The Eagles’ defense began the year as arguably the best defense in football. Then they hit a two-game funk giving up 35 points to the Los Angeles Rams and 504 yards to the New York Giants and everyone was up in arms.
How could the Eagles win without Carson Wentz if their defense started to struggle?
As of late, they seemed to have proved that those two games were as much as a fluke as they were a funk. Not to mention both of those games resulted in victories. Following those games, they allowed an average of eight points, 287.5 yards and three takeaways against the Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders in the last two games of the year. They finished the year fourth in total points and total yards allowed.
But the defending NFC Champion Atlanta Falcons aren’t the Raiders or Cowboys.
They have a former MVP at quarterback, an All-Pro wide receiver and two dynamic running backs. They gained the ninth most offensive yards in the regular season which supposedly means Matt Ryan and Julio Jones are having chemistry issues. I’m not buying it.
The other times the Eagles have faced top-10 offenses this season? Phillip Rivers threw for 347 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Alex Smith threw for 251 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions. Jared Goff threw for 199 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
Philadelphia went 2-1 in those games with the only loss coming to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs committed no turnovers in that game. In the games they won, they didn’t get a pick, but they forced the opposing quarterback into fumbles. They recovered a fumble by both Rivers and Goff. Philadelphia can still win against Atlanta if they fail to get an interception. But it would surely help if they forced Matt Ryan into a mistake of any kind.
That’s the tricky part.
Without Wentz, it’s unknown if the offense will be able to sustain drives for long periods of time. If there’s no ball control the defense will get tired easily à la under Chip Kelly. Wentz was spectacular at converting on third-down and it kept the defensive line and secondary fresh. They could stay aggressive, maintain good coverage down field and get into the quarterbacks’ face to cause mistakes.
Much rides on the offense but it’s a two-way game. The defense has the talent to take over the game if the offense continues to struggle.
The passing game will be harder to contain.
Both Coleman and Freeman are adept at catching the ball out of the backfield and pass-catchers Julio Jones, Mohammed Sanu, Austin Hooper and Taylor Gabriel can all hurt defenses in their own way. The Eagles pass coverage has been shaky at points this season but Malcolm Jenkins, Rodney McLeod, Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills and Patrick Robinson are all healthy and up to the challenge in Jim Schwartz’s aggressive defensive scheme.
Schwartz likes to get pressure on the quarterback with rushing only four. He does this by spreading the line out (some call this the Wide 9) to put strain on the tackles and by showing different fronts with the movement of linebackers and even Jenkins. Sometimes all four lineman will rush, other times a lineman will drop off into coverage and a linebacker or a safety will blitz.
On the back-end, the coverage is a blend of man and zone depending on how many players Schwartz decides to blitz. It’s important for the Eagles secondary to always be aware of where Julio Jones is. Last year, Schwartz did not have one player follow Jones around the field. This year we will likely see more of the same as Mills and Darby are both capable of at least limiting Jones. The safeties must be ready to help over the top especially if Schwartz decides to rush more than four. It’s also possible Jenkins plays some snaps in the slot. In that case, McLeod must be ready to help the corners deep if Ryan decides to take a shot.
If the Philadelphia defensive front continues to get pressure on the quarterback it should make Ryan get the ball out of his hands quicker. This will help the cornerbacks cover Atlanta’s talented offensive weapons and not allow big plays downfield. If they don’t get pressure, Nick Foles will have to get into a shoot-out with Ryan, which will not go well. It all starts with getting after Ryan. It will help cause turnovers and limit the amount of time the secondary needs to cover. The Eagles only had the 17th most sacks during the regular season but they had the fourth most takeaways. It’s not about sacks, it’s about turnovers created due to pressure.
Schwartz and the Eagles defense won’t make too many adjustments going into this divisional round game. After all, they got to this point by sticking to the same blueprint all season. The biggest decision will be if Schwartz decides to have someone shadow Julio Jones which I don’t he will do. They’ll trust the offense can stay on the field long enough to keep them fresh. They’ll trust the run defense will stay stout and the pass-rush will garner pressure. They’ll trust the secondary won’t bite on double-moves and allow big plays down-field.
They’ll trust what got them to 13 wins and step onto the field and bring the heat.
If you would like to receive an email each time a new Philadelphia Eagles article is published, fill out our email notification form.