Chip Kelly could have offered a generic answer about the front end and the back end working together.
He could have expanded on how disappointed he was with the penalties, or even just given credit to Tom Brady. But when asked about the issues the Eagles are having on third down, Kelly pointed directly to the guys up front.
“We need to generate a better pass rush,” he said. “I think our defensive line needs to do a better job in terms of what their rush contains are. We had the one play with [Ryan] Mallett where Marcus [Smith II] does a nice job, makes him flush up in the pocket, but we got nobody on that side containing the quarterback, and you let the quarterback scramble for a touchdown.”
The Eagles allowed opponents to convert on third downs 41.15 percent of the time last year. That was 24th in the league. It was also a big reason why the defense played so many snaps.
So far in the preseason, it’s been even worse. The first-team defense has allowed opponents (the Bears and Patriots) to convert seven of eight third-down chances.
Asked why the Eagles seem to be faced with the same issue yet again, Kelly said: “We’re not getting to the quarterback. We’ve got to do a better job of creating pressure on the quarterback.”
Of course, there were other factors at play. Penalties killed the Eagles and were a focus after the game when Kelly addressed the players.
Connor Barwin admitted it’s difficult to properly evaluate where the defense is, given the amount of laundry on the field.
“It does make it a little tougher, I think it does make it a little tougher,” Barwin said. “Obviously have to go look at the tape, but I felt good about what we were doing up front, so you move forward. We’ll watch the tape and see what we really did. It gets a little harder with all those penalties, because like I said, I think we were playing good up front, but the ball kept getting moved down the field. And I think a lot of it had to do with those penalties.”
Barwin did acknowledge, though, that more pressure is necessary.
“We need to get more pressure,” he added. “That’s for sure. I know I missed one on him, and then I know I got locked up with their tight end, which obviously can’t happen on one of my rushes. I didn’t see what anybody else was doing, but I think we can really help our defense if we can get more pressure.”
By all accounts, Billy Davis is going to have to rely on his heavy blitzing from a year ago. The only change the Eagles made at the outside linebacker spot was drafting Smith, and it seems clear that while he might be able to contribute in other areas as a rookie, the pass-rush is a work in progress.
Trent Cole is a year older (31), and while Barwin expects to get more pass-rushing chances in 2014, versatility remains his greatest asset.
On Friday night, the Eagles tried to get some of their younger guys in early to see who might be able to give the pass-rush a boost once the regular season begins.
“We used a lot of different combinations,” Kelly said. “There are a lot of things… We tried to get some guys in with the ones because you want to see them work around, and we had a lot of different rotations going on just to see if we could get some guys evaluated on film. We do need to generate a better pass rush, especially against someone the caliber of Tom [Brady].”
Cole didn’t seem all that concerned. He said the pass-rush was “nothing to worry about” and pointed to the fact that the coaches were rotating players in.
“We have very talented guys,” he said. “We take the preseason week by week. Going a few series here and there as a first-team guy, you really can’t get into the groove yet. It don’t work like that. Sacks are hard to come by in this league. It’s very hard to get ’em.”
The primary change the Eagles made in the secondary was signing safety Malcolm Jenkins. So far, though, there doesn’t appear to be significant improvement from the defensive backs as a whole.
If officials are going to continue to call the game tightly, the defense’s best hope for progress will be pressuring the quarterback – something we haven’t seen much of yet in the first two preseason games.