NFL Nation: Mat McBriar

Cowboys re-sign Chris Jones

March, 10, 2014
Mar 10
12:30
PM ET
IRVING, Texas -- Dallas Cowboys punter Chris Jones has signed his exclusive rights tender of $645,000.

The move chews up $150,000 of the roughly $2 million worth of salary-cap space.

Jones averaged 45 yards per punt in his first full season with the Cowboys. He appeared in two games in 2011 as an injury replacement for Mat McBriar and four games in 2012 before a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament ended his season.

Jones had a 39.1-yard net average and had 30 of his 77 punts end up inside the opponents’ 20. Teams averaged only 9.2 yards per punt return against the Cowboys in 2013.

Earlier in the offseason the Cowboys signed kicker Dan Bailey to a seven-year extension worth $22.5 million.

Steelers keep playoff hopes alive

December, 22, 2013
12/22/13
11:05
PM ET
Ben Roethlisberger Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesBen Roethlisberger and the Steelers survived a wild second half on the road against Green Bay.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A punter with a distinct Aussie accent completed arguably the most important pass of the game.

A defensive end who hadn't played more than 10 snaps since the middle of November produced a sack and recovered a fumble that led to the late touchdown that set up a wild finish at snowy Lambeau Field.

A defense that might have taken the field with only some light clean-up work had coach Mike Tomlin played the percentages needed to make a last-second goal-line stand to preserve the Steelers' 38-31 win against the Packers on Sunday, ensuring Pittsburgh's playoff hopes survived another day.

The victory came in spite of the Steelers. But the improbable nature of the win seemed as apropos as the snow that coated the field at legendary Lambeau three days before Christmas.

The Steelers' alter ego has tried to sabotage this season countless times already -- including several times against the Packers -- and yet this team still ticks.

The Steelers are 7-8, and they will go into their final game of the season with a chance to make the playoffs. They still need a lot to happen, but the Steelers should be able to at least take care of their own business next Sunday -- and in less dramatic fashion than what transpired at Lambeau.

They play the 4-11 Browns in a 1 p.m. ET game at Heinz Field, which suddenly will have many fewer empty seats than recently expected.

"There's a chance," defensive end Brett Keisel said with a smile. "And we're going to fight."

And that is the rub on the latest edition of the Steelers, who have shown a knack for responding when pushed to the brink.

And you thought the Steelers had no identity.

"I think tonight showed there's no quit in this team," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "That's who we are."

Now let's talk about where they are with just one game left on the schedule.

"Still not going to talk about it, because we have to take care of our business," Roethlisberger said of the "P" word. "I don't even know what the scenario is, but I'm sure it's still pretty crazy."

It got a lot less crazy by the end of the afternoon games Sunday.

The Steelers got what they needed in wins from the Bills and Jets, and they can live with the Chargers beating the hapless Raiders.

They almost didn't hold up their end, squandering a double-digit fourth-quarter lead before scoring a late touchdown and then hanging on for dear life.

A compelling if not always cleanly played game -- the teams combined for 16 penalties -- could have turned following a bizarre sequence in the third quarter.

The Steelers' defense made an inspiring stand after Le'Veon Bell lost a fumble at Pittsburgh's 3-yard line. Steve McLendon blocked a short Mason Crosby field goal attempt, and Ryan Clark scooped up the loose ball.

Clark tried to lateral it to William Gay, but when the ball landed on the turf, Ziggy Hood swatted it out of bounds. Officials ruled that there had never been a change of possession, and they awarded the Packers the ball and a first down after an illegal batting call on Hood.

An irate Tomlin tried to challenge the call, which was made after a lengthy discussion among officials, but it was not reviewable. Tomlin seethed about the call even after the game.

"They screwed it up in my opinion," Tomlin said.

The Steelers nearly did the same after rebounding from that deflating swing with a pair of touchdowns.

They blew a 10-point lead before Keisel pounced on a loose ball that was a result of a Troy Polamalu strip-tackle with just less than two minutes left in the game.

The Packers delivered an early Christmas present when Nick Perry hopped offside before Shaun Suisham's 27-yard field goal attempt.

The Steelers had a first down at the 5-yard line with 1:35 left in the game. With the Packers having only one timeout remaining, Tomlin could have killed much of the clock and sent Suisham out for the equivalent of an extra point.

"I'm not into that," Tomlin said of having Roethlisberger take a knee twice after Bell had reached the 1-yard line. "Given an opportunity to score, we are going to score."

The score held up because rookie Shamarko Thomas chased down Micah Hyde after a 70-yard kickoff return, and the Steelers' defense had one more stand in it -- albeit barely.

The story of the game, at least from the Steelers' vantage point, could have been questionable coaching decisions and the sequence that gave the Packers that ball back after a blocked field goal.

Instead, the story was punter Mat McBriar throwing a 30-yard pass -- on his second read, no less -- after a perfectly called fake punt that served as a precursor to a wild third quarter.

It was Keisel, who still has trouble putting weight on his injured heel, making two of the biggest plays near the end of the game -- and near the end of his Steelers career.

It was about the improbable adding up to what seemed impossible a couple of weeks ago: the Steelers having a chance to play beyond Dec. 29 this season.

"You've got to give our whole team credit for continuing to fight," Keisel said, "for continuing to believe."

Grading the Steelers

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
11:45
AM ET
PITTSBURGH -- Marked improvement from the New England debacle.

Quarterback: Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t flashy, but he didn’t need to be in completing 18 of 30 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown. Roethlisberger threw a bad interception early in the game when Bills safety Jairus Byrd read him the whole way on a deep pass to Markus Wheaton. Byrd’s interception set up a field goal that gave Buffalo its only lead of the game. Grade: C+

Running backs: The Steelers stayed committed to the run, and as a result they rushed for 136 yards. Le'Veon Bell averaged just 2.6 yards per carry, but he scored a touchdown. Reserves Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones combined for 54 yards on 10 carries. Grade: B

Wallace
Brown
Receivers: Antonio Brown continues to build a strong case for the Pro Bowl, catching six passes for 104 yards. Brown set a team record for most receptions (67) through the first nine games of a season, but he needs a little more help. Emmanuel Sanders totaled just 13 yards on his four catches, and tight end Heath Miller was a non-factor in the passing game. Grade: B-

Offensive line: The Steelers used tackle Mike Adams as an extra tight end early and often, and the line more than held its own against Buffalo’s vaunted front. The Steelers’ 136 rushing yards were their second-most this season, and they shut out Bills sack maestro Mario Willliams. Williams, who entered the game with 11 sacks, did not even record a tackle against the Steelers. Grade: B

Defensive line: The Bills couldn’t establish the run, and it started up front for the Steelers. They controlled the line of scrimmage in holding the Bills to under 100 rushing yards and almost 50 below their season average. End Cameron Heyward, the third-year veteran who recorded a sack, has shined since becoming a starter. Grade: A-

Linebackers: Lawrence Timmons owned the middle of the field as he registered eight tackles and delivered a handful of jarring hits, including one on a sack of Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. The Steelers still aren’t getting enough pressure from their outside linebackers, though Jarvis Jones recorded his first career sack. Grade: B+

Secondary: The maligned unit bounced back in a big way after getting torched at New England. It allowed just two receptions of 10 yards or more, and the Steelers’ defensive backs were solid in tackling, whether it was after a catch or in run support. Ryan Clark's interception set up a field goal. Grade: A-

Special teams: Take away a couple subpar Mat McBriar punts, and this group was nearly flawless. Brown broke a big punt return for the third game in a row and Shaun Suisham was perfect on three field goal attempts. Four of Suisham’s six kickoffs went for touchbacks, though one also ended up out of bounds. The kick coverage teams were solid as usual. Grade: A-

Coaching: The Steelers were disciplined on defense, and they did not allow the Bills to run the ball. They stuck with the running game even though the offense got off to another slow start, and that commitment set up a second-quarter touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Jerricho Cotchery. The one negative: the Steelers had to settle for field goals after Brown’s punt return and Clark’s interception gave the offense short fields. Grade: A-

Rapid Reaction: Pittsburgh Steelers

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
4:05
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- A few observations from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 23-10 victory against the Buffalo Bills at Heinz Field:

What it means: The Steelers kept their season from spiraling out of control by beating up on the Bills in a stadium that had more than a few empty seats. As cathartic as the victory proved to be a week after the Steelers were humiliated in New England, there isn’t anything to suggest it is anything more than a Band-Aid. The Bills (3-7) were awful, and the Steelers (3-6) need to string at least three victories together before there can be any talk of them as plausible playoff contenders, as mediocre as the AFC North and the conference is.

Stock watch: Yes, the Steelers weren’t exactly facing Jim Kelly and the K-Gun offense, but the defense needed to play well in the worst way, and it did for the most part during a cold, drab day at Heinz Field. The Steelers used a familiar formula -- stopping the run and not letting a young quarterback beat them -- a week after arguably the worst defensive performance in franchise history. C.J. Spiller never got out of neutral, and the Bills were just 3-of-14 on third-down conversions. The Steelers improved to 17-2 against rookie quarterbacks since 2004, the year Dick LeBeau returned for a second stint as the team’s defensive coordinator.

Walking wounded: It wouldn’t be a Steelers game without an injury sustained by at least one of the offensive linemen. Left guard Ramon Foster left the game with an ankle injury early in the third quarter and did not return to the game. Starting outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (calf) and reserve safety Shamarko Thomas (ankle) also left the game with injuries.

Hardly a clinic: Somewhere Drew Butler is laughing. Zoltan Mesko, too. The punters ushered out of Pittsburgh by coach Mike Tomlin probably couldn’t have done worse than Mat McBriar in his first two games with the Steelers. McBriar, signed after Pittsburgh waived Mesko two weeks ago, had punts of 27 and 36 yards in the first quarter and was a major reason the Steelers were unable to flip the field.

No regrets: The Steelers were reminded that it could be worse when it comes to their punting situation. Brian Moorman couldn’t beat out Butler in training camp -- Butler was later dumped for Mesko -- and he didn’t do much of anything for Buffalo against the Steelers. Moorman nearly kicked a ball into the stands when the Bills were hoping they could down a punt deep inside Steelers territory. He later kicked a low line drive that Antonio Brown returned 24 yards and led a 4-yard touchdown run by Le'Veon Bell.

Next up: The Steelers and their defense face what should be a considerably sterner test next Sunday when the Detroit Lions visit Heinz Feld for a 1 p.m. ET game. Matthew Stafford is the kind of passer who can carve up the Steelers’ secondary if he gets time in the pocket. Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, meanwhile, is a bigger matchup problem than polka dots and stripes.

Roster limits changes Tomlin can make

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
4:55
PM ET
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Mike Tomlin was so mad after the Pittsburgh Steelers lost at Oakland -- and managed two touchdowns on the same field where the Eagles' Nick Foles threw seven scoring passes a week later -- that he fired his punter.

Never mind that Zoltan Mesko played his best half of football following the one that apparently sealed his fate in Pittsburgh. Someone had to pay for the Steelers’ third consecutive loss in Oakland, and Tomlin takes a hard line when it comes to punters.

Just ask Drew Butler.

[+] EnlargeMike Tomlin
Mark L. Baer/USA TODAY SportsMike Tomlin may want to shake up the roster after the Steelers' 2-6 start but his options are limited.
Mat McBriar, signed to replace Mesko, may be a little uneasy after his line-drive punt resulted in a 43-yard return by New England’s Julian Edelman on Sunday. That miscue set up the touchdown that unleashed an avalanche of scoring, which buried the Steelers in New England and pretty much for the rest of the season.

After the Steelers’ 55-31 loss to the Patriots Tomlin strongly hinted that changes could be coming. The question is will the seventh-year coach go beyond scapegoating a punter after yet another dispiriting loss?

“You re-evaluate everything, you have to after a performance like that and we will,” Tomlin said after the Steelers gave up the most points in a game in franchise history. “That doesn’t necessarily mean we will change, or we will change for the sake of changing. But we will look at every aspect of what we are doing and who we are doing it with because we can’t have performances like that. Those people that were lacking effort won’t be playing. It’s just that simple."

Steelers fans probably rolled their eyes when they heard or read that last quote -- and note that tough talk or inferences after the Oakland loss were followed by the release of Mesko.

Truth be told Tomlin is limited in what he can do because of the constraints of a 53-man roster.

The roster size means that in-season changes mainly have to come from within, and Tomlin has at least tried them during the Steelers’ first 2-6 start since 2006.

Ziggy Hood, Jarvis Jones, Cortez Allen and Mike Adams are among the players who have lost their starting jobs. Several players lost their starting job and their roster spot, and the Steelers even tried to trade for a left tackle after Adams flopped there.

Levi Brown didn’t make it through one pregame warm-up before sustaining a triceps injury that may have ended his Steelers career before it started.

That is the kind of season it has been for the Steelers, and of the many things for which Tomlin can be criticized an unwillingness to shake things up isn’t one of them.

There isn't a whole lot more the seventh-year coach can do at this point, and no, signing street free agents is not the answer, either.

The challenge Tomlin now faces is trying to salvage the season with veterans such as Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor, Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark while also taking a long look at younger players such as Adams, Allen and rookie wide receiver Markus Wheaton.

This is certainly not where the Steelers expected to be at the halfway point of the season. But they got a harsh reality check of where they are as a team -- and perhaps an organization -- following a meeting with old nemesis Tom Brady.

“It was something in my 12 years that has never happened here,” Keisel said of the New England loss. “This is a disgusting test and nobody likes it, and the only thing you can do is dust yourself off and get back to work.”

Rapid Reaction: Bengals 34, Eagles 13

December, 13, 2012
12/13/12
11:55
PM ET


PHILADELPHIA -- My thoughts on the Cincinnati Bengals' 34-13 victory at the Philadelphia Eagles:

What it means: Capitalizing on five Eagles turnovers, the Bengals improved to 8-6 and moved a half-game ahead of the Steelers (7-6) for the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. This also ended a nine-game losing streak in prime time for the Bengals. Cincinnati is now 5-2 on the road and secured back-to-back winning road records for the first time since 1975-76. The Bengals won for the fifth time in six games.

Defense turns around game with turnovers: The Eagles gave this one to the Bengals with their sloppy play. Four turnovers in a five-minute stretch in the second half turned a three-point deficit (13-10) into a 21-point lead (34-13). Trailing 13-10, cornerback Leon Hall made his first interception in 17 games and returned it 44 yards, which set up a touchdown run by Andy Dalton. Two plays later, Pat Sims forced a fumble and Wallace Gilberry returned it 25 yards for the Bengals' first defensive touchdown of the season. The Bengals scored 24 points in a span of 3 minutes, 23 seconds.

Offensive drought: Before the turnover party by the Eagles, the Bengals' offense was stuck in neutral. In a seven-drive stretch, Cincinnati had four three-and-outs, two fumbles (both by Dalton) and one kneel-down. In the second quarter, the Bengals had as many first downs (two) as turnovers.

Keep on running: Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis went over 100 yards for the fourth time in five games. Green-Ellis had a quick start to the game, gaining 46 yards in the first quarter on eight carries.

Usual strong start: A forced fumble by Carlos Dunlap and a blocked punt by Dan Herron led to 10 points in the first 7 minutes, 9 seconds. In the first quarter of the past six games, Cincinnati has outscored opponents 62-9.

There's the boom: Herron, a rookie sixth-round pick, lived up to his nickname, Boom. On the first punt of the game, Herron showed his power by pushing wide receiver Marvin McNutt into punter Mat McBriar to block the kick. That led to a field goal and increased the lead to 10-0. It was the Bengals' first blocked punt in the regular season since DeDe Dorsey in 2007.

What's next: The Bengals have 10 days before they play at the Steelers (7-6) in what could decide the final playoff spot in the AFC. Pittsburgh plays at Dallas on Sunday.

Observation deck: Eagles-Browns

August, 24, 2012
8/24/12
11:30
PM ET

You want to talk Nick Foles, and that's fine. The rookie quarterback the Philadelphia Eagles took in the third round looked very good again Friday night in a 27-10 victory over the Browns in Cleveland. Foles was 12-for-19 for 146 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. The interception was on his second pass of the night, and obviously he improved after that. The touchdown passes both came from in close and both after turnovers deep in Cleveland territory, but overall Foles looks like a guy who's not scared of the rush, makes good decisions and throws a very nice deep ball.

There is a chance, as Mike Kafka continues to sit out with a broken hand and Foles continues to impress in these preseason games, that the rookie could win the backup quarterback job. And I think that could potentially make sense for reasons that have nothing to do with preseason numbers. The fact is, Foles throws the deep ball better than Kafka does, and the speed-based Eagles offense needs someone with the arm strength to throw deep.

I don't think Foles would be an effective answer for the Eagles if Michael Vick had to miss significant time this year. I think, in a case like that, Kafka would be more likely to be able to manage the game and run the offense, and they could alter the playbook to suit his skills. But if Vick goes down in a game and has to miss a few plays or can't finish, it might make sense to go with Foles. No, he doesn't have Vick's mobility, but they could still run the downfield passing game and feel confident that they had a guy who could get the ball to DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin. Something to think about.

Some other things I saw in the Eagles' third preseason game:
  • Foles wasn't the only Eagles rookie who had a good game. Wide receiver Damaris Johnson, who continues to look good in the return game, had two catches for 58 yards, including a 45-yarder from Foles while falling on his back. He also appeared to make a nice touchdown catch, but upon review it was ruled that he didn't have both feet in bounds. On the topic of rookies, linebacker Mychal Kendricks continues to look fast and alert and sure with his tackling.
  • The Eagles' defensive line is no joke. Derek Landri forced a fumble. Darryl Tapp and Brandon Graham had big games. These are guys who might not even be starters, and yes, next Friday the Eagles are going to have to make some tough decisions as they sort through their excellent options at defensive line. But if the Eagles' plan is to run wave after wave of fresh defensive linemen at teams, they appear well equipped to do so.
  • King Dunlap started at left tackle. Demetress Bell replaced him on the second offensive series but was beaten badly to allow LeSean McCoy to take a loss. At this point, you'd have to think Dunlap starts the regular-season opener, which oddly is right back in Cleveland in 16 days.
  • I know it's been criticized a lot in preseason, but I think the Eagles' defense looks fine. They're tackling well. They're covering well. It's just that, because they pursue so hard with the defensive linemen on every single play, there are going to be plays on which it looks like everything broke down. Happened on the Browns' first drive, when Brandon Weeden dumped the ball off to a wide-open tight end and converted a second-and-19. It's going to happen during the season too. It's like the opposite of a bend-don't-break defense. It's more of a "break-every-now-and-then-but-it's-okay-because-we're-making-the-quarterback's-life-miserable" defense. The risk is worth the reward, in other words.
  • There were still too many penalties -- seven for 47 yards -- but it wasn't anything close to last week's epidemic that prompted the Andy Reid-Cullen Jenkins sideline shouting match. There also were no sideline shouting matches this time.
  • Cliff Harris had an interception, Keenan Clayton blocked a punt... it was that kind of night. Everybody looked good, even the guys who aren't sure things to make the roster.
  • Chas Henry got to punt first and did well. Mat McBriar looked good too. Makes you think whichever one doesn't win the job has a chance to latch on somewhere else.
  • O.J. Atogwe sat out with an injury, which made Jaiquawn Jarrett and Phillip Thomas the backup safeties. This is not an area at which the Eagles have any reliable depth. They will lean hard on that defensive line to create pressure and the starting corners to cover and lock down receivers.
  • I like what I see from Brett Brackett, the backup tight end who caught one of Foles' touchdown passes. He was a standout performer in the training camp practices I attended a few weeks ago too. Hard to see how he makes the roster, but you never know.
  • Still like Bryce Brown as a runner better than Chris Polk, though Polk is the better blocker and had the better numbers Friday night. Dion Lewis is ahead of both of them as McCoy's backup, and he had a nifty 22-yard reception.
  • It's worth pointing out that quarterback Trent Edwards has played well this preseason. He was 14-for-17 for 127 yards and a touchdown in this one. I guess he could make it over Kafka if Foles surpasses Kafka on the depth chart. Still lots to sort out there.

Observation deck: Eagles-Patriots

August, 21, 2012
8/21/12
12:13
AM ET


The story of the Philadelphia Eagles' 27-17 preseason victory over the Patriots on "Monday Night Football" was one of quarterbacks. Eagles starter Michael Vick was knocked out of the game by an injury for the second time in two weeks, taking a shot to the ribs that required X-rays (which were negative) and raising old red flags about his fragility and the manner in which his style of play contributes to that. That injury, combined with Mike Kafka's absence due to his own injury, pushed rookie Nick Foles into significant playing time, and Foles looked very good.

Foles was 18-for-28 for 217 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. It was his second impressive performance of the preseason. And while it's important to note that he has not played against first-team defenses, it's also worth raising the question of whether Foles could beat out Kafka for the No. 2 quarterback spot behind Vick. He's a rookie, and he'd likely make more mistakes than Kafka would if pressed into fill-in duty. But in practices and games he has shown a stronger arm and better touch on deep throws than Kafka has, and that matters in Philadelphia's speed-based offense. That difference alone could set Foles apart if he continues to impress and Kafka can't get on the field, and Foles showed impressive poise Monday night, along with the ability to handle many different aspects of the playbook.

I don't personally believe the Eagles can contend this year if Vick has to miss a significant period of time. But if he does need to sit out here and there due to injury, the Eagles and their fans have at least seen something from Foles that would make them feel a little bit better if they had to go with a rookie.

Here are some other things I noticed/saw/thought about the Eagles on Monday:

1. What was Andy Reid yelling about? I am certain that, if the Eagles have a great season, the head coach's first-half sideline shouting match with Cullen Jenkins and the defense will be looked back upon as a brilliant bit of motivation and leadership. I am equally sure that, if the Eagles have a poor season, that exchange will be regarded as a sign of insurmountable discord. Of greater likelihood than either of those is that it was an emotional outburst by a coach who was getting sick of dumb third-down penalties. And if you're worried about whatever happened there causing lasting damage to coach-player relationships, Reid's track record more than earns him the benefit of the doubt.

2. That said, penalties are unforced errors and a worthy subject of coaching scorn, even in the preseason. I've written many times here that preseason games are poor predictors of regular-season performance, because we don't know which teams are game-planning for these games and which are not. But penalties have little or nothing to do with whether the opponent is scheming to beat you. They're about discipline, attention and focus. The Eagles had 16 of them on Monday, for a total of 131 yards, and I would not be looking forward to my next practice right now if I were an Eagles player.

3. Mychal Kendricks was a defensive star in this game. He showed speed and instincts closing on running back Shane Vereen on a screen pass early in the game, and he got himself into the backfield to disrupt a couple of running plays. The Eagles' big linebacker addition was veteran middleman DeMeco Ryans, but Kendricks looks as though he could be an asset on the outside. The Eagles' defensive scheme is going to make its linebackers look bad at times. Even at its best, it relies on aggressiveness by the linemen up front. Because of they, they're likely going to get a lot of sacks and pressure a lot of quarterbacks. But an offshoot of that aggressiveness is that sometimes over-pursuit will open them up to the possibility of a big play. That puts a lot of responsibility on the linebackers to limit those plays, and when they don't, it's going to look ugly. The Eagles seem willing to accept that risk in exchange for the long-term reward their pressure schemes bring them. And they appear better equipped this year to limit damage at the second level.

4. Don't forget Brandon Boykin. The Eagles' fourth-round pick is more than holding his own in his fight with veteran Joselio Hanson for the role of nickel cornerback. He also showed explosiveness on a kickoff return and helped cause a turnover with his speed as a gunner on the punt coverage team. Hanson looked good in his turn at cornerback, too, but what Boykin brings on special teams should keep him on a roster and, at the very least, a persistent threat to Hanson's spot.

5. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie looked very active and very good before leaving the game with a shoulder injury. Reid said Rodgers-Cromartie wanted to go back in and didn't sound overly concerned.

6. King Dunlap played the whole first half at left tackle, and Demetress Bell was flagged for a couple of penalties during the second half. At this point, it would not be a surprise if the Eagles opened the season with Dunlap as the starting left tackle. It also wouldn't be a surprise if Bell worked to learn the schemes in a backup role and threatened to take the job back from Dunlap as the season went along, the way Danny Watkins did last year at right guard. Howard Mudd's schemes aren't easy for everyone to get right away.

7. The Eagles have some tough roster decisions at defensive line, but Phillip Hunt is going to be impossible to cut. Say whatever you want to say about his size, but they don't have anyone faster among their pass-rushers (which is saying something), and he's just made too many plays to overlook.

8. Punter note! Mat McBriar averaged 49.8 yards on his four punts. Chas Henry dropped both of his inside the 20 and one inside the 10. I don't think it's a real competition if McBriar proves himself healthy, but it's nice to see that Henry won't go down without a fight.

What to watch for: Eagles-Patriots

August, 20, 2012
8/20/12
12:00
PM ET
The Philadelphia Eagles will play their second 2012 preseason game tonight at 8 ET against New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN. Here are the things I'll be watching ...

Most closely: Michael Vick's performance. Eagles coach Andy Reid has said he plans to play his starters longer tonight than he does in next week's preseason game against the Browns, since the Eagles open in Cleveland 16 days later and he doesn't want to give the Browns any more help than he has to. That means this will likely be the longest look we get at the Eagles' starters this preseason. And that means a chance for Vick to show us the fruits of all of the hard offseason work he and the Eagles say he's been doing. The Eagles' party line is that this is the first real offseason Vick has had as the starting quarterback since 2006 in Atlanta, and as a result he's worked harder and better on refining his game. Vick says he's watched more film than ever before in his career, and that he's determined to fix the mistakes that led to all of his turnover problems early in 2011. What Eagles fans should want to see from Vick is improved decision-making -- not just with regard to his personal safety, but also in terms of knowing when to give up on a play for the sake of valuing the ball. I'm interested to see if the offseason classroom work has made him a more proficient reader of the field and the defense, and how it works with him and center Jason Kelce in terms of changing the protection calls at the line. Vick is under the most pressure of any player in the NFL to perform this year, and while it doesn't matter what he does until Sept. 9 in Cleveland, it'd be encouraging for Eagles fans if they could come out of tonight's game convinced something about their quarterback looks different.

On the other side of the ball: Tackling, especially at the second level. I'm willing to believe that the defensive line will be the strength of the team once everyone's healthy, and I'm eager to watch Brandon Graham again after last week. But the Eagles' preseason opener featured some communication and tackling issues in the linebacker corps and in the secondary that were reminiscent of last season. And while I fervently believe that on-field preseason performance is a poor predictor of regular-season results, it can make fans (and, I assume, coaches) uneasy when a preseason problem reflects a prior-season problem you believed your team had solved. The same way a sharp Vick performance could help Eagles fans' optimism for the season, a sharp performance by the linebackers and the cornerbacks could help everyone feel better about the defense.

If I think of it: The backup running backs remain interesting. Does Dion Lewis look as though he could be an effective fill-in for LeSean McCoy? Is Chris Polk or Bryce Brown the leader for that No. 3 spot? Could that come down to something as pedestrian as special-teams work or blitz pickup?... Second-year safety Jaiquawn Jarrett could stand to show something, as the organization appears to be souring on him if it hasn't already. ... The left tackle position is also one to watch in this game. Demetress Bell is the player they signed to replace injured star Jason Peters, but he's struggled badly enough to get demoted to the second team, and perennial backup King Dunlap has been starting in his place in practice. The coaches will have their eyes on both of those players, and I'm interested to see if McCoy is going to run more up the middle and to the right this year with Peters gone. ... The Eagles also have a punting competition going on between Chas Henry and Mat McBriar.

Observation deck: Steelers-Eagles

August, 9, 2012
8/09/12
11:47
PM ET

The most important thing that happened during a 24-23 victory by the Philadelphia Eagles' over the Steelers in their preseason opener was the result of an X-ray. Starting quarterback Michael Vick left the game in the second quarter after banging his left thumb on the helmet of teammate Jason Kelce while throwing a pass. Vick, who throws left-handed, was in obvious pain on the sideline and spent the rest of the second quarter icing the thumb.

The Eagles announced at halftime than an X-ray taken on the thumb was negative, and cameras caught Vick on the sideline during the fourth quarter gripping a ball with his left hand. Coach Andy Reid said after the game that Vick had a thumb "contusion," and that the issue was a nerve on the top of his thumb that made it numb for a while but that he was fine by the end of the game. So it appears the Eagles survived a scare, but the scare was a jarring reminder of Vick's importance to the Eagles' hopes and the low point of a very poor first-half performance by the team as a whole.

We make no broad conclusions based on the first preseason game (or any preseason game) -- only observations. The Eagles were playing without three of their starters on the defensive line, and starting wide receiver Jeremy Maclin injured his hamstring in pregame warmups. And of course, the Eagles have had a rough week following the death of the oldest son of head coach Andy Reid on Sunday morning. All of that matters as we assess what happened -- good and bad -- in this game. So here goes.

1. They need to stretch more. Maclin strained his hamstring before warmups even started, Reid said. And defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins strained his during the first quarter. Reid said he didn't think Jenkins' injury was too serious. He sounded less happy about Maclin's. Starting defensive end Jason Babin is already out with a strained calf. Muscle pulls are an August bane for a lot of teams, but this has something of an epidemic feeling in Philly, no?

2. They need to tackle better. I'm sure they will, but after such a poor tackling 2011, this was not the way the Eagles wanted to look in the first half of their 2012 preseason. Missed tackles by everyone from Jaiquawn Jarrett to DeMeco Ryans were a problem as the Steelers marched down the field against them in the first half. The length of the Steelers' drives was the reason Vick was even in the game in the second quarter. The offense only got to run three plays in the first.

3. They're not kidding about that defensive line depth. I thought 2010 first-round pick Brandon Graham played like a star. Which of course is exactly what he is supposed to be. Finally healthy after a year and a half's worth of knee problems, Graham should be a significant addition to the pass rush. But overall, backup lineman Derek Landri, Darryl Tapp, Phillip Hunt et al looked very good, especially on the pass rush. And assuming Jenkins, Babin and Trent Cole can all get back healthy, the Eagles' plans to rotate eight defensive linemen and "throw fastballs at the offensive line" has a good chance to work. They still need to at least pay some attention to the run and toughen up in the middle, but a lot of that is the responsibility of the linebackers in this defense.

4. Damaris Johnson is a factor. He was the starting wide receiver in place of Maclin, which was something of a surprise. But he's been practicing well and is obviously a help in the return game. He had a long punt return wiped out by a penalty.

5. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie needs to find his checkbook. Called for a penalty for launching himself into a receiver, Rodgers-Cromartie can expect a well-deserved fine. Stupid penalty that would have been costly had it been a real game. That play is on every instructional video the league shows players to tell them what not to do.

6. Vick vs. the blitz. Vick didn't do much while in the game, but the one play that stands out for me was a negative one. The Steelers showed a blitz look but didn't blitz, and it confused Vick, who was surprised not to find anyone open and took a sack as he tried to leave the pocket. Reading defenses and identifying coverages and blitz schemes has long been a problem for Vick, who says he's working on it and still has a month left before the real games start.

7. Oh yeah. Nick Foles. Everybody on Twitter was all fired up about Foles and his two long touchdown passes. Foles makes a remarkable impression. He's a giant (6-foot-6) with a great big arm. Everything about him physically shouts, "star quarterback." But it's important to remember that he's a rookie who doesn't yet know the offense and still needs to refine his footwork and other mechanics. The Eagles drafted Foles because of his physical tools -- his arm in particular. But he's no threat right now to Mike Kafka as the backup. Unfortunately for Kafka, whose struggles to throw the deep ball are a particularly bad deficiency on the Eagles' speed-based offense, Foles profiles as the better player down the road. But not yet. No matter how good he looked Thursday night, Foles is still the No. 3.

8. The winning kick. No, the game doesn't count. But Alex Henery's 51-yard field goal with 12 seconds left that set the final score is a nice confidence booster for the Eagles' second-year kicker. Also take note that it was second-year punter Chas Henry that held on that kick. Henry also unleashed a 54-yard punt earlier in the game and is trying to hold off a serious challenge from former Cowboys punter Mat McBriar.

Okay, that's more than enough off the first preseason game. In conclusion: No, they didn't look good, but it probably doesn't matter, and the most important thing is that Vick appears to have dodged a serious injury. On to preseason Week 2 for the Eagles, whose priority right now is to get everyone healthy.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If you're wondering whether your favorite injured New York Giants or Dallas Cowboys player will be active for Sunday night's NFC East title game, the answer is yes.

Giants wide receivers Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham and defensive end Osi Umenyiora all will dress for and play in tonight's game. Umenyiora missed the past four games with an ankle injury. Manningham missed last week's game and several others during the second half with a knee injury. And Nicks missed some practices last week with a hamstring injury. But as they said they would be, all are healthy enough to play in a game that decides the division champion.

Likewise, Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who bruised his throwing hand last weekend in a loss to Philadelphia, will start the game. Nose tackle Jay Ratliff and linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Sean Lee also are active in spite of injuries that limited them during the week.

The Giants will still be without tight end Jake Ballard, who has a knee injury. And wide receiver Ramses Barden is a surprise inactive. He is not injured, so it appears Barden is being held out because he hasn't been playing well lately. Bear Pascoe will start at tight end in place of Ballard, with Henry Hynoski starting at fullback in place of Pascoe. The Giants also announced that Justin Tuck and Jason Pierre-Paul will be the starting defensive ends, which means Umenyiora technically will come off the bench.

For the Cowboys, the only surprise inactive is cornerback Frank Walker, who's healthy but also hasn't played well lately. With Walker and injured safety/special teamer Danny McCray inactive, the Cowboys are very thin in the secondary against a Giants passing offense that had its way with them three weeks ago in Dallas. Dallas is also without punter Mat McBriar, who was placed on injured reserve Saturday with a foot injury.

What does Cowboys' McBriar move mean?

December, 31, 2011
12/31/11
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Bit of a last-minute roster surprise, as the Dallas Cowboys put their excellent punter, Mat McBriar, on injured reserve Saturday, the day before they will play the New York Giants in a game to decide the NFC East champion. McBriar has been dealing with left foot problems all season, but said this week he felt good enough to punt Sunday. Instead, Chris Jones will handle punting duties for Dallas on Sunday and, if they win, in the playoffs.

In another move, the Cowboys added quarterback Chris Greisen from the practice squad. That means they'll have three quarterbacks available Sunday night, and that's what raises the eyebrow a little bit.

Tony Romo, the Cowboys' starting quarterback, injured his right hand in last weekend's loss to the Eagles. Though he's practiced all week, and I'm 100 percent certain he'll start Sunday's game, you have to wonder if the move with Greisen means the Cowboys are at least a little bit concerned about Romo's ability to make it through the game all the way. Stephen McGee is the backup quarterback and played in Romo's place last weekend, but if Romo were unable to throw, they'd theoretically be left only with McGee, and would need someone to step in if he got hurt.

Of course, Greisen could also have been called up to serve as Dan Bailey's holder on field goals, since Romo did that the last time regular holder McBriar was unable to play. We will see, but the mystery surrounding Romo and his throwing hand appears as though it will linger at least a little bit into the most important game of the Cowboys' season.

Rapid Reaction: Cowboys 18, Redskins 16

September, 26, 2011
9/26/11
11:48
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ARLINGTON, Texas -- A couple of thoughts on the Dallas Cowboys' 18-16 victory over the Washington Redskins on "Monday Night Football."

What it means: Something very similar for the Cowboys to what the Giants' victory meant to them Sunday in Philadelphia. The Cowboys are shredded on offense right now, with a jumpy, mistake-prone offensive line and very limited options at receiver. And yet, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo found a way to move the offense down the field and into field goal range six times -- enough to deliver a win the Cowboys had no business picking up. Banking a division win like this at a time when their team is not whole is pure gold for a team like the Cowboys or the Giants, each of whom find themselves a gritty, gutsy 2-1. For the Redskins, this game is a missed opportunity. They had the Cowboys where they wanted them but were unable to generate enough offense in the fourth quarter to put it away. Credit the Cowboys' defense, but Washington's offense doesn't have big-time playmakers, and it cost them a win they should have had.

Romo needs help: I don't know whether Romo played a bad game or whether he was up against impossible circumstances. He didn't have top receiver Miles Austin, out with a hamstring injury. He really didn't have much of his other star receiver, Dez Bryant, who's clearly far less than 100 percent due to his thigh injury and was in and out all night before catching a big third-down pass in the final minutes. The Redskins knew Romo wanted to throw to tight end Jason Witten, so they covered up Witten all night. Left tackle Doug Free had a bad game. Center Phil Costa had an awful game, botching several quarterback/center exchanges and getting an earful from a clearly frustrated Romo. If the Cowboys can't support Romo better than they did Monday night, he's going to have to keep pulling miracles out of his bag, as he basically has done the past two weeks.

Washington's offense is boring, but basically works: The Redskins' offensive game plan for this season appears to be simple: Run the ball, run out the clock and stay away from mistakes. It's not a lot of fun, but it doesn't have to be. They rely on running back Tim Hightower, who's an asset as a runner, a receiver and a pass-blocker. When he needs to come off the field, they bring in spry rookie Roy Helu. Rex Grossman throws downfield some, but it's clear they want to limit his ability to hurt them with a bad decision and/or throw. They protected him well for most of the night, with second-year left tackle Trent Williams holding his own against DeMarcus Ware until Ware broke through for a couple of big plays in the fourth quarter. The Redskins built up the defense this offseason and likely will target some offensive pieces next year. But for now, this ball-control plan is what they're comfortable with, and it's doing what they need it to do, even if it did come up just short Monday night.

Run on the Redskins?: The Cowboys couldn't do anything in the run game in the first half, but in the second, holes started opening up and Felix Jones started hitting them and doing major damage. It felt similar to last week's Redskins game, in which the Arizona Cardinals couldn't run the ball against them in the first half but then got Beanie Wells going in the second. The Redskins are thin on the defensive line with rookie Jarvis Jenkins out for the year with a knee injury, and I wonder if their linemen are playing more snaps than the coaching staff would like them to play and maybe wearing down in the second half. Just a theory, and something to watch.

Sound in the kicking game: Other than the field goal the Redskins had blocked as a result of a bad snap, the kickers and punters put on an absolute show. Redskins punter Sav Rocca and Cowboys punter Mat McBriar are both having stellar years, and their skills were on display all night as they helped determine field position. And Washington's Graham Gano and Dallas' Dan Bailey combined for nine field goals as neither offense was able to muster much of anything in the red zone.

What's next: The Cowboys are likely going to need to generate more offense Sunday when they host Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and the high-flying, 3-0 Detroit Lions. That's a tougher team to outscore than the Redskins are. Washington heads to St. Louis, where the Rams have yet to get their season off the ground and are 0-3 including losses to the Eagles and the Giants during their early-season tour of the NFC East. The Redskins should be able to get to 3-1 and put this tough loss behind them.

Bit of a slow day on the free-agent front. Unless you're the Eagles, that is. But all of our teams are practicing now, and there are things happening. So we ask, as we have at the end of each night this week: How was your day ...

Dallas Cowboys?

"Patient." No, the fans aren't patient, but the Cowboys are. They still need those two safeties. But they began the day with the news that they were bringing in Kenyon Coleman for the defensive line, and they haven't reacted to the Eagles' spree by doing anything rash. No one could reasonably look back over this week and claim it's been a very good one for the Cowboys. And Saturday saw a bunch of lousy things happen that had nothing to do with the Eagles and all of their good fortune. They've got injuries all over the place, from running back (DeMarco Murray and Tashard Choice) to punter (Mat McBriar) to linebacker (Keith Brooking) to wide receivers coach (Jimmy Robinson, who was knocked unconscious during a special teams drill and briefly hospitalized). Their salary cap issues have forced them to go slower than they'd prefer to go in free agency. But Jerry Jones spoke Saturday about the mistakes of offseasons past, and listening to that, maybe it's not a bad idea to be a little bit patient for a change.

New York Giants?

"Refreshing." The Giants got back to work on the practice field Saturday, holding their first practice of training camp. The Giants are having evening practices only this year. Tom Coughlin likes evening practices, so when they told him he couldn't have two-a-days anymore as a result of the new labor deal, he scrapped the morning practices and kept the evening ones. Said he wanted to use the daytime for meetings and film, since they were so far behind on installations due to the lockout. Coughlin likes to work, and getting the players on the field with the coaches at long last could help distract the Giants from the apparent fact that Plaxico Burress was only using them to drum up interest from other teams and that they still haven't come to agreements with Ahmad Bradshaw, Kevin Boss and Steve Smith, let alone the free-agent linebacker they need. They picked up veteran guard Chris White to add to their offensive line depth. And they did score a victory in their ongoing dispute with Osi Umenyiora over his contract, as Umenyiora decided to show up. Seems as though he'll keep expressing his displeasure, but that he's not going to actually do anything about it because he really can't. So that's a little victory, even if what was happening with the team down I-95 was a little bit more spectacular.

Philadelphia Eagles?

"Celebratory." The Eagles were already the talk of the league Saturday in the wake of their surprise Nnamdi Asomugha signing, and they surprised again with the announcement that they'd signed free-agent defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins. They traded Brodrick Bunkley to the Browns for a fifth-round pick and to save about $2 million in salary cap space so they could keep hunting for linebacker help, offensive line help, maybe Burress and possibly look into new deals for DeSean Jackson and/or Michael Vick. So in the past three days they've added Asomugha, Jason Babin, Jenkins, Vince Young, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a second-round pick, a fifth-round pick and a little bit of helpful cap room. No wonder the fans of the other three teams are jealous.

Washington Redskins?

"Quiet, again." Nothing, really, out of Ashburn for the second day in a row. The Redskins were having the busiest week of any team in the division until Friday, and now they have fallen silent. Nothing new on the hunt for a right guard. Some whispers that they're after Braylon Edwards, but nothing solid on that yet. (Though I do think it'd be a nice signing.) Just some calm, quiet practices where everybody's passed their conditioning tests and they're working on putting together a decent defense. The Redskins will make some news again this off-season, but remember -- they're rebuilding for the future, and are maybe the one team one this list for whom patience shouldn't be a frustrating attribute right now.

Me, my day was all right. Slept a little bit later than I had been, went for a nice five-mile run, lunch with the family, watched a little baseball. Busy, but not as all-hours, wall-to-wall busy as the week had been. More to come tomorrow, I'm sure, and then Monday I'll be on location from Redskins camp as I begin my training camp tour. So it was nice to get an hour here and an hour there to relax a bit Saturday.

How about you. How was your day?

NFC East Pro Bowl analysis

December, 28, 2010
12/28/10
8:20
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NFC Pro Bowl: East | West | North | South AFC Pro Bowl: East | West | North | South

Perfect sense: I think right guard Chris Snee was the one New York Giants player who truly deserved to start, so the voters got this one right. And Giants defensive end Justin Tuck is one of the most feared pass-rushers in the league, so he deserved to make it as a reserve. Tuck's six forced fumbles probably helped him grab the final spot ahead of Eagles defensive end Trent Cole (nine sacks), who has been excellent against the run. I think the Philadelphia Eagles' Michael Vick was the most obvious choice in the division. He'll start at quarterback, and he'll be throwing to reserve wide receiver DeSean Jackson of the Eagles. Jackson was edged out for a starting spot by Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions and Roddy White of the Atlanta Falcons. And considering that Jackson's numbers were down when he played with Kevin Kolb early in the season, it's understandable that he didn't receive a starting nod.

I thought Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and punter Mat McBriar were all no-brainers. Witten has 90 catches and he's lifted his game since Jon Kitna replaced Tony Romo in the starting lineup. Ware hasn't been as dominant as in the past, but he's still considered one of the two or three best pass-rushers in the league. And McBriar has had a phenomenal season. He's led the league in net and gross average for much of the season. But the Cowboys getting five starters while the Eagles only had four seems a bit ridiculous considering their records. I could go either way on Washington's DeAngelo Hall. He has six interceptions and eight takeaways overall, but it's not like he was a picture of consistency. He probably played well enough not to end up in the next category.

Made it on rep: The voters always seem to make major errors along the offensive line. Bears center Olin Kreutz was still starting after he'd faded as as a player. And though Giants center Shaun O'Hara is a good player, he missed way too many games (nine) to be named to a Pro Bowl team this season. Rich Seubert actually had a better season than O'Hara, but more players and coaches have followed O'Hara's work over the years. The fact that Cowboys center Andre Gurode drew a starting nod shows how much of a farce the Pro Bowl can be. Gurode's deserved to go in the past, but not this season. And as talented as he is, you have to say that Jay Ratliff's going on reputation this season. Surely a 5-10 team doesn't deserve five starters. Sometimes it helps to have that star on your helmet at voting time. I'm not sure where to put Eagles left tackle Jason Peters. I will admit that he played much better this season, so this is not as big of a sham as it was last season with him starting. But to me, Todd Herremans is the Eagles' best offensive lineman.

Got robbed: I know Hakeem Nicks missed a couple of games with a leg injury, but I thought he was deserving of Pro Bowl consideration. He has emerged as one of the best wide receivers in a division that is filled with talent at that position. I'm not sure Cowboys left tackle Doug Free was "robbed," but he was best offensive lineman the Cowboys had this season and is far more deserving than Gurode. Cole should have been in the mix, and I also think Eagles defensive tackle Antonio Dixon had one of those under-the-radar nice seasons. Redskins safety LaRon Landry was on pace to make the Pro Bowl team, but an injury landed him on injured reserve. Was he robbed? Probably not. But he had a much better season than O'Hara -- and I think O'Hara would be the first to admit that.

One more name from the Redskins: I realize that rookie left tackle Trent Williams sort of limped into the end of the season, but I was very impressed with how he played in the first 11 games or so.

Click here for the complete Pro Bowl list.

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