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August 21, 2022

Instant observations: Eagles backup offense guides team to preseason win in Cleveland

The Eagles' offensive backups impressed during the first half on Sunday, with those flashes ultimately more important than the 21-20 victory in their preseason battle against the Browns. With Philadelphia's top unit on the sidelines, we got long looks at just about everybody else.

Here's what I saw.

The Good

• The first play from scrimmage probably brought a big smile to the face of Howie Roseman, whose second-round selection of Cam Jurgens was certainly divisive in some circles. Watching him pull around to the outside and crush a safety at the next level, though, and you can see this guy is a unique talent at his position. Boston Scott didn't have a lot of tough work to do for a big gainer, and it could have been far more than just a first-down run if he'd kept his balance along the sideline.

Maybe Scott doesn't take that for a touchdown if he keeps his balance, but Jurgens' block at least provided a theoretical opportunity for one. And if you have a center who can create advantage situations like this even semi-regularly, your playbook opens up and your home run potential grows. 

The thing is, Jurgens did a lot more than create a couple of highlights on outside runs. Play after play, it felt like the Eagles were able to open up space between the tackles, often because Jurgens would add a bit of extra muscle on a double team and then move quickly to the second level, buying a few extra yards for Scott or Kenneth Gainwell. It was hard to miss Jurgens for most of his time on the field, the rookie center exploding through space and standing out above most guys on the field on Sunday afternoon.

We're a long way from making comparisons to Jason Kelce, who has been sensational at the position for a long, long time. But getting to learn from the master will only help Jurgens build up from here, and he already looks like a potential difference maker.

• With Jurgens starring in the first half and the line as a whole firing on all cylinders, Philadelphia's backup rushers had a chance to shine in Cleveland. Boston Scott and Kenneth Gainwell were both productive in their own ways, each scoring a touchdown before taking a seat for the afternoon.

The lack of a true power runner is a subject that has been touched on a lot by my Eagles-focused colleagues around here, and I'm certainly not advocating for small (but mighty) Scott to be the between-the-tackles guy for this team. But I do get reminders near the start of every year that he plays bigger than his size, and he was an absolute workhorse for Philly on their first scoring drive of the day. By the time he punched one in for the opening touchdown, Scott appeared to be running on fumes, but he had enough left to dive over the top and earn a well-deserved rest on the sidelines. 

That play never happens, mind you, without an impressive second effort from Scott to convert on fourth down and extend the drive deep in Browns territory. Philadelphia's run play looked to be dead in the water, and after absorbing an initial hit, Scott lurched forward and extended the ball to get the necessary yardage. There's a lot of fight in Scott, and they always end up needing it at some point during a long season. 

Gainwell ended up having a more productive day than Scott by the numbers, a day that included an open-field wiggle which allowed Gainwell to transform a short gain into a big run, ultimately moving the Eagles closer to scoring territory. He showed off a nice combination of open-field agility and some between-the-tackles power, and though it's a bit easier to do that against backups, he made great use of his touches Sunday afternoon. 

The constant over the last year has been Philadelphia running the ball and running it well. Expect a lot more of that this season, even if their splashiest addition was at wideout.

• Gardner Minshew is not exactly out there throwing darts, and there were some completions that only just reached their intended target, robbing players of opportunities to pick up yards after the catch. But I would say this is about everything you want to see from a backup quarterback in a start. Minshew consistently got the ball out on time, avoided taking sacks, and the Eagles were mostly excellent on third down, Minshew making some important plays and reads to extend drives.

There couldn't have been more than a few plays all afternoon where Minshew did something that made you think, "He's just trying to do too much." It was a calm, composed performance where the biggest risk he took were 50/50 balls down the sideline where he asked Deon Cain to make plays. He hit timing route after timing route, making snap decisions to chew up yards and clock.

Speaking of Mr. Cain, he and Minshew hooked up on a pair of big gainers during Philadelphia's final drive of the first half, with Minshew essentially throwing the same ball to the same spot two times in a row, Cain ultimately winning those battles. I'm not sure whether Cain has a real shot to make the roster — our own Jimmy Kempski had him as a "Longshot" the last time he took stock of the roster battles — but by all accounts, he has had an excellent summer. If he manages to sneak on the roster as an extra receiver or because they move somebody to shore up depth at a different position, he might be able to produce in a pinch for this group.

In any case, not a ton of splash plays for Minshew, but the offense moved down the field with ease under his command. 

• I can't say I have the highest hopes for Andre Dillard based on the road he has taken to get here, but he was one of the other dominant pieces of the starting offensive line on Sunday. Finding quality depth in the trenches is tough for a lot of reasons, but if Dillard can simply be a high-level backup for the Eagles this season, that's more valuable than anything they're likely to get for him on the trade market.

Putting together a dominant performance against backups doesn't tell us much about how Dillard would fare in spot starting duty, but Dillard was instrumental in the strong start for the rushing attack, working together with the other big boys to free up space between the tackles. If the Eagles have to rely on him with injuries up front at some point this season, they'll likely feel a lot better than most teams being asked to sub in a different tackle. If he puts it all together, there's a pretty big talent base to work from.

(Jeff Stoutland is basically a wizard, and I'm convinced that with time he can turn just about anybody with a reasonable amount of talent into a player.)

Reid Sinnett dropped an absolute dime on a deep ball to Devon Allen late in the third quarter, and it led to probably the moment of the preseason up to this point. After the Olympic hurdler hauled in the touchdown, he paid homage to his track-and-field roots with his touchdown celebration, and you could tell how much the moment meant to Allen and his teammates, who went absolutely wild as he made his way off of the field.

When you have true track speed, that's going to pose some danger even if you aren't the most polished receiver or route runner. Sitting through two halves of preseason football can be pretty brutal, so at least we were treated to this moment on Sunday.

(I do wonder if anyone will give Allen a shot to hang on the practice squad and try to mold him into something more. Maybe that's the Eagles, more likely it would have to be someone else, but there are worse guys to spend development time on than burners. And this gives him an explosive play on tape to present to anybody who was already mildly interested.)

• Not sure why Quez Watkins even needed to get snaps in this game. I get that he's not one of the headliners in the A.J. Brown/Devonta Smith category, but he is an absolute lock who has already produced at a reasonably high level for this team. 

• The defense stiffened up enough to ultimately close this game out in the fourth quarter. I'm not sure there are less meaningful reps than those end-of-game reps in a preseason matchup, but these guys clearly wanted to leave with a win, and they got the job done.

The Bad

• Truly a tale of two units for the opening drives of this game. After a long, clock-eating drive to score six points by the offense, Philadelphia's defensive backups got absolutely torn apart by Cleveland's backups. And look, that's probably not the end of the world — Philadelphia's offensive depth (especially on the line) is far stronger than their defensive depth, and even their more talented starters on Sunday were young guys like Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean.

Even with those caveats, they stunk it up. The big boys, Davis included, got very little push out front, and the Eagles' tackling was an absolute horror show to start this game. Josh Dobbs looked to be lined up for a big sack in Eagles territory on the opening series, only for him to turn the play into a big gainer with his legs as several Philadelphia players were left flailing in his wake. I'll give Davion Taylor this — his blown opportunity along the sideline could at least be explained as a guy avoiding an unnecessary penalty and potential cheap shot in a meaningless game.

Those momentary excuses aside, it's hard to find many positives for Jonathan Gannon's unit, at least before the game devolved into a battle of bubble players. Josh Jobe had a nice pass breakup to prevent a touchdown in the dying seconds of the first half, and Andre Chachere made a strong play around the goal line right before that Jobe breakup, preventing Dobbs from jumping into the end zone for six points. Otherwise, just a whole lot of bleh. 

• Minshew was fortunate his throw late in the first half was dropped because the Browns likely had an easy pick-six if it was hauled in. Not often you can say the words "easy pick six" for a return that would have required a 99-yard sprint, but that's how bad the throw was.

Pretty ugly.

The Ugly

• Dave Spadaro having to guide an official out of a live shot without missing a beat was pretty impressive. True pro.

Quality stiff arm.

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