Eagles' pass rush shows signs of improvement against Steelers

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Mychal Kendricks goes after Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Mychal Kendricks goes after Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger.
Posted: August 22, 2014

IF YOU WERE LOOKING for a reason to believe the Eagles’ pass rush would be better this season, you didn’t find it in the first two preseason games.

They notched only three sacks against the Bears and Patriots, none against the No. 1 offensive units.

Yes, they seldom blitzed. Yes, defensive coordinator Bill Davis was more concerned with evaluating young edge-rushers such as rookie first-round pick Marcus Smith and Travis Long than he was with his unit’s sack total.

But when you’re coming off a season in which you had only 37 sacks and finished 31st in the league in sacks per pass play, fans tend to get a little anxious for a sign that things are going to get better.

Last night, that sign finally came.

While it might be a little early to start dreaming up a clever nickname for the Eagles’ pass rush – OK, it’s way, way, way too early for that – Davis’ defense turned in an impressive first-half performance against Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers’ No. 1 offense in a 31-21 Eagles win.

Roethlisberger completed only eight of 17 first-half passes for 60 yards against the Eagles, and had a second-quarter pass picked off by Eagles cornerback Nolan Carroll.

The interception, which came on a third-and-10 play in the second quarter, was caused by pressure. Inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks flushed Roethlisberger out of the pocket, and outside linebacker Trent Cole was in his face as he tried to get the ball to running back Dri Archer. Carroll, playing in his first preseason game after missing much of training camp with a hamstring injury, made a nice play to intercept the pass.

The Eagles’ defensive starters held Roethlisberger and the Steelers to eight first downs, 96 net yards and zero points in the first half.

They also allowed the Steelers to convert only three of seven third-down opportunities in the first half, which was night-and-day better than the first two preseason games, when the Bears and Patriots converted 20 of 32 third-down tries.

“I thought the guys played solid today,” Davis said. “The first half was a productive first half against a great offense. [Against] a great quarterback who’s won a lot of games in this league. I thought the secondary covered well, and I thought our rush was better. And we stayed with the same base game plan. It was nice to see it moving forward."

The Eagles had major problems getting off the field last season, and their pass rush was a big reason for that. They were 24th in the league in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert nearly 41 percent of their third-down opportunities. Davis knows that has to change.

“Third down is a point of emphasis for us, and it hasn’t been good enough,’’ he said. “It still isn’t good enough. We have to get better than we did tonight [6-for-12 overall]. But it did improve.

“All these preseason games to me [are about] are we moving in a forward direction in all areas. In our two-gap technique. In our pass-rush technique. In our coverage. In lowering the penalties and adjusting to the way they call the game.

“And it felt like we moved forward today. It’s not where we want to be. But hopefully we can get further and further along by the time we play Jacksonville. We’re starting at a better place than we did a year ago.”

The Eagles sacked Roethlisberger only twice. Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry both registered their second sacks of the preseason. But they got consistent pressure on him and forced him off his spot.

“That was the biggest thing this week.,” Graham said. “We have to get off [the field] on third down. That was a big emphasis all week. Coach Davis has been saying that if we don’t kill ourselves with penalties and can get off on third down, we can be a great defense. That’s what we tried to focus on.”

Roethlisberger had an 8-yard completion to tight end Heath Miller on a third-and-6 on the Steelers’ first possession. But a couple of plays later, 6-6, 280-pound defensive end Brandon Bair continued to make his case for why he belongs on the Eagles’ season-opening roster by getting pressure on Roethlisberger and forcing an incompletion. The Eagles got pressure on him again on third down, forcing another incompletion and a punt.

Outside linebacker Connor Barwin, who hopes to get more pass-rushing opportunities this season than he did last year, when he finished second on the team with five sacks, got pressure on Roethlisberger on a second-and-long play on the Steelers’ second possession. But it was negated by an illegal contact penalty by cornerback Bradley Fletcher.

“[Rushing the passer] is a big hope in the outside linebacker room,” said Bill McGovern, who coaches the Eagles’ outside linebackers. “The outside linebackers want to rush the quarterback. Nobody ever comes to me and says, ‘Coach, I want to drop back.’

“But what’s great about it is the guys we’ve brought in here have understood the team philosophy in terms that we’re trying to get a right and left linebacker where they can both mirror one another. And that’s going to benefit both of them because either one of them can rush at different times and either one can cover.”

The Steelers converted a third-and-four in the second quarter when Roethlisberger completed a 19-yard pass to wide receiver Antonio Brown. They picked up another 15 yards on the play when safety Malcolm Jenkins was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.

But two plays later, Roethlisberger was intercepted by Carroll, thanks to the pressure by Kendricks and Cole.

Former first-rounder Graham had another strong pass-rushing performance. He sacked Roethlisberger for a 7-yard loss at his own 11 on a second-and-3 play late in the first half.

“It was a 2-minute situation,” he said. “I knew a sack would kill the drive. We all knew we had to go out and do something and that’s what happened.”

A couple of weeks ago, it looked as if Graham might have a hard time making the Eagles’ season-opening roster. Kelly and Davis might keep only four outside linebackers, possibly five. Cole and Barwin are locks. So is Smith.

Long drew a lot of praise from Davis and head coach Chip Kelly after the New England game. And unlike Graham, he probably also could play inside if the Eagles needed him to.

But can a team that needs to improve its pass rush really afford to get rid of a guy who has been one of its most productive pass-rushers when he’s been on the field?

Last season, Graham played only 331 snaps and had just 167 pass-rush opportunities, according to Pro Football Focus, but still managed to record three sacks, four hits and 17 hurries.

“Brandon’s had a nice preseason,” Davis said. “He’s always had an ability to rush the passer. Nobody’s ever doubted that. Him and Vinny, they’re very good pass-rushers. Along with a couple of other guys that we have. So I like to see Brandon out there getting sacks and disrupting the quarterback like he did tonight.”

Said Graham: “I just try to take it one day at a time and put it on film. Show them that I can help this team win. I want to secure a [roster] spot, because I know how great we can be.

“I know we can take it to the next level, and I want to be here to see us win the championship. I want to be a part of that.”

What would really help the Eagles’ pass rush this season is a significant contribution from Smith, the 26th overall pick in the May draft. But so far, the rookie’s been a deer in headlights.

“He will [contribute],” McGovern said. “I’m not worried about that. You go back to the first game against Chicago, he played solid, did some nice things.

“In the beginning of the Patriot game, he was solid. Then he struggled towards the end. Now, he’s got to be able to look at the tape, make some hard evaluations about himself and then go forward. He’s doing that.”

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