It’s been a rollercoaster year for the Philadelphia Eagles defense. They started the year with a depleted secondary that was haunted by miscommunication, poor tackling, and coverage breakdowns and despite a mid-season resurgence, it seems as though we’re headed back to square one.
In each of the last three games, the Eagles have allowed a receiver to put up at least 130+ individual receiving yards and at least one touchdown. When you factor in that they’ve also surrendered a whopping 81 points over that same timeframe, the cause for concern grows. Oh, and those three times have a combined record of 9-33.
Dak Prescott may be dealing with a shoulder injury, but the threat of Amari Cooper, who has already surpassed 1,000 receiving yards this year, and Michael Gallup (averaging 16.3 yards per reception) is one this defense cannot afford to overlook. Jim Schwartz has dealt with a lot of criticism this year, and his season may well be defined by how his defense performs in the biggest game of the season.
Getting pressure on a wounded Dak is also a legitimate worry to have. The Eagles faced rookie Dwayne Haskins last week, who was sacked 26 times before the matchup, and the Eagles couldn’t even muster a QB hit. The pass-rush has been more inconsistent than it looks on the surface this year, and missing key names has definitely attributed to the fact that they have just 27 sacks in the 13 games that weren’t against the Luke Falk led Jets.
When asked about how to stop the threat of Cooper and the Cowboys, Schwartz gave a very self-aware response:
“The other one is you have to make plays on the ball when it goes up in the air. Good vision on the ball, and good high point when you have guys like Cooper that they’ll just throw it up to, you have to be able to come down with that. I think there’s a pass-rush element to it, too. Take the quarterback’s timing away from him a little bit. And I think there’s some scheme to it also and there’s different ways you can roll coverage. Sometimes you’re ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ when you do that, but sometimes it can have an effect…“
“…This last week they rushed for over 250 yards, so it’s not always just about those wide receivers. It’s about that offensive line and running the football and the quarterback. The quarterback has taken very few sacks this year. I think we had three in the first game. Ridge [DT Hassan Ridgeway] had one, Fletch [DT Fletcher Cox] had one and [DE] Derek Barnett had one, but I don’t know that he’s had another game that he’s had three sacks.”
“So it all goes hand-in-hand. It’s that time of year. This is a game for the division and they’re going to line up with their players, we’re going to line up with ours and we got to fight to come out with a win.”
Schwartz has called some simply brilliant games this year. There was a stint of four exceptional performances that came against the Bills, Bears, Patriots, and Seahawks. But outside of that, there have been consistent issues, and that’s where the frustration lies. Fans have seen glimpses of how good this Eagles defense can be, and the stern run defense echoes that. But they really are flashes in a thunderstorm. Turnover production has dropped substantially, the pass-rush has been nullified by opposing offenses, and the more things change on the back end, the more they stay the same.
The Eagles have one last chance to right the wrongs of 2019. As Carson Wentz drags what’s left of the offense back from the brink of collapse, it’s time for Schwartz to do the same. The excuses have run out, the second chances have vanished, and the pressure is at an all-time high. If the defense crumbles as it has over the last three weeks, Dallas will smell blood in the water and likely punish the Eagles in ways the Giants and Redskins were unable to for the most part.
If Schwartz fails to shut down the Cowboys in front of a raucous Lincoln Financial Field, the boos will mark the beginning of what could become an offseason of unsettling uncertainty for the defensive coordinator and the players who continue to shoot themselves in the foot. But if Schwartz can rally his group of underdogs to one more dominant outing, finally beating the Cowboys and stamping down their authority on the NFC East, many of the criticisms that have plagued the Eagles defense this year will begin to evaporate.
Playoffs and a prayer is all that fans are asking for and while Wentz may be the talking point ahead of the game, it’s ultimately the defense that will dictate Wentz’s chances at winning what promises to be a scrappy shootout.
Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports