Signs of crisis for Eagles at wide receiver?

Posted: August 15, 2014

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - As Riley Cooper noted yesterday, in the wide-receiving business, "It looks bad when your two starters aren't out there practicing. It definitely looks bad."

Suddenly, we're midway through August and midway through the preseason, pending tonight's Eagles-Patriots contest, without the trio of quarterback Nick Foles and receivers Cooper and Jeremy Maclin having done any meaningful work together.

You can look at it as an extended audition for other guys, such as Jordan Matthews, Josh Huff, Jeff Maehl, Ifeanyi Momah and Arrelious Benn, getting them more preseason reps, showcasing what they can do. Or you can look at it as the first, faint outlines of an emerging crisis, the Eagles reaping what they sowed when they cast DeSean Jackson into outer darkness (or Washington, which in NFL terms is more or less the same thing).

Maclin, who was not available to reporters yesterday, did not participate in the walkthrough-light practice that ended the week of joint Eagles-Patriots work, after leaving early in Wednesday's workout with a left-hamstring problem he said was nothing big.

Maclin is coming back from missing last season to right ACL surgery. He also sat out a couple days of workouts last week with unspecified "leg soreness," and caught one pass for 15 yards in the preseason opener. Eagles coach Chip Kelly indicated Wednesday that though he believes Maclin is coming along fine, Maclin is still getting comfortable with being back on the field, and with Kelly's offense.

Without Maclin and Jackson, the Eagles don't seem to have an abundance of downfield speed.

Cooper isn't really explosive, but last season he did use his 6-4 frame and excellent body control to catch quite a few deep balls. The Eagles are looking for him to build on his 47 catches for 835 yards and eight touchdowns in 2013.

"I'm feeling a lot better," said Cooper, whose foot injury has never been explained by the team. "The last 2 days, I've done all individual work, and I've been running routes on my own with [wideouts coach Bob Bicknell] . . . Sunday, I'm going to start getting back into 7-on-7 and some team stuff, kind of gradually get back into it."

Cooper said he hopes to play in the third of four preseason games, next Thursday against the visiting Steelers.

"That's what I'm shooting for. I definitely need to play. I can't just jump in Week 1 and start playing against Jacksonville," Cooper said. "I want to play next week and get back into the swing of things."

Cooper said he is "fairly confident" he'll be available for that season-opening visit from Jacksonville on Sept. 7. "I'm anxious to get back out there, you know?" he said.

Matthews, the second-round rookie from Vanderbilt, is eager to get out there tonight against the Pats, after a disappointing debut in Chicago last week. Matthews dropped three passes and finished with four catches for just 14 yards.

"I don't know what it was. He was in the right spots," Cooper said, when asked about Matthews. "I think he said, his quote was just, 'concentration.' I think that's what it was. You're a rookie, you're playing in your first NFL game, you're excited, you're trying to do too much, trying to make things happen, where you just need to calm down and play your game.

"He's a great player. He's got some of the best hands I've ever seen, you know? You've seen him at practice - he doesn't drop balls. That's not his thing. He'll be fine. I'm really looking forward to seeing what he does this week. He's had a great week of preparation and practice. I know he'll do good."

Matthews, 6-3, 212, said he wants to "really focus on doing my job. Sometimes you go into that first game, you're trying to do so much, you're sometimes worried about the wrong things. You've just got to get your feet under you."

As the highest-profile newcomer to the wideout corps, Matthews said he isn't feeling added pressure with Cooper and Maclin out; he said he feels the Eagles still have plenty of potent weapons in LeSean McCoy, Darren Sproles, Brent Celek and Zach Ertz.

Since coming to the Eagles, Matthews has been known for watching an awful lot of film and doing extra work after practice, so last week's disappointment could hardly spur him to work harder.

"It's not like doing something else is really going to help," he said. "I've just got to continue to keep the same mindset, keep the same focus, and I know that everything's going to end up working out really well."

He also said something especially pertinent to tonight.

"The best way to always get better in the game is by playing in it," he said.

Momah, 6-7, 239, had a horrible experience against the Pats a year ago, both in the joint practices and the ensuing game. At Boston College, Momah only became a full-time receiver his senior year, 2011, and that season ended after one game, thanks to a knee injury he suffered while catching eight passes for 171 yards against Northwestern.

Momah said yesterday that getting extra looks because of the Maclin and Cooper injuries is "a blessing. They're not really [seriously] hurt or anything like that, but they've been able to help me while I'm out here taking these first-team reps. It's been a blessing so far."

A year ago, Momah seemed to have no clue about route-running, getting in and out of breaks. In preseason games, he looked like a giraffe who had wandered onto a busy freeway.

"It's all practice, man," Momah said. "You've got to learn how to be comfortable with your body, learn how to use your body."

Agenda

Eagles at Patriots

7:30 p.m., Gillette Stadium, Foxborough, Mass.

TV: 6ABC

Radio: WIP (94.1 FM)

Here are three things Eagles fans might want to watch in the game against the New England Patriots:

1. RECEIVERS: Riley Cooper said yesterday he plans to practice fully Sunday and hopes to play in the third preseason game, Aug. 21 against the Steelers. He will not play tonight, with a foot injury that has lingered since the early days of camp. Jeremy Maclin was not allowed to talk to reporters yesterday, but he did not take part in the walkthrough, after tweaking his left hamstring Wednesday. So a big focus tonight is wideout depth. You'll probably see a lot from guys like Jordan Matthews, Ifeanyi Momah, Josh Huff, Arrelious Benn and Jeff Maehl. This is a big opportunity for someone. Depending on how the evening goes, it also might be time to get alarmed over the Eagles’ wideout situation. DeSean Jackson would look pretty good right now.

2. NICK FOLES AND THE OFFENSIVE LINE: The quarterback had pass rushers in his face a week ago in Chicago, and he reacted by throwing two unwise interceptions, in just three series. Foles needs to get back to last season’s unflappability, and his o-line needs to block some people, without taking last week’s holding penalties. The whole thing was kind of a mess against the Bears. Not at all what fans are expecting in 2014.

3. PASS RUSH: The Eagles’ top defensive unit got no pressure on Bears quarterback Jay Cutler a week ago. Pressure came later in the game from situational rushers such as Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry, and from rookie nose tackle Beau Allen. It would be quite reassuring to see Trent Cole and the first-teamers get to Tom Brady. If they don’t the back end is going to continue to look like a mess, particularly with the new officiating emphasis on flagging defensive contact downfield. Not really sure Bradley Fletcher can play effectively if the game is going to be called as tight as it has been so far in the preseason.


On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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