Two preseason games down, one to go, and three weeks from Sunday things will get real. Here’s our 10 Instant Observations from the Eagles’ 18-18 tie against the Browns at the Linc Thursday night.
1. How concerned should we be with Marcus Mariota? Not a flat-out panic situation, but his ineffectiveness is absolutely concerning. Now, he’s not getting much help. The second o-line (Tyler Steen, Josh Sills, Josh Andrews, Sua Opeta, Jack Driscoll) was brutal against the Browns’ defensive front, and Mariota didn’t have a ton of time in the pocket. That said, when he does have a chance to set his feet, he’s floating the ball and not firing with authority. And he just doesn’t have a lot of juice on his throws. That pass he floated out there to Grant Calcaterra that was picked off by undrafted rookie Ronnie Hickman? That was just a terrible decision and a worse throw. His pocket presence isn’t where it should be either. This is a guy who has started 74 games in the NFL and has a lifetime passer rating close to 90. Against the Browns’ second defense, he should be a heck of a lot sharper. Mariota’s final numbers Thursday night were a miserable 9-for-17 for 85 yards, the one INT and a 42.5 passer rating. And 17 of those 85 yards – his longest completion - came on a short pass that Olamide Zaccheus turned into a 17-yard gain. He's been bad, no two ways about it. Despite all that and despite Tanner McKee’s outstanding camp, Mariota will remain No. 2. If he does have to play at some point, he’ll be out there with one of the NFL’s best offensive lines, two of the NFL’s best wide receivers, a top-5 tight end and a talented fleet of running backs, so that should look different than this. Should. Hopefully, the Eagles don’t have to find out.
2. What makes this whole situation more intriguing is how impressive Tanner McKee continues to be. He’s seeing the field well, unloading the ball quickly, delivering it accurately, driving it down the field and placing it where only his receivers can get it. McKee was 10-for-16 for 148 yards vs. the Browns with a 22-yard TD pass to tight end Brady Russell late in the fourth quarter and then the game-tying two-point conversion to Johnny King. He was also victimized by three drops, including one by Deon Cain in the end zone after a sweet play fake, roll-out to the right and across-the-body throw. McKee has been very good – especially for a rookie 6th-round pick. And Mariota has struggled. But I just can’t imagine Nick Sirianni making a switch. Not now. McKee has been playing against 2’s and 3’s, and there’s a big difference between making some big throws against guys who won’t make an NFL roster and playing regular-season football. McKee is on the right track and there very well could be a point where he moves up to No. 2. And that point might be fairly soon. But we’re not there yet. Mariota has played nearly 5,000 NFL snaps, and he’s still the best option at No. 2. Even though it might not seem that way right now.
3. Scary injury for Nolan Smith after a very good start. Smith had three high-quality pressures on the Browns’ first three series, and while he didn’t record a sack he was really wreaking some serious havoc in the Browns’ backfield. And then his pursuit for a four-yard loss on Anthony Schwartz on the play he injured his right arm (or aggravated an injury that may have happened early) was tremendous. Smith just explodes off the ball and gets penetration so fast. Hopefully not a serious injury. Smith was back out on the Eagles’ sideline in the second half and didn’t have a wrap or anything on his right arm, so you hope for the best. This kid is going to be really fun to watch.
4. Very happy Nakobe Dean played Thursday night. We just haven’t seen him play much football since he got here – 34 snaps all last year, DNP vs. the Ravens – and he showed up on that goal-line play, slicing easily past Browns tackle Dawand Jones and not only greeting ball carrier John Kelly Jr. at the 4-yard-line - two yards behind the line of scrimmage - but forcing a fumble that K’Von Wallace recovered. Dean did have that personal foul on a hit that he probably couldn’t avoid, but that was a bang-bang play where the QB was moving after getting hit by Terrell Edmunds a moment earlier, and that didn’t bother me. More aggressive play. He looked fast and physical in his most extensive playing time since college. Dean is one of the big question marks on this defense. He’s had kind of a quiet training camp and missed three days with an ankle injury in the middle of everything. So it was almost a relief to see him show up in a big way against the Browns.
5. When the Eagles signed linebackers Zach Cunningham and Myles Jack, Christian Ellis’s chances at that second off-ball linebacker starting spot seemed to dwindle. And both veterans seem to have picked things up pretty quickly. But I’ll tell you what, I really like the way Ellis plays. He’s smart and physical and instinctive and is always around the ball. He was very good Thursday night both against the run and in coverage, and he really pops when he’s on the field. Cunningham and Jack have a ton of experience and Ellis doesn’t have any. And it might not be ideal to start two linebackers who’ve played a combined 63 career snaps. But Ellis – another undrafted Howie discovery - is clearly still in the mix for that spot.
6. Getting back to that second offensive line … that was a really awful display. Josh Sills seemed to be having a particularly tough go of it at left guard, and Tyler Steen – who’s done some nice things this summer – struggled as well. So did Driscoll, who hasn’t played as well this summer as you’d expect from a 4th-round pick in his fourth season with 16 starts. Really, they all struggled. We know how good the first five are, but you’d like to see more consistency from this group because a couple of them may have to play this year. The Browns have some good depth up front, but you expect a Jeff Stoutland unit to play better than this. Some work to do here.
7. Love how Trey Sermon bounced back after that fumble with some big runs on the Eagles’ first drive of the third quarter. Sermon is fighting for a roster spot and he’s on the outside looking in, and when he lost a fumble after a 14-yard catch and run Jalen Hurts came right over and gave him a little pep talk, and then Sermon goes out in the third quarter and runs 5, 10 and 33 yards for a touchdown. Nick Sirianni is constantly reminding his guys that you’re going to face adversity at some point, and what really matters the most is how you respond, and Sermon responded in a big way. Sermon is still a longshot. He’s got to significantly outplay either Rashaad Penny or Boston Scott to win a spot on the 53. And that won’t be easy to do. But you can see his talent. He’s a big, strong, physical kid, a former 3rd-round pick, and he’s a powerful runner. He’s still a longshot, but he sure helped himself in the third quarter.
8. Marlon Tuipulotu is a guy we haven’t talked about much this summer, but he’s probably the favorite for the backup nose tackle spot. Tuipulotu, a 6th-round pick in 2021, was averaging 26 snaps per game when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 9. Tuipulotu has shown up in both preseason games – he had half a sack and two QB hurries in limited snaps against the Browns. He wasn’t great last year, but he’s looked better this summer and has gone from maybe a fringe guy trying to win a roster spot on that loaded defensive line to a likely guy in the rotation.
9. Even though it was still a touchdown, I loved Sydney Brown’s hustle forcing a fumble after Kellen Mond’s TD pass to Austin Watkins Jr. After Eli Ricks lost Watkins along the right sideline, Brown came out of nowhere and stripped Watkins Jr., but it happened just after he had crossed the plane of the end zone. Since he was a runner at that point, the play was over as soon as he crossed the plane, and it wasn’t a fumble. But still. You appreciate the effort and the hustle by a young kid
10. Really scary to see receiver Tyrie Cleveland and defensive lineman Moro Ojomo both placed on a stretcher and carted off the field in the second half. The good news from the Eagles Thursday night is that Cleveland has movement in all his extremities. We’ll all hope for more good news soon regarding both Cleveland and Ojomo. Cleveland and Ojomo have both had very good summers and put themselves in the roster conversation. Tough day all around with injuries. In addition to Cleveland, Smith and Ojomo, Zech McPhearson and Andrews also left the game and didn’t return. That’s more injuries than the Eagles suffered all last year.