Last season was the first time that Eagles fans had been treated to a tenacious Defense that embodies their personality for quite some time. The connections between what we saw from the hard hitting linebackers and Safeties, and what many grew up resonating with, were simply too strong to discredit. A lot of that was due to a change in formation and Defensive Coordinator.
Jim Schwartz signed with the Philadelphia Eagles and bought with him his ruthless wide-nine scheme. In the opening stages of Schwartz’s first year with the Birds’ the Defense simply ran rampant. During their opening nine games, the Eagles allowed just 17.8 points per game and an average of 323 yards, while the team dominated the trenches. In the three that followed, they gave up an average of 28.3 points per game, surrendering an average of 412 yards. By the time the end of the season rolled around, and a meaningless game against the Cowboys was pushed aside, the Eagles had a chance to reflect on the year that was. One of development, one of intrigue…and one of pressure.
Surprisingly, the Eagles didn’t actually blitz that much at all last year. In fact, the team only blitzed 142 times during their 7-9 campaign, amassing just 11 sacks of their season total 34. There were several contributing factors to the team’s inconsistency when rushing the quarterback, and it was something Jim Schwartz acknowledged during his press conference on Tuesday.
“Pass-rush doesn’t stand alone.” Schwartz said assertively in his presser. A lot of that has to do with – and we talked a little bit before about our corner position – a lot of it has to do with our corner position. If you can cover for a long time, you can buy time to get the sackers there. If they’re rushing well, it helps the corners out. But I think that both of those can go hand in hand. If we can improve our corner position, that will help improve our pass rush. It’s well-known that we rely on four-man pass rush, but if you’re going to blitz, you need to be able to cover outside man-to-man. So, we need to be able to make those improvements. There are things that we can help with.
Cornerback was also a glaring need for the Eagles during the offseason. The Eagles gave up a total of 1,024 passing yards on routes of 20 yards or more this season, the most in the NFL…and a large reason behind this astonishingly high number was a lack of man-to-man prowess.
But as we now look forward, things are certainly pointing in the right direction. While Sidney Jones may not take the field in his rookie campaign, the former Washington star was one of the top cornerback talents in the draft prior to his devastating injury. Meanwhile, the addition of Rasul Douglas, a tall, lengthy corner out of West Virginia,brings with him the aggressiveness to thrive in this system, should certainly excite fans.
Then of course, there’s the current starting tandem of Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson. Last year’s seventh round pick would go on to play in over 60% of snaps during his rookie year, developing nicely as he lined up both in the slot and outside, covering the likes of Julio Jones, Alshon Jeffery and Odell Beckham Jr. Robinson allowed a 55.9% catch rate before signing with the Colts…and after missing nine games that year, the team parted ways with him. This allowed the Eagles to swoop in and pick up a veteran who brings the “Dinner” skillset that the team seek.
Beyond those two lie an abundance of corners who have honed their craft in man-coverage schemes. From the likes of UDFA Jomal Wiltz, to the CFL tandem of Aaron Grymes and Mitchell White, who are used to receivers charging at them before the snap, the Eagles have moved their prototypical mold to fit long corners who are used to playing aggressively at the line of scrimmage.
While a new culture and prototype should give the Eagles some added flexibility when blitzing, it’s not the only factor. A lot of blitzing falls onto the shoulders of the pass rushers themselves and finishing wasn’t always as consistent as it should be. Something Schwartz would also allude to when talking about Vinny Curry.
“You know, when we watched film a lot of times with Vinny, and I think you guys probably saw the same thing, his pressure numbers were high, but his sack numbers were low. I’ve had this conversation with Vinny, so I don’t feel like I’m talking out of school with this. He didn’t do as good a job finishing the rush as he did starting the rush. A lot of times he would create pressure, and somebody else would come in, [DE] Brandon [Graham], or Fletch [Cox] or somebody else, and they’d sort of get the sack or the quarterback would throw the ball away.”
“[Curry] was on the ground a little bit too much around the quarterback. He needed to be able to take that one extra step and be able to finish. How much that knee injury, particularly early in the season, I’m sure that knee injury affected him. But as the year went on, it’s really hard to say. But we need to take his sack numbers and make them a little more in line with his pressure numbers, because he was very disruptive last year. He did some good things, but it didn’t show.”
If it’s finishing that the Eagles desire, it’s finishing they shall receive. Their first round pick this year just so happened to break Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee, showing his prowess storming off the edge and wrapping up signal-callers with ease. While Schwartz expressed hope that Curry can recover well next season, the new committee that includes veteran Chris Long is sure to aid that bounce back that many anticipate.
Schwartz would also go on to open up on the situational aspect of blitzing…which is something not alluded too anywhere enough when discussing the success of a 4-3 Defense.
“We did studies of different teams and things like that. Sacks go hand-in-hand with so many other things. I mentioned corners. They also go hand-in-hand with score. I don’t think there is any surprise that a lot of games we were sacking the quarterback, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota and things like that, we were playing with the lead. That means an awful lot, too. So we were really, I was really impressed with the season that Brandon had last year. Again, the sack numbers were five and a half, is that what it was, five and a half? That’s not going to create a whole lot of headlines. But he was a better pass-rusher than five and a half sacks. With him, I think it was more circumstance with him. He didn’t miss very many opportunities. He’d have great pressure and the ball would be gone a little bit quicker. If we do a better job with our coverage, I think we can see some improved numbers from Brandon, also.”
The Eagles enter 2017 with a new look secondary that’s built on press prowess, and a committee of pass rushers including the likes of Tim Jernigan, who can hurt offensive lines in numerous facets. When you add in the weapons of the versatile Nate Gerry and Elijah Qualls, what you have is a Defense that’s far better suited to cope with blitzing situations which opens up the wide-nine scheme to a terrifying level of aggression. It’s a big year for the Eagles, and with the pass-rush acting as the engine of the esteemed unit, it was imperative that the Birds’ did all they could to give Schwartz all the weapons needed to overthrow the likes of Dallas and Washington twice a year. Schwartz wanted guns, the Eagles gave him an arsenal.
Mandatory Credit: James Lang-USA TODAY Sports