After the cancellation of last weekend’s Hall of Fame game, the Eagles and Buccaneers took over the privilege of opening up the 2016 pre-season. Philadelphia came away with a fairly low scoring 17-9 win at home, but that did not tell the whole story. All the attention was on 2nd overall draft pick Carson Wentz, but long before he stepped onto the field of play for the first time as a pro, a flurry of action lit up the first quarter that promised an entertaining game. The contest lulled quite a bit for much of the second quarter, before Wentz’s introduction sparked things into life again. As those toward the bottom of the depth chart took over, the quality turned relatively scrappy and error-prone but overall there was a lot to take from this opener to the new season for each of these teams with high expectations and new head coaches.
Long before Wentz got his turn, the first quarter began dramatically, or for Tampa Bay fans, disastrously. Young receiver Kenny Bell is a fantastic talent whose rookie season was ended before it began in 2015, and perhaps finally having a chance got the better of him, as the former Nebraska Cornhusker fumbled on the opening kick-off, recovered by Philly. That led Sam Bradford to step up on a short field, joined by Lane Johnson at right tackle with uncertainty whether he will indeed miss the first 10 games of the year. The ground game was the focus of the first offensive drive though as Ryan Matthews, free to take over as the true top back on the roster, powered in after just a few plays. New head coach Doug Peterson made it clear how he wants to execute, with power football as the touchdown run featured 3 tight ends, with Zach Ertz making a great block to lead Matthews in.
On top of the unforced errors by the Bucs, penalties were a constant issue throughout the early stages. One of the most glaring negatives for the entirety of the brief two-year tenure of Lovie Smith was the poor discipline that resulted in an excruciating number of flags. Not a great sign that that particular issue will be resolved. Being just the first pre-season game however, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that those penalties will get cleaned up as the next few weeks go on. Personally, I couldn’t take my eyes off of Tampa’s second year right guard and former second round pick Ali Marpet, who was more than holding his own against a very strong Eagles front. The young lineman is on his way to Pro Bowl recognition before long.
Minutes after Philadelphia took advantage of the first Bucs mistake, another followed just minutes later as Bennie Logan absolutely blew past Kevin Pamphile to force a fumble as Jameis Winston was preparing to release the ball. The now rather rich Fletcher Cox gladly scooped up the loose ball for the fumble recovery. In stepped backup QB Chase Daniels who scanned the field, saw the space opening up for him and took off with the ball himself for a rather simple touchdown run with nobody accounting for the quarterback in the defensive assignments. I do miss Derrick Brooks…
The Bucs offense finally found some rhythm before the first quarter was out, Martin looked very sharp at running back, and a good drive ended with a nice reception and score by special teams ace Russell Shepard. Then the unfortunate incident occurred that no Tampa Bay fan wanted to see, as they knew full well what the rest of the league’s fans would be mocking them with the next day. The controversial second round draft pick, kicker Roberto Aguayo stepped up and that’s right, missed the extra point. With so much focus, he really can’t afford to start slow. And so a highly eventful first quarter ended with the Eagles leading 14-6. The home team were not unscathed however with starting guard Brandon Brooks suffering a bicep injury.
Quarter two was far from as action packed as the first, with Glennon taking over for Tampa at quarterback, potentially hoping to impress other teams as much as his current one with his rookie deal set to end after this season. The score stayed the same to half time, in part due to the much improved looking Buccaneers pass rush, which got to Chase Daniels time and again in a rough outing for the expensive backup joining with his coach from the Chiefs. Noah Spence and Howard Jones in particular looked very dangerous on the rush. A couple rookies had differing levels of success for the Eagles. Late round pick out of LSU, defensive back Jalen Mills found out exactly how tough it could be at this level, getting beat early, making missteps, and panicking at times, grabbing at the receiver he was trailing. He’ll be fine, as his football IQ is high, being thought of as an extra coach on the field during his time in college, but he was left in no doubt that it’s a far different challenge now. Conversely, linebacker Joe Walker absolutely looked the part to build on his impressive training camp, with the highlight being a fantastic tackle for loss on a 4th and 1 attempt that turned the ball back over to his side.
Carson Wentz was expecting to play the second half, but Peterson threw his young QB a curveball, and put him in right at the end of the half to run the two-minute drill, to both see how he’d react and also to help get rid of those jitters. It was no surprise to see the first pass sail over his target’s head, as the adrenaline probably was a little too much to cope with, but he quickly settled with a great completion over the middle to Reuben Randle.
Into the second half, and Wentz took over proceedings fully, and made more impressive throws, showing great composure, and while what he does with his arm is the most important aspect, he showed off what he can do on the move with an excellent run (thankfully with a well-executed slide to finish). Mid-way through the third quarter, Wentz led the Eagles on easily the longest drive of the game, moving his team down the field impressively. The series included a bad snap, which might have panicked many other rookie QB’s but Wentz calmly picked it up, rolled to his right and launched it out of bounds safely. However, the long drive ended poorly, as Wentz came under pressure up the middle from big defensive tackle A.J. Francis right in his face, and the ball he released was easily snapped up by undrafted free agent safety Isaiah Johnson. A bit of a reality check that in the long run might not be a bad thing for the big man from North Dakota State. The only scoring in the third quarter came via a field goal for each team, with Caleb Sturgis, battling for a job with Cody Parkey, hit from 42. Meanwhile, and to the relief of Bucs fans everywhere, Aguayo converted from 38 yards out.
Not much of note occurred in the final quarter, but many of the young Eagles defenders really stood out. A bizarre interception that bounced around between seemingly half the Philly defensive players was eventually snagged out of the air by ex-Rutgers linebacker Quentin Gause. Small schooler Don Cherry out of Villanova should never have gone undrafted (we at RealSport had a high 6th round grade) was fantastic, around the action and making a bunch of plays to make the most of his opportunity. Finally, cornerback C.J. Smith, Wentz’s teammate not just here, but also at North Dakota State had played very well in man coverage during the game, and capped the performance with a great interception in the end zone to essentially end the contest.
So after a frantic start, an unsurprisingly unpolished game finished relatively low scoring but in favour of Philadelphia. The standout young rookies mostly came from the Eagles roster, but conversely, a number of the more experienced Bucs looked good, most notably Doug Martin looking as if the next contract will not see him ease off this season. Up next for Tampa Bay is another away game in Jacksonville, while the Eagles will travel to Pittsburgh to face the Steelers.