Eagles All-22 Wake-Up Call: Why the Defense Has Declined
Just last month, Jim Schwartz was still being called a “hot head coaching candidate” for 2017. The Eagles’ defense ranked in the top-3 in points allowed per game, and Schwartz’s unit was good enough to keep Philadelphia in games even as the offense struggled to score.
Flash forward to Week 13, however, and Schwartz may not even get interviews now for head coaching jobs in the offseason. The Eagles are still 10th in points allowed per game, but the defense’s play has been in a sharp decline over the past few weeks.
“We’re in a three-game slump. We had good games and bad games in that nine-game stretch early. Some games we played better than others, but these last three, we’ve been in a slump for a lot of different reasons,” Schwartz said. “We’re in a slump, and it didn’t matter what we were calling. A couple (months) ago when I was up here, we were talking about Minnesota and I said, ‘It didn’t matter what I was calling, they were all working.’ In this [Bengals] game, it didn’t matter. Didn’t matter what we were calling, it wasn’t working.
“Facts were in this game, we got beat in blitz, we got beat in zone, we got beat in cover-two, we got beat in two-man [and] we got beat in six. We rolled through every one. We got beat in all of them.”
While the Eagles’ pass rush has received plenty of blame as they’ve recorded only one sack in the last three games and the defensive line failing to reach the quarterback is significant, it’s not the only piece of the puzzle. Offenses have adjusted their plan to attack Philadelphia’s defense, plotting for their quarterback to release the ball quicker to negate the defensive line and take advantage of the Eagles’ corners.
In the last two weeks, Aaron Rodgers and Andy Dalton released the ball on average in less than 2.5 seconds — which is considered very quick — and they had surprising success doing so. On throws when the two quarterbacks got rid of the ball in less than 2.5 seconds, they combined for a 121.3 passer rating, three touchdowns versus zero interceptions and a 79.8 completion percentage, per Pro Football Focus.
“Facts of life, our corners aren’t playing very well right now,” Schwartz said. “It doesn’t mean I’ve lost confidence in them because that’s the same bunch of corners that shut down some of the best offenses in the NFL. … It’s about technique and it’s about confidence. We’re not playing with a lot of confidence at corner, and we need to tighten up our technique.
“If you’re not covering well, you can rush all you want, but you’re not going to get there because the ball is coming out quick.”
A Collective Failure
Dalton had one of his best games of the season against the Eagles, and when you consider he was without star receiving A.J. Green and starting running back Giovani Bernard, it was probably his most impressive. He completed 23 of 31 pass attempts for 332 yards, two touchdowns and a season-high 130 passer rating.
Regardless of who Dalton targeted in Philadelphia’s secondary, he had considerable success. Each of the cornerbacks — Nolan Carroll, Leodis McKelvin and Jalen Mills — allowed a passer rating of at least 110 when targeted, while each of the safeties — Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod and Jaylen Watkins — allowed a passer rating of at least 100 when targeted. Dalton was particularly good throwing the deep ball, as he completed five of his six pass attempts that he threw at least 20 yards down the field for 159 yards and one touchdown, per Pro Football Focus.
Dalton targeted McKelvin the most, completing seven passes against the 31-year-old for 97 yards and a 117.2 passer rating. One such play was Dalton’s 44-yard completion to Brandon LaFell that ignited the Bengals’ third quarter touchdown drive. The Eagles were in quarters coverage as McKelvin was responsible for LaFell as Watkins was responsible for the slot receiver.
“It’s the same play from the Giants when me and Leo picked each other off; it was the same call on defense and the same call on offense,” Watkins said. “It’s a copycat league. We actually got it right this time and Leo’s in a good spot, but got to look back for the ball.”
Carroll allowed four receptions for 76 yards and a 118.8 passer rating, while Mills gave up two receptions for 50 yards and a 109.7 passer rating in 36 percent of the defense’s snaps, per Pro Football Focus. One of the catches Mills gave up was a 29-yarder to Tyler Boyd, who beat Mills on a double-move. Mills, who regained the ground he lost to Boyd because of the back-shoulder throw, said he should’ve done a better job of fighting to wrestle the ball loose for an incompletion.
As for the safeties, they struggled in the red zone. McLeod allowed the first passing touchdown of the game as Dalton hit Tyler Eifert for a 13-yard score with seven seconds remaining in the first half.
“If you watch it, he sat down inside, he bit on the first move and then the guy got it and got open on the outside,” Schwartz said. “It wasn’t a miscommunication, that’s just one bad step, and that’s this league. You take one bad step, you can look bad. I think that follows a little bit with our talk before about technique. It’s technique, and it’s confidence, and that’s not just a corner thing, that’s a safety thing.”
Added McLeod: “I could be a little tighter, possibly try to collision him a little bit. It’s kind of hard with a two-way (option route). They ran a play similar to that out of a bunch concept where they tried to run an in-breaking route. I was protecting the inside and on that play, you want to force him to throw to the back and undercut everything. They made a good throw and a good catch, but I could’ve possibly tightened up, gotten my hands on him and played from there.”
Jenkins gave up the next passing touchdown when Dalton connected for eight yards in the third quarter with LaFell, who had his best day as a Bengal against the Eagles.
“I have LaFell man-to-man. I played outside leverage because I usually get help on the inside whether it be low-hole help from Watkins, who’s in a good spot, and Rodney in the post,” Jenkins said. “But Rodney knew they liked to run that backside dig to Eifert, so he was kind of pushing over there. I was a little bit too loose and they were able to skinny it over Watkins and in between me and Rodney, but that’s my guy there.”
The One That Got Away
Despite the secondary’s poor play and Dalton getting the ball out of his hands on average even quicker than Rodgers did against Philadelphia, the Eagles’ pass rush was inadequate. They failed to bring down a quarterback who entered the game as the second-most sacked signal-caller in the NFL, and while Fletcher Cox referenced the Bengals’ seven-man protections when asked after the game why Dalton wasn’t sacked, Cincinnati only employed that tactic a few times.
“If you’re not rushing well, you can cover as well as you want if that quarterback is holding the ball forever,” Schwartz said. “Those guys understand that. They understand that their success has a lot to do with the other guys’ success.”
The pass defense’s decline has also reignited discussion about the construction of the roster. Howie Roseman, with considerable input from Schwartz, is ultimately responsible for the Eagles entering the season with McKelvin as their No. 1 corner. The team spent a lot of money at safety, and while those deals appear as if they’ll pan out despite Jenkins’ and McLeod’s poor play in Cincinnati, many organizations typically choose to invest big money at corner and not safety.
“A lot of it is availability,” Schwartz said. “There’s a lot of great corners in the league that don’t become available in free agency, and you’ve got to take every chance you can to improve our team, or to improve any way you can. There’s something to be said for being strong up the middle. So I guess I don’t know any other way to answer it than that, but good corners are important.”
The problem with Schwartz blaming the Eagles’ cornerback woes on a lack of free agency options? Just a few months ago, the team traded away 2015 second-round pick Eric Rowe, who has reportedly allowed only four receptions out of 12 targets for 45 yards in the last three weeks for the Patriots. In that same span, each of the Eagles’ three main cornerbacks has allowed four catches for at least 74 yards in a single game.
While Philadelphia’s corners are trending downward, the guy they gave away for a middle-round pick appears to be a possible solution for a perennial Super Bowl contender.
WHAT YOU MISSED
“I know the intent of the guys that I practice with and play with everyday, and I didn’t see effort being an issue.” Some players disagree with Doug Pederson questioning their effort.
Former Eagle DeSean Jackson reportedly has a mutual interest in returning to Philadelphia when his contract is up at the end of this season.
“We have got to make sure that we get him more involved, maintain the time of possession and stay more balanced.” NFC East Roundup.
With the team’s latest struggles, what does it mean for Howie Roseman‘s status with the team?
WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Doug Pederson is not ready to call it quits on the season just yet, according to Matt Mullin of PhillyVoice.
“This is not the time [to ease up]. This is actually the time to push forward and still be aggressive and do the things that we did earlier in the season and try to get back to that level of play. That’s the beauty of having an opportunity. The other thing, too, is with three out of the next four [games] at home becomes huge for us down the stretch in hopes of getting to where we want to be.”
Still, Pederson can continue to fighting for a playoff spot that he seems unlikely to achieve while also lessening the burden on [Carson] Wentz. The rookie QB’s averaged 44 passing attempts over his last six games, which is a huge number for anyone, let alone a freshman. Through the first six games of his career, he was averaging a much more manageable 31 passes per game.
And his numbers suggest that throwing more often has not been beneficial to the 23-year-old.
Part of the reason he’s been asked to do more recently is because of the overall poor play of his teammates. It’s beginning to seem like the Eagles are falling behind every week, forcing them to play catchup and, ultimately, rely on their rookie’s arm to try to get back into games.
The Eagles failed to fix up their cornerback situation during the offseason, opines the Inquirer’s Jeff McLane.
“A lot of it is availability also,” [Jim] Schwartz said. “There are a lot of great corners in the league that don’t become available in free agency, and you’ve got to take every chance you can to improve . . . any way you can. There’s something to be said for being strong up the middle also.”
The Eagles were unlikely to nab Josh Norman in late April after the Panthers rescinded their franchise tag (he signed with the Redskins), but other quality corners available in free agency have gone on to have strong seasons. Janoris Jenkins (Giants) and Sean Smith (Raiders) spring immediately to mind.
Even if Howie Roseman didn’t want to dig that deep into the salary cap, there were young, promising cornerbacks who signed show-me one-year deals such as Prince Amukamara (Jaguars) and Morris Claiborne (Cowboys) and veterans who wouldn’t warrant long-term contracts, such as William Gay (Steelers), Brent Grimes (Buccaneers), and Terrence Newman (Vikings).
The 31-year-old [Leodis] McKelvin and the 29-year-old [Nolan] Carroll, who was coming off a broken ankle, qualified as the latter. But the difference has been that Gay, Grimes, and Newman have played well, and McKelvin and Carroll have not.
We’ll turn the page and preview the Eagles’ upcoming NFC East matchup with Washington on Sunday.
Chris Jastrzembski contributed to this post.