: 'Good, but sloppy'

Eagles' offensive line makes progress vs. Dolphins: 'Good, but sloppy'

The ground attack was boom or bust. Quarterback Carson Wentz was pressured and got smacked around but was able to lead a pair of scoring drives. It wasn't pretty, yet Thursday night was considered progress for the Eagles' offensive line.

"We got two scores, and we had 50 yards rushing in the first quarter, so I'm fine with that," Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson said following the team's 38-31 win over the Dolphins. "It's a good day for us."

Eagles starters wound up playing just 19 offensive snaps in the third and most important preseason contest. That was enough time for LeGarrette Blount and Wendell Smallwood to combine to rush eight times for 47 yards, while Wentz completed 6 of 10 passes for 129 yards and two touchdowns.

It was also too much time for the Eagles to cover up all of the flaws that plagued the O-line in the first two games. Blount was stopped for two yards or less on three of his four carries, and Wentz took three wicked hits and threw an interception that was directly the result of pressure in his face.

"It was a little bit better today," Eagles center Jason Kelce said. "Still could've been better. It's just a little bit sloppy, it's a little bit not being on the same page."

The lack of cohesion is understandable, to a degree. Thursday marked the first time the Eagles had all five starting offensive linemen this preseason. Last week, left tackle Jason Peters was out for personal reasons, and right guard Brandon Brooks missed the opener with an injury.

"Now that we have all five offensive linemen here, everybody's out there, we can really start building that chemistry, building the camaraderie of the offensive line," Kelce said.

With only two weeks to go until the Eagles meet the Redskins in a game that will count in the standings and the starters likely finished for the preseason, there isn't much time left to create continuity.

"We have to improve," Johnson said. "This week in practice, we're getting the twos and threes ready to play, but we really need to focus on practicing well and treating it like a game, and just be ready for Washington."

At least the first-team offense was finally able to get something going in the running game. Blount in particular struggled to find room. Prior to ripping off a 16-yard run on his final carry against the Dolphins, the 30-year-old back had nowhere to go, managing all of 20 yards on 12 attempts.

Getting the ground attack going was an emphasis for the Eagles on Thursday, and the O-line paved the way for Blount and Smallwood to average 5.9 yards per rush.

"That was our goal," Johnson said. "We knew we had the ability run the ball, so all we had to do is just go do what we did in practice, and that's what we did.

"We just have to do a better job of protecting Carson."

Kelce remained critical of the unit's performance but was encouraged it will get fixed.

"Good, but sloppy," Kelce said, "I'd like for the run game, especially during this preseason, to have been more effective, and I think I speak for everybody in that respect. But it's close. You see on the plays, it's one guy here, one guy there. It's little things that we have to clean up."

Another reason for optimism is the simple fact that the Eagles haven't been preparing for specific opponents.

Ordinarily during the regular season, teams will call specific plays aimed at exposing an opponents' weaknesses. They'll study an opponent's tendencies and blitzes, then devise a plan to beat those packages.

The Eagles have been doing little to no game-planning during the preseason, and while that might seem like a crutch — one that players and coaches alike were hesitant to fall back on — it puts blockers in some difficult situations.

"There were a couple of unscouted blitzes," said Eagles coach Doug Pederson. "But it's no excuse. We've got to be ready for everything and anything and just a lot of quick pressure on Carson."

"As we start preparing for opponents throughout the work week, start getting used to the blitzes, the different looks, the different things that they have to offer, that just cleans everything up," Kelce said.

It's worth noting the Eagles have a veteran offensive line. The only new starter up front in 2017 is second-year left guard Isaac Seumalo. Everybody else has at least four NFL seasons under their belt.

Perhaps that's the best reason of all there's no reason to panic. Pretty much every guy on this line has a track record of success, so when they say it's close, you almost just have to believe it.

After all, it's only preseason.

"I feel like all a preseason game is is just a scrimmage, just to go against other guys, see where you're at, see where you're deficient at, see where you can improve," Johnson said. "That's the way it is every year.

"A lot of people get carried away with preseason. Hey, you can go 0-4 in preseason and have a great season."

What to expect from Thursday’s Eagles dress rehearsal

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What to expect from Thursday’s Eagles dress rehearsal

I have some good news for Doug Pederson. 

“Maybe I’m superstitious, but I really don’t like being 4-0 in the preseason,” Pederson said Tuesday morning, adding that the preseason is for experimenting an evaluation. 

The good news: It can’t happen this year. 

The Eagles are 0-2 heading into the third preseason game, considered by many to be more of a dress rehearsal than the others. 

So Thursday night’s game in Cleveland at 8 p.m. means just a little more.  

It doesn’t necessarily mean more or less if the Eagles win or lose, but starters are going to play a lot. And this week of practice is treated more like a week in the regular season. Starters get “85 percent” of reps during the week, according to Pederson. 

Fans should at least hope to see something a little better than they did last week, when the Eagles had a performance that left some panicking. 

“Typically this game, I’d like to see them at least get through the first half,” Pederson said. “In situations, in games like this, you’d want to see a two-minute drive either offensively or defensively. We can do that and simulate that in practice, but to do that in a game would be great. Hopefully they can get to that point in this football game.” 

Pederson and the rest of the Eagles are hoping that game planning, along with extended reps for the first-teams together during the week of practice will translate into a cleaner and better executed game than the one we saw last week in New England. 

That starts with Nick Foles. 

Despite sustaining a minor shoulder strain early in the second quarter in New England, Foles returned to practice this week and will start against the Browns. But even before Foles was forced to leave the game early, things weren’t going his way. He completed just 3 of 9 passes for 44 yards and took three sacks. 

What does Pederson want to see from Foles this week? 

“Just consistency,” Pederson said. “You guys saw a couple throws early in the game were just not Nick Foles-type throws as far as accuracy goes. Just making those sort of routine-type plays. And just overall execution. Would love to see a touchdown drive or two, obviously, or points out of the first unit. I think with them playing more this week together, you’ll see better execution Thursday night.”

While Foles will play on Thursday, the Eagles will still be without some key players. Alshon Jeffery is still on the PUP and won’t play. Corey Clement, Nelson Agholor and Jay Ajayi are also expected to miss the game. Don’t expect Markus Wheaton, Kamar Aiken or Donnel Pumphrey either. 

Darren Sproles and Jason Peters also won’t play. Pederson has said before that he doesn’t need to see them in the preseason. 

Without Sproles, Clement, Ajayi, and Pumphrey, the Eagles might have just two running backs for Thursday’s game. Josh Adams returned to practice today, but his status for the game is unknown. Either way, it’ll be a big night for Wendell Smallwood and Matt Jones as they try to battle for that fourth and final running back spot (see story)

On defense, Brandon Graham (ankle) returned to practice this week, but won’t play on Thursday. The Eagles are just trying to get him ready for Week 1. 

While the Eagles will be without several key players, they are treating this week almost like a normal regular season week. There’s game-planning, starters are practicing a ton and even the schedule like a normal week schedule, which is helpful for coaches and players. 

Because of all that, Pederson said there’s an increased sense of urgency this week that doesn’t exist early in training camp. 

“Hopefully now our units are starting to play more, longer, they’re starting to play together,” Pederson said. “That’s the way practices have been structured this week, just to promote that a little bit. That should help our guys that are so-called penciled in starters to play a little bit better in a game like this.” 

Maybe that’ll lead to a win. 

But they can’t go 4-0 like they did back in 2016, which should make Pederson happy. They best they can hope for is 2-2 like they were a year ago before, ya know, they went on to win the Super Bowl.

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Eagles' Matt Jones, Wendell Smallwood likely only running backs to play vs. Browns

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Eagles' Matt Jones, Wendell Smallwood likely only running backs to play vs. Browns

Josh Adams and Donnel Pumphrey have been banged up and won’t play Thursday night. 

Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement have been injured as well and won’t play Thursday but have the team made and don’t need to. 

Darren Sproles is healthy but he’s Darren Sproles. He doesn’t do preseason.

It leaves the Eagles a grand total of two running backs for the most significant preseason game of the summer.

Wendell Smallwood and Matt Jones appear to be the last men standing in the battle for the Eagles’ fourth running back spot, behind Ajayi, Clement and Sproles.

Neither Smallwood nor Jones has done much to take command of this competition, so assuming the Eagles do keep four running backs — which is likely but not a lock — this game could go a long way toward determining their fate.

And since they’ll likely be the Eagles’ only running backs in uniform, both will presumably have plenty of reps to stake a claim to a spot on the 53-man roster. Kickoff is scheduled for 8 p.m. at FirstEnergy Stadium.

Smallwood, a third-year pro, ran four times for one yard in New England last weekend. Jones was 6-for-19 and dropped three passes.

“(I want to see) consistency,” Doug Pederson said. “I want to see how well they rebound, come back.

“It’s a great opportunity for both of them. They’re both veteran players, they’ve played a lot of football in this league. It’s one of those sort of battles that we’ve been keeping our eye on this training camp and it’s great for both of them.”

Adams averaged 5.0 yards per carry against the Steelers on 6-for-30 but hasn’t played since and could be earmarked for the practice squad. Adams did finally return to practice Tuesday, but his status for the game Thursday night is unknown and Pederson certainly didn’t indicate he would be in the mix.

Pumphrey was having a solid camp before getting hurt and hasn’t played in any preseason games.

Clement and Ajayi are expected to be OK for the season opener against the Falcons on Sept. 6 but we won’t see them on the field before then.

It most likely leaves Smallwood, the Eagles’ fifth-round pick in 2016, and Jones, the Redskins’ third-round pick in 2015.

The Eagles finish the preseason with the Jets at home a week from Thursday, and Pederson seemed to indicate those two might be the only backs available for that game as well.

But the Browns game is pivotal because both will get opportunities to play with the first-team offense and against the Browns' starting defense.

“It’s kind of ironic that it would come down to maybe a game or two here that these two guys are competing,” he said.

“It’s unfortunate for the other guys that are nicked up because we want to see them as well. At the same time, it’s a great opportunity for Wendell and Matt and for them to get some really extensive time in this game.”

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