By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS)—A new coach, a new system, a new attitude, a new excitement. It didn’t matter. One of the most anticipated preseason games in over a decade for the Eagles resulted in a carryover of the same old problems.
The Eagles’ defense was shoddy last year. It was shoddy again Friday night in Chip Kelly’s debut on the sideline as the first Eagles’ coach this century that wasn’t Andy Reid.
The Eagles had tackling issues last year. They had tackling issues Friday night—just one look at the 51-yard reverse-field score by LaGarrette Blount (who played for Kelly at Oregon) in the second quarter was easy to see why tackling is still a glaring concern.
The New England Patriots’ 31-22 victory over the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field was inconsequential.
What was important was how first-round draft pick Lane Johnson looked (pretty good), how the run defense looked (pretty bad), how Michael Vick looked (pretty good), how the secondary fared (pretty good), and how the Eagles looked overall (pretty ordinary).
A troubling harbinger of things to come arose early when the Pats’ Stevan Ridley ripped through a gaping hole on the right side of the new Eagles’ defense for 62 yards on the game’s first play. Bradley Fletcher was the first Eagle to touch him—and that didn’t occur until Ridley was 60 yards down field.
Much was made about Kelly’s “soft camp,” sans any tackling to the ground. But Kelly was quick to point out the Eagles have been tackling.
“We have tackled to the ground. We did a live tackling drill last Tuesday, and we’ll continue to do those live tackling drills,” Kelly said. “I think our guys are getting tackling in practice. We just don’t tackle 11-on-11. I think we did [tackled] in the Sunday practice. We’ll continue to work on that stuff.”
Considering the number of Eagles’ defenders flailing at air and bouncing off Patriot runners, Kelly was asked if he plans on increasing tackling drills during practice.
“We weren’t going to do [more tackling drills] with the Patriots,” Kelly said. “Bill [Belichick] did not want to do it. They don’t do it. They don’t tackle in practice. We believe in tackling in practice when you do it in isolated drills. The biggest thing isn’t the guy tackling, and I’ve said this all along, it’s the pileup that occurs and it’s what’s going to fall over them. We do need to live tackle.
“It was interesting how every player said it was the first time they live tackled. [LB] Connor Barwin said it was the first live tackling drill that he ever had after playing with the [Houston] Texans. There’s a fine line in terms of what you do, but we believe that if we can do it in an isolated situation, we’ll tackle and take to the ground.”
In the first half, New England tore through the Eagles defense for 167 yards rushing on 15 carries, averaging 11.1 yards a carry. Ridley’s 62-yard run and Blount’s 51 yard TD score accounted for 113 of New England’s 167 first-half total.
“We had some breakdowns in gaps and we were missing tackles, so we talked coming in here about our effort getting to the ball was going to improve and our tackling was going to improve,” Eagles’ defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “The effort to the ball was there, the tackling isn’t where it needs to be yet. We’ll get the tackling right. We’ll continue to work on it. There was a lot of good out there tonight where the scheme really did look like it fit.”
Then there was future Hall of Famer Tom Brady, who carved up the Eagles during the team’s joint practices this week, and continued to do so when the teams were allowed to hit for real. No one got close enough to Brady, who led New England to 160 yards of total offense on 16 plays, averaging 16 yards a play, and two touchdowns on the Pats’ first two possessions.
Brady left after the first two drives, completing 7 of 8 passes for 65 yards, a touchdown, converting 3 of 3 third-down conversions, and leaving with a quarterback rating of 140.1.
The Eagles’ Mychal Kendricks was probably the most relieved. The second-year linebacker had a tough night. On New England’s first possession, Kendricks lowered his shoulder to stop Blount on a third-and-1 at the Eagles’ 9 and was bowled over for a 3-yard gain and a Pats’ first down.
On the Pats’ second drive, Kendricks actually stayed with New England’s Shane Vereen, but Brady somehow fit the ball in a great spot in the corner of the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown pass, leaving Kendricks flat on the ground.
“We have a lot to get better on [defensively],” Eagles’ safety Nate Allen said. “It’s the first preseason game and the first time we were actually live tackling. It’s no excuse for anything. We have a lot to get better on. We worked on the fundamentals in practice. [The first play], there was just a big hole and open-field tackling. No excuse. You have to make that play. We learned a lot from this and we’ll take a lot from this.”
Vick looked sharp in answering Brady. He completed 4 of 5 for 94 yards and touchdown. He led the Eagles to a score on their first possession, hitting DeSean Jackson on a perfect 47-yard TD pass. Kelly then pulled Vick in favor of Nick Foles, who wasn’t bad, either, completing 5 of 6 for 43 yards. Foles led the Eagles to a score early in the second quarter, when Bryce Brown concluded a 10-play, 66-yard drive with an 8-yard TD run.
The quarterback situation may have been considerably clarified. Here’s why: New England’s defense never bit on the read-option when Foles and rookie Matt Barkley were in—though Foles did the best job of selling it, more so than Vick or Barkley.
When Vick was in, New England’s linebackers seemed to freeze more, waiting to see what Vick would do.
“I thought [Vick and Foles] both did a good job,” Kelly said. “Nick unfortunately had that fumble on the series when we had the protection breakdown, but he came back and put a pretty good drive together. They both got us into the end zone, so I was pleased with how those guys played. They both played pretty well, and it gave me confidence in both of those guys.”
The players that distinguished themselves were defensive end Vinny Curry, who was disruptive against New England’s second-team offensive line, creating pressure from the edge; rookie safety Earl Wolff showed he’s a hitter; Brandon Graham proved he wants a place on this team, whether it’s on defense or special teams (he made the game’s first tackle on the opening kickoff); first-round pick Lane Johnson held up well and got down field on running plays; and nose tackle Bennie Logan and defensive end Damion Square played with boundless energy, running all over the field.
What it all means and how this is all fits into Kelly’s plans is yet to be seen. Because if the Eagles can’t tackle, and there continues to be break downs on defense, this preseason game may offer a glimpse of what’s ahead.
“I think it’s definitely [a better run defense] than what you saw tonight,” Allen said. “People falling down responsible for gaps, it’s nothing we can’t correct. It’s nothing you can’t fix. Tackling is definitely an attitude, and it’s a will to get the guy on the ground.”
Overall, Kelly was pleased.
“I liked our effort,” Kelly said. “I liked how hard our guys played, but there are obviously fundamentals that we need to work on as a group. I like their attitude. There are a lot of guys in there that aren’t very pleased. They didn’t take this like it was a preseason game and it doesn’t matter.”
Apparently it does when rebuilding a 4-12 mess.
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.