The Eagles preseason is in full swing and the team head into next week’s showdown with the Colts undefeated so far. A shutout against the Steelers paints a slightly unrealistic picture of how dominant the Eagles Defense has been so far. If anything, the two wins have pointed out a potential flaw in the system of Jim Schwartz that seems to have haunted him throughout his coaching career.
The ghost, is pass Defense. The Eagles may have only allowed 9 points in two games and if you say “The Eagles have outscored their opponents 34-9 so far” out loud, it’s very easy to get misled. What the win column doesn’t show however, is the Eagles struggle against the pass..a struggle that’s been holding the birds down for a number of years now.
While the Eagles may not have allowed a point against a shorthanded Steelers Offense, they did surrender 158 passing yards. Against the Bucs, that number was 298. It seems strange that a team who conceded just nine points in eight quarters, have given up 456 passing yards..so what’s causing such a strange pattern?
The answer is simple, a product of the system. With such a heavy emphasis on attacking the quarterback and bursting through the trenches, the cornerbacks are often the last legs of the Defense if the initial siege fails. This means that crossing routes, drag routes, slants and even deep plays over the middle become much easier because if the quarterback can see over the pocket, it’s a barren wasteland. Not to mention the amount of screens and passes out of the backfield embedded deep in to todays game.
It’s easy to say that any Defense would struggle on routes underneath or over the middle, especially a 4-3. But because of the style Jim Schwartz deploys, there aren’t traditionally an abundance of coverage linebackers. It’s also why tackling is so important for the Eagles cornerbacks who will be relied on to make those tough stops.
The basis of the 4-3 Defense is to stop the running game..it’s something Schwartz has done successfully during the opening two games of preseason, allowing just 50 yards on 21 carries on Thursday night and 31 rushing yards against the Bucs. But there’s such disparity between the amount of rushing yards and passing yards conceded, that it’s putting a lot of pressure on a light Linebacker position that has now just lost rookie Joe Walker to an ACL tear and a cornerback corps that’s filled with plenty of potential but little experience.
Since he took on the role of Defensive Coordinator in Tennessee back in 2001, Schwartz has never conceded less than 3,000 passing yards in a regular season and his pass Defense often ends up being ranked among the lower echelons of the NFL.
This wouldn’t be such a huge problem if the Eagles had a strong cornerback corps and reliable Linebackers. But given the fact that none of the starting Linebackers have completed a full 16 game season and that beyond McKelvin who’s proven under Schwartz previously, the Eagles cornerbacks are as follows:
Ron Brooks: A special teamer in Buffalo last season
Nolan Carroll: One of the oldest on the roster, needs to prove durability but will be pivotal to Secondary success
Eric Rowe: Sophomore corner coming off of a tough offseason adapting to physical scheme, excels in one-on-one situations.
Jalen Mills: Seventh round pick who shined at Training camp but disappointed in pre-season debut.
Aaron Grymes: CFL standout has shone since his arrival in Philadelphia but injured shoulder limits roster chances
JaCorey Shepherd: Plagued by injuries and is yet to play a preseason game after being drafted in 2015.
Randall Evans: 24 year old has been Inconsistent but has shown flashes of physicality during preseason.
Denzel Rice: Former UDFA, struggled on special teams against Steelers, has shown potential in the past
C.J Smith: UDFA who had a huge game against Bucs but saw limited action in week 2, buried on depth chart.
It holds much more weight. Mix in the likes of Dez Bryant, DeSean Jackson, Odell Beckham Jr and more importantly guys like Jordan Reed who will play the Eagles twice this season, and the amount of “passing offenses” on the schedule and there is definitely room to be concerned.
Many people are of the opinion that Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod are primed for a huge year..and I fully agree. But that doesn’t excuse the fact that a large percentile of their tackles could be a result of cleaning up the mess left over the middle by some of the bigger, more dominant receivers that the Eagles will face in 2016.
The Eagles play a very aggressive style of Defense and it achieves what it sets out to do; Force constant pressure on the passer and stop the run..something that the team failed to do a year ago. But as a direct consequence on this defensive set of scales, the Eagles are opening themselves up to a lot of danger as their Defense “breathes”, leaving windows of space over the middle for the quarterback to seek out. Without drawing the linebackers into deeper coverage or compromising another area, there’s no real way to stop the power of screen passes,dumps, drag routes and shots down the middle.
Jim Schwartz may be the perfect man to transform the Eagles Defense and reignite the fire that left foes intimidated in previous years. But there are flaws..and the birds aren’t in the best situation to be prepared to deal with them efficiently.