FOXBOROUGH — The visiting Eagles didn’t hide the fact that they were going to play their starters for much of the first half of Monday night’s exhibition game against the Patriots. Although it was their second preseason game and most teams use their third as a dress rehearsal for the regulars, coach Andy Reid announced a few days before the game that his starters would see a lot of time.
The Eagles left Gillette Stadium with a 27-17 win, though their top units didn’t get a chance to face the Patriots’ regulars.
The Patriots opted not to play Tom Brady, instead using the game as an opportunity to see how second-year quarterback Ryan Mallett would perform against a top-flight defensive line and Philadelphia’s improved linebacking corps.
New England knows what it has in top backup Brian Hoyer, so Mallett was given the opportunity to show how he’s improved over the past year. During training camp, the Arkansas product struggled more often than not, looking indecisive and holding the ball too long. He’s looked great on deep passes but not as sharp on short-to-intermediate attempts.
But in the first half, it was easy to wonder if Mallett had gotten a fair chance to show what he could do.
He started the game, but his line protected poorly, and Mallett rarely had enough time to let a play develop before he was scrambling. The Patriots tried to counter the Eagles’ speedy defensive line with quick screens, but without great success.
Working behind a line of (left to right) Nate Solder, Nick McDonald, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, and Marcus Cannon, Mallett completed just 8 of 15 passes for 87 yards in the first half, though he did have a touchdown to defensive lineman-turned-tight end Alex Silvestro to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead.
Cannon in particular had problems. The right tackle until Sebastian Vollmer is ready to return, Cannon has had problems with speed and hasn’t been able to set a strong enough base.
Given Cannon’s troubles, not just against Philadelphia but over the last couple of weeks, the Patriots may reevaluate whether they’ll keep the 2011 fifth-round pick at tackle or move him to guard.
A week ago, Bill Belichick said Cannon was big, strong, and has the feet to play in space as a tackle, plus it is where he played at Texas Christian. All young players have their share of hiccups, but Cannon was getting beat pretty regularly Monday night.
However, Cannon is Plan B at his position. Solder, on the opposite end of the line, is not. He is the starting left tackle, and he also had problems with Philadelphia’s linemen.
He gave up a sack to Trent Cole on third and long in the first quarter, though it was negated by a defensive holding call.
Solder, who is 6 feet 7 inches, appears to not be using his length to his advantage. With his long arms he could keep rushers away, but he keeps his hands closer to his body, allowing opponents in to him and it weakens the effectiveness of his punch.
“I need to improve on my technique,” said Solder, who didn’t shy away from questions about his performance. “My focus is getting better and it’s going to be within these walls that we’re going to continue to work hard and get better.”
Mallett did have some moments, such as in the first quarter when he scrambled left and found Silvestro for an 11-yard gain. He got some help from Deion Branch on third and 5, when the veteran receiver turned a short pass into a 20-yard gain.
“I haven’t looked at the film yet . . . But it felt good to get back out there and play again,” Mallett said. “The last game [against New Orleans] was 10 days ago, so it felt good.”
He gave Silvestro much of the credit for the touchdown pass the pair combined for, saying his fellow second-year player did a good job getting open.
When Hoyer took over in the second quarter, the offensive line failed him as well: on his second snap, the fourth-year pro dropped back and had third-string end Phillip Hunt — Cannon’s man — strip sack him, with Darryl Tapp — Solder’s man — recovering the fumble. The turnover helped Eagles take the lead two plays later.
Belichick did not want to talk specifics about individual performances, but said it was good to get a chance to evaluate so many players.
“We got some good experience out there against a good football team; some good situations came up,” he said. “There’s a lot to build on, and a lot to correct.”
Shane Vereen got the nod at running back in the first half, but didn’t build on his second-half performance from over a week ago against the Saints. He had 10 first-half carries for 20 yards, though he did show his ability as a receiver, with three catches for 25 yards.
Stevan Ridley, who missed a couple of days of practice last week with a knee injury, did take the field in the second half and also fielded a kickoff, a positive sign.
Defensively, the Patriots’ young guns did fairly well.
Facing Michael Vick, one of the most talented and challenging quarterbacks they’ll play against this season, the defense gave up one first down on the Eagles’ first possession, and then knocked Vick out of the game on their second.
Vick was injured when he was chased out of the pocket when tackle Kyle Love burst through the middle. He looked for big-play receiver DeSean Jackson down the field, but when he let the ball fly, the quarterback was drilled by Jermaine Cunningham.
He was tended to on the field, pulled from the game, and taken to the locker room to have his ribs examined. The X-rays were negative.
On the same drive, with backup Nick Foles running the offense, Ron Brace collected a sack, pushing back right guard Danny Watkins.
It was a bright spot for Brace, who is fighting for a roster spot and has missed a few days of camp because of an injury.