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August 19, 2019

This year, Eagles' 'dress rehearsal game' might actually be their joint practices with Ravens

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Carroll - Malcolm Jenkins Eagles Training Camp Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins.

Things were a little bit different at the NovaCare Complex on Monday. 

With the Baltimore Ravens in town for joint practices with the Eagles this week, there was a lot going on on those Broad and Pattison-lined practice fields in South Philly. And likely a lot more than you'll see on the field about a block away during Thursday night's preseason matchup between these two teams.

Typically the "dress rehearsal game," this penultimate matchup is likely going to look a lot like the Eagles' previous two games in which their starters hardly played, if at all.

For the Eagles, their "dress rehearsal" is happening right now, at practice. 

Both teams in were in pads on Monday, something that will continue again on Tuesday despite even more oppressive heat in the forecast, and while it's not full contact, there has been plenty of action. And head coach Doug Pederson believes the work the team is putting in these two days against the Ravens is actually better preparation than they will get on Thursday night. 

"Yeah, because in practice sometimes you don't get all the situations in a game that you'd like to see your players in," Pederson said over the weekend. "So practices, I can set practices up that way. I can set them up hard. I can set them up where we're in pads, or going live, whatever it might be that we can really get a true evaluation of a player.

"The only real change from a game to a practice is in a game you don't get to do it over. At least in a practice setting, if we make a mistake, we can line up and do it again, and so we can correct that mistake right away.  In preseason games, we can't do that. We get a little bit better evaluation in practice in that case."

Additionally, because the players are going up against another team rather than their teammates, these practices raise the stakes in a way that normally couldn't be accomplished when going against your own guys.

"Today I felt like I had that adrenaline rush that I would have in a game, because, you know, when you practice against [another team] you want to go hard and you feel like you're in a game," said defensive end Brandon Graham. "You just give it everything you've got because now you've got another team watching, so I think everybody was overly excited today because it's somebody different."

And those elevated stakes — and temperatures, which reached the mid-90s with a heat index of 105 — resulted in what Graham called a "prove it day."

"Wooo, it was burning today. I had to keep my helmet on because that sun was just hitting it. It was cool though, it was one of those 'prove it' days, like you say that you want it bad, you've got to prove it. Through everything, you've got to prove it. We're going be out here — the coldest it's going to be, one of these days in December. We're going to need it in January.

"You're going to have to fight for what you want. And I think today was one of those fights."

Being able to simulate game action while also being able to control every situation isn't the only benefit to practices over preseason games, something that has become a trend in the NFL with more and more teams hosting joint practices — and more and more teams sitting their starters throughout the preseason. 

The players, especially the starters who would normally see very limited reps in preseason games, get a lot more work in during these practices than they would in a game. 

"I'm getting 40 or 50 reps of practice right now, going against guys that are really good and it's a completely different scheme than we run. Whereas if I were to play in a preseason game, I'd get 12 reps, max," said tight end Zach Ertz, who has yet to play in the preseason and likely won't at this point. "I think these are very beneficial to me and all the starters because I think it's a lot harder than a preseason game, these two practices. I'm enjoying it though. It's fun to compete against really good players, and they've got a lot of them."

And that works on both sides of the ball. 

"Oh, yeah," Graham said when asked if these joint practices can be just as beneficial as preseason games. "Because every rep, you're going maximum effort and you've got to try to get to that second wind as fast as you can because the recovery time sometimes is like rapid fire. Some teams do hurry-up — like I know [the Ravens] did hurry-up a couple of times out there. And this was the hottest day I've ever been a part of so far this year. I think today, like I said, you had to dig deep and find it. So I think it really is going to get you ready for the first game."

Not only does the joint practice give the players more reps, they're also coming against schemes that they typically would only see in games.

"That's definitely a benefit, especially because we haven't game-planned against them because it's not a real game," Graham said. "But this is one of those things were you trust in the defense and the scheme and your technique and you kind of react to whatever it is you see. 

"And I think that you need guys to be disciplined, and this definitely teaches discipline, because now, with us not game-planning, we really have to fall back on just our technique and we have to trust that people are going to be exactly where they're supposed to be."

Safety Malcolm Jenkins, who, along with Graham, asked to play in last week's game against the Jaguars and could do so again on Thursday night, also sees the benefits of these joint practices.

"I think they're very important," Jenkins said after the first day of going up against Baltimore. "We practice very hard as a team, but there's something different when you have another opponent on the other side of the ball. So I think it's just good looks where you're not used to every play. Different looks and guys are competing, so I think the next two days will be good for us."

More importantly, at least or the Eagles, is that they can keep quarterback Carson Wentz in a red jersey, and, presumably, out of harm's way. 

Of course, with the temps climbing and emotions running high as players compete not just against another team, but against their own teammates for roster spots, there's always a fine line that must be walked. 

"Yeah, you want to be physical. Obviously, you want to protect yourself, but at the same time we're here to get work in," Pederson said. "That was my message to the team this morning was that when they come in here, it's not about who's the bully. It's about getting work in, and getting quality work in. This is a good football team coming in here. This is the No. 1 ranked NFL defense a year ago. Offense is explosive and they have a great, elusive quarterback. This will be a good test for both sides of the ball for us and so we're excited about that.

"If you're worried about getting in a fight, then you're in the wrong business. We're here to get better and that's my message to the team."

As we've seen in other team's joint practices, that's easier said than done, so Pederson must've been happy to see his team escape Day 1 without any fights breaking out, even with Earl Thomas flying around and thumping a few Eagles receivers. But nothing crossed that line between physical football and dangerous play.

"At the end of the day, we're out here to play football, and to get some work done," Jenkins added. "It's not about who is the bigger, badder, tougher team. It's really about getting better, and I think both teams understand that. There's a level of competition we expect out of ourselves that we won't compromise." 

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