Rookie receiver Matthews rebounds from rough debut

Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews had nine catches for 104 yards against the New England Patriots on Friday, after dropping two passes in the preseason opener against the Chicago Bears.
Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews had nine catches for 104 yards against the New England Patriots on Friday, after dropping two passes in the preseason opener against the Chicago Bears. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 18, 2014

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Wide receiver Jordan Matthews packed his bag within earshot of quarterback Mark Sanchez in the visitors locker room after the Eagles' 42-35 loss to the New England Patriots on Friday night. Matthews led the Eagles with nine catches for 104 yards, and Sanchez started praising the performance.

Except Sanchez knew Matthews could hear him, so he didn't want to be too complimentary of the second-round pick.

"He's doing a great job, Sanchez said, "for a rookie."

Matthews did look like a rookie one week earlier, when he dropped two passes in the preseason opener against the Chicago Bears. That game slowed the hype about the receiver, who drew acclaim from teammates and coaches through the first two weeks of training camp. But Matthews showed why the Eagles were so high on him with his performance against New England, and his role will only grow as the regular season nears.

"The same thing that we've seen when we've been in our training sessions at the NovaCare [Complex] is what we finally saw tonight," coach Chip Kelly said. "He's just such an emotional guy and plays at such a high level that I think he was just ramped up a little bit too much in the Chicago game, so I'm glad with what we saw tonight." 

Matthews refused to use first-game jitters as an excuse, but it was the most plausible explanation the coaching staff could provide. Matthews admitted that the game felt different on Friday, and that having the experience of Chicago helped him in New England.

"It was the same way in my first practice," Matthews said. "First practice, it started real fast, then slowed down for me. First preseason game, it seemed kind of fast, then slowed down. It'll be the same way in the regular season and as we go on."

Matthews caught all nine passes intended for him. He appeared sure-handed and displayed his run-after-the-catch ability, which will be an upgrade for the Eagles in the slot.

The first catch might have been Matthews' most important because it came from Nick Foles. Matthews' first-team snaps have been infrequent this summer while the Eagles have him serve an apprenticeship with Brad Smith. But it's expected that Matthews will start in the slot this season, so it's necessary that Matthews develop a rapport with Foles.

Foles said he "felt really comfortable" with Matthews, who played early because the Eagles reduced Smith to six offensive snaps. Matthews was in for 39 plays.

Foles still has not yet played with Riley Cooper, Jeremy Maclin, and Matthews together. When the Eagles are in three-receiver sets this season, those three will form the top combination.

Matthews caught six passes for 72 yards when Sanchez entered the game. The Sanchez-Matthews connection has been consistent, offering Sanchez a distinctive understanding of Matthews' development.

"He's shown some great flashes," Sanchez said. "You don't want to put the cart in front of the horse. You got to keep the guy working. We love his mentality. And that's the mentality you can cultivate into a great receiver. But there's still a ton of hurdles he's got to jump over."

Some of the coverages that Matthews beat on Friday might not be what he sees when the regular season opens next month, which is one reason he tried to downplay his performance.

I caught a lot of balls in zone coverage," Matthews said, "but we know this is a man coverage league."

Beating the zone required Matthews to operate well in space, which is what he did with effectiveness at Vanderbilt. He credited Kelly's offense, but it also takes an astute wide receiver to know how to find openings.

"I'm a big wide receiver; it's not going to be underneath stuff all season," Matthews said. "I've got to be able to make plays up the seam for this team."

This is Matthews nitpicking, a character trait that has endeared him to veteran teammates. LeSean McCoy said Matthews practices like an experienced player, and the front office noticed Matthews arrived for his predraft visit already a student of Kelly's offense.

The team was not surprised by what Matthews did Friday because he had played at a high level throughout training camp. But Matthews cautioned against forming an evaluation off nine catches for 104 yards.

"You can't just look at the stat sheet and let that tell the story," Matthews said, "I've got a lot of things to work on."

zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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