Is a lack of discipline causing Eagles Defense to leak points in the fourth quarter?

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The Eagles may be heading into the second quarter of the NFL season with a 3-1 record, sat atop the NFC East with a perfect record against divisional opponents. There is one Achilles Heel that continues to emerge late in games however, and it’s one that has the potential to either make or break a season; closing out games. So far, the Eagles have done extremely well offensively in closing out tightly contested matchups. A 6:44 drive to put the nail in the coffin against the Chargers shows that perfectly, but what is transpiring on Defense isn’t as confidence inducing.

In the fourth quarter alone, the Eagles have given up 52 points this season. They’ve conceded a total of 92 thus far…meaning that well over half of the points the Defense has allowed have been scored in the closing quarter of the game. Unfortunately for Doug Pederson, the answer to the problem isn’t clear.

“We’ve had our share of injury particularly in the back end.” Pederson explained on Monday. “And again, not to use that as an excuse, but young players are playing, and things are going to happen a little bit faster for them. It’s something we’ve just got to continue to evaluate. There always seems to be one or two big plays, chunk plays in the game that we have to try to eliminate, whether it be linebackers getting off blocks, to not have a long run or secondary, eyes in the right spot, being in the right position, things of that nature. And those are all things that are fixable and correctable. I guess on the flip side of that is offensively we’ve been able to score late in these games to keep leads and to finish the game that way.”

The “bend but don’t break” mentality of the Eagles may leave the unit in one piece at the end of the game having survived the storm, but it’s certainly cracked. Leading the league in time of possession would point to the late leakage being anything else but a by-product of fatigue…and maybe that’s what it is; Anything else.

The Eagles have a very young Defense with a lot of injuries that have pushed their backs to the wall. But if the variables are consistent enough to see the same consequences three weeks in a row, then perhaps there’s something more than just situational circumstance.

“Yeah, we’ve been thinking on that.” Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz told reporters on Tuesday. “We were in the exact opposite position last year. Last year, we were struggling a little bit in the first half and second half we were pitching shutouts. I think there’s a lot of layers to everything that goes on on the football field. 52 points in any quarter is not — is too many. Whether it’s the first or the fourth. We’ve got to do a better job of keeping points off the board.”

Schwartz then moved onto a very interesting point.

“But I think another one that goes a little bit– I don’t want to say unrecognized — but it was certainly recognized by us, is the first couple weeks we played pretty clean when it came to penalties and this last week we didn’t. Giants we were a little bit worse, but this last week we gave them three first downs with penalties, a couple key plays at second and ten, got a holding on a screen pass, had a DPI and had three offsides that I think all contributed in keeping us off balance, also. So it wasn’t just the big plays. I think that the defensive fouls and the penalties had a lot to do with them. We have to get back to playing the clean football that we played earlier in the season.”

If it’s penalties that are holding the Eagles back, then it ties directly into one very interesting statistic. The Eagles have been flagged nine times in their lone home game this season. On the road? 21. So where are they coming from? According to NFLPenalties.com, here’s how the Eagles Defense is faring so far.

The Eagles have been flagged defensively more than 25 other NFL teams. It’s interesting to see Douglas lead the Eagles Defense in penalties. Discipline is going to play a huge factor…especially for younger players. As the pressure ramps up and things get scrappy, corners can get grabby at the line of scrimmage and defensive linemen can be zoned in a little too hard on the snap. 1/3 of the Eagles penalties on Defense have come from pre-snap errors.

Of course, it would be a HUGE reach to blame a lack of discipline on a leaking problem that has so many variables thrown into the melting pot. Perhaps the two aren’t as intertwined as we’d like for the sake of simplicity. But if the “bend but don’t break mentality” pushes A defense that’s built on aggression and firepower into sitting deep and playing patiently, naturally some of that fuel is going to explode into flames at the first chance.

Penalties are a natural part of the game…and with a Defense so physically imposing, they’re almost a byproduct of the production we see on a weekly basis within the trenches. But they can be limited. Take Jason Peters and Lane Johnson on the other side of the ball for example.

Out of the 15 most penalized players per game in the NFL in 2015, two of them were Eagles Offensive linemen. Lane Johnson ranked 7th in total penalties while Jason Peters ranked 15th. Last year, the trend continued. Peters was the eighth most penalized player in the NFL.

This season? Peters has been flagged once through the opening four games, while Johnson has been flagged just once more…the results largely speak for themselves.

With Fletcher Cox and most of their secondary set to return in the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see if this trend continues. The Birds’ have a matchup against a dire Cardinals Offense just around the corner, but like New York’s, it has to be respected. Can the Eagles figure out a way to beat the flags and the Cardinals in the same week?

 

Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

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