Ladies and gentlemen this isn’t your ordinary Jim Schwartz defense.
While the Philadelphia Eagles have boasted some very talented defense during the Jim Schwartz era, including the 2017 group that was partly responsible for Philadelphia’s Super Bowl victory.
Over the past two seasons, however, the Eagles defensive play gets progressively worse. Numerous missed tackles, four 100 yard rushers (Barkley (2), and Elliott (3) have done it multiple times), and more deep bombs than you could ever imagine allowed over the course of two seasons.
But this year? Something seems a little different about this year’s unit.
You know that moment after years of unwanted calls from ‘Scam Likely’ and that annoying ex when you finally change your number and you’re able to break out the legendary line.
“New Phone, Who Dis?”
Well, in this case, that was Jim Schwartz on Sunday as he watched the 2020 Eagles roster make their debut last week against the Washington Football Team. Though the WFT offense proceeded to score 27 unanswered points through the final 30:43 of the game, it’s worth noting that Washington scores each of those points as a result of either a Carson Wentz interception or a Philadelphia punt setting their offense up in good field position. On the seven possessions, Washington had that began outside of their own 40-yard line, only one of those resulted in them making it into scoring position (a missed field goal from PHI 30 with just over 9:00 remaining in the second quarter).
In fact, the Philadelphia defense was so dominant that they held the Football Team (still weird) offense to 3.4 yards per play and only 239 total yards of offense. Both of which are the lowest for any offense during week one.
Numbers never lie, but the context always matters; which makes sense when you see that the Eagles defense currently ranks first in total defense and comes in at fourth in Football Outsiders’ first DVOA ranking of the season.
Adding in all of the details it’s easy to see the levels of success the Philadelphia defense saw on Sunday.
The question however is what was Schwartz’s recipe to success and how well will it care over the rest of the season.
Of course, when discussing a Jim Schwartz-led defense, all things begin and end with the pressure the front four is able to generate. This year’s unit is no different, especially when it comes to the men in the middle. The dominance Fletcher Cox has been able to maintain throughout the course of his career is well known. While the all-pro tackle would be the first to tell you he’d like to improve the number from his 2019 campaign, Cox was still able to record three forced fumbles, 3.5 sacks, five tackles for loss, and 10 quarterback hits. All while collecting his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl selection.
So when you hear that Philadelphia’s interior defensive line wreaked havoc, holding the Washington Football Team to 2.2 yards per carry and getting after Dwayne Haskins.
It comes as a pleasant surprise that the man behind the mayhem wasn’t just Cox, but also Malik Jackson, who returned with a vengeance after missing the entire 2019 season with a Lisfranc injury.
While Schwartz is surely pleased with the productions of not only Cox and Jackson but also Hassan Ridgeway who came away with three tackles on the day. The defensive tackle rotation is set to get a boost with Javon Hargrave returning to practice. While Doug Pederson emphasized that he wouldn’t put a timetable on the return of the free-agent acquisition. Its great news for Philadelphia to see him hit the field for the first time this season, even if its at a limited capacity. Schwartz referred to Hargrave as “student of the game” and “a great complement for the guys we have” during a sit down prior to the start of the season. Schwartz even insisted that we could see a formation where all three Hargrave, Cox, and Jackson are on the field at the same time earlier in the off-season. Obviously giving Schwartz the most versatile interior unit since his arrival in 2016.
Then there’s the defensive end group, of course, anchored by Brandon Graham, one of three defensive captains. Graham, who racked up two tackles and a tackle for loss prior to exiting Sunday’s game with a head injury, should be out of the concussion protocol over the next few days and is expected to be available for this weeks matchup against the Los Angeles Rams according to NBC Sports’ John Clark. Philadelphia should also see Derek Barnett make his season debut after missing week one with a hamstring injury, as he returns to practice as a full participant.
While the Philadelphia defensive line looks to be returning to full strength with players returning from injury, the one question Eagles fans are asking is, has Josh Sweat arrived?
The emergence of Sweat began creating buzz dating back to the start of training camp, where Sweat was said to have been very impressive. Heading into his third season, Sweat is set to be in for an increased role. After turning heads during the live scrimmage (mostly at the expense of Matt Pryor), Sweat continued to showcase his improvement with a strip-sack and six tackles performance against the Washington Football Team in week one.
The strides Sweat has taken this off-season had not gone unnoticed, as Schwartz addressed his improvement when asked about it.
“You guys saw him in training camp, he’s one of our most improved players. I thought Vinny [Curry] was playing really well in this game. The combination with those guys, keeping a good rotation, trying to keep all those guys fresh, was working out pretty well. Sweat was able to come in on some third downs and be fresh, look speedy and explosive. It was a hot game. There were a couple of times we were back on the field after one play. It was important to stay fresh in that game.” – Jim Schwartz
After finishing week one as the second-highest graded defender according to Pro Football Focus (91.9), Sweat has proven himself to be a valuable rotational piece and one of Schwartz’s best pass rushers.
The Slay Way
During the matchup against the Washington Football Team, the Eagles played in man-to-man coverage on about 50 of their 70 defensive snaps according to Jim Schwartz. Why is this important? Well, last season Philadelphia played 58% of their defensive snaps in zone coverage, which was roughly around the league average. While many teams play zone to disguise different coverage looks, in efforts to confuse quarterbacks.
The Eagles played zone because, well they couldn’t afford to do much of anything else. You’d have a hard time trying to find someone who would have loved to fill the shoes of Jim Schwartz over the past few seasons. Having to create game plans weekly to stop some of the NFL’s best offenses, all while modifying (or simplifying) a scheme that enough that it still fits your liking but it doesn’t expose the liabilities along with the defense.
This leads to a heavy dose of cover 3, quarter, and of course the Jim Schwartz special; cover 2 invert.
You see there’s this unspoken rule that comes with a Jim Schwartz defense; always keep eight players in the box for added run support. Which generally isn’t a problem when it leads to the Eagles finishing a top-seven defense in terms of rushing yards allowed per game over each of the last three seasons.
It does become a problem however when it begins to affect your pass defense. With Philadelphia lacking a starting cornerback who was able to cover down the field for stretches of a game, the front four not producing enough pressure on the quarterback, and the extra safety left in run support.
Well, you get where this is going.
The importance of scheme matching personnel, right? Well, this brings us back to the question, why did the Eagles play so much man coverage? The easy answer is to say that’s what happens when you bring you only have two cornerbacks left on your roster from the previous season. Though, this wouldn’t be the first time the Eagles made a complete overhaul of the secondary and fell flat on their face.
This is what we like to call the ‘Slay Way’.
- Targets: 5
- Catches: 3
- Yards: 30
- Touchdowns: 0
- Passer Rating: 77
These are the number allowed by Darius Slay during week one’s matchup against Terry McLaurin.
The same Terry McLaurin who roasted the Eagles defense for 10 receptions, 255 yards (25.5 ypc), and two touchdowns in the two meetings back in 2019.
The work Slay did leave Schwartz impressed and laid out the blueprint for what you could expect from the all-pro cornerback for the rest of the season in regards to him following the opponent’s top targets.
Something that Schwartz envisioned the moment Slay was acquired.
“When you acquire a player like Slay, who has that skill set and can match a receiver, it adds a different layer to it. So now the guys who play nickel are going to need to be able to play outside corner also because every time Slay lines up at the nickel position, it’s just too easy to tell if the only time he’s in there is man-to-man. So, I don’t know that it’s going to be a 100 percent, all-the-time thing. Maybe it’s a particular game, maybe it’s 50 percent of the games, maybe it’s 75 percent of the games that Slay is matching a particular receiver. But you will see that from our defense.”
You see, Slay may be the component that many Eagles coverages are based on, but this Philadelphia secondary is much more than Darius Slay. In fact, Philadelphia spent an entire off-season creating a secondary that allowed the team the luxury of matching up with just about any offense, no matter the personnel.
So far, aside from one blown coverage; it appears that the unit is up to the challenge.
“All our corners, playing that much man-to-man, put a lot of pressure on those guys. [They] didn’t give up a lot of big plays down the field, which I thought was encouraging. Doesn’t change the result. Like I said, binary game. You don’t get any bonus points for how one individual played or how one group played. But I was pleased with what he was able to do with some tough duty.”
Schwartz has shown the ability to adapt to the skill sets of defensive personnel on the fly. This unit, however, has the chance to be his greatest creation. A defensive line group that runs as deep as the unit he coached in Detroit that featured Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairly and an elite level cornerback that will be used to shadow receivers; something Schwartz hasn’t done since the Cortland Finnegan era during his time with the Titans. While the defense as a whole could be considered more well rounded than the unit Schwartz coached in Buffalo.
To put simply put it, this Eagles defensive group is loaded and this is without us mentioning returning IR candidate, Will Parks who was rumored to be a heavily featured ‘moving piece’ when Philadelphia goes into their sub-packages during the season.
Given the brash demeanor of the defensive coordinator, is it really a surprise that this defensive group certainly is not lacking in the confidence department.
They hold themselves to a high standard and are held to an even higher standard by Schwartz and you can see that in their play.
“The way those go, you can be 95 percent, which pretty much any grading sheet is an A, but that one error at a critical time can be the difference between a win or a loss,” Schwartz told reports Tuesday. “That’s sort of the edge we had to play within that game.” – Jim Schwartz
Featured Image: Dave Zangaro/NBC Sports Philadelphia