When it comes to pass defense, there’s a delicate balancing act between the rush and the coverage. Both ends need to work in tandem. The quicker the rush gets to the quarterback, the shorter the secondary has to cover. And the longer the back defenders can keep receivers from getting open, the more time the line has to pressure the thrower.
The Eagles pass defense wasn’t very good Sunday against the Redskins. It was good enough to get the win, partly because of some improvement after a shaky first half. But the Eagles’ offensive efficiency had more to do with the turnaround than anything Jim Schwartz’s unit did.
Redskins quarterback Case Keenum was sacked just once and hit seven times on 46 drops. While his numbers were inflated by a late, meaningless drive, he still completed 30 of 45 passes for 380 yards and a touchdown.
Asked if the Eagles’ rush, specifically from the edges, was good enough, Schwartz pointed more blame at the other end of the equilibrium Tuesday.
“What we needed to do,” Schwartz said, “was we needed to cover better to be able to get the pass rush home.”
The Eagles defensive coordinator didn’t completely absolve his line, however.
“The thing I was probably most disappointed in in pass rush was the last series,” Schwartz said.
The Eagles had a two-score lead late in the fourth quarter and still couldn’t get to Keenum even though he dropped on every down. But Schwartz’s 4-3 defense is predicated upon his front four getting pressure. That is where most of the Eagles’ salary cap dollars on defense are spent.
And now the unit will be without starting defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who suffered a potentially-season ending Lisfranc foot sprain. It wasn’t nearly all bad Sunday, certainly not as much as some critics have suggested. But there needs to be improvement with better teams, offenses and quarterbacks coming.
Here’s a closer look at the film from the Redskins game and of defensive tackle Akeem Spence, who the Eagles signed Tuesday:
On this early third-and-8, the Eagles rushed four. The Eagles unveiled a new look with Jackson (No. 97) at end. A hybrid, his versatility would allow Schwartz to move ends like Graham (No. 55) inside as he did here.
Schwartz: We can still do that. [Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox] can do it. He’s done it for us in the past. We have done that before. We can do it in the future. I don’t think [the loss of Jackson] takes us out of any packages like that.
Nevertheless, losing Jackson does give Schwartz one less piece he can move around. Despite rushing four vs. five and having two straight-up one-on-ones, the Eagles couldn’t get home here.
Keenum (No. 8) averaged 2.68 seconds from snap to throw Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus, but he needed 3.16 seconds on this 17-yard completion to receiver Paul Richardson (No. 10). That’s too much time in zone coverage, especially when the Eagles’ two deep safeties were late to react to Richardson.
The Eagles’ ends – Graham, Derek Barnett, Vinny Curry and Josh Sweat -- didn’t win enough one-on-ones. On this early third-down rush, Graham got matched up against tight end Jeremy Sprinkle. He can’t win every rush, but with play action there should be enough time for him to beat a tight end.
Graham: In the beginning they were doing a good job chipping us, just moving the pocket, sliding around and doing stuff that we kind of knew they were going to do. But they did a good job.
The Redskins chipped the ends with their running backs and tight ends at times – on 6 of 23 drops in the first half and 7 of 23 in the second.
Schwartz: Any time somebody takes a max-up approach, which they did an awful lot, they kept a lot of tight ends in, it’s going to be hard to get there on the outside.
Despite Schwartz’s claim, Washington kept additional blockers in on just 10 of 46 drops, and of that number three were to fend off blitzes.
The Eagles started to apply pressure as the first half waned, and Barnett (No. 96) was the most active. Despite not playing in nearly 11 months after suffering a torn rotator cuff last October, he played the most snaps (55 of 67) of the ends.
He looked rusty at times, but you can never doubt his effort.
Schwartz: He always plays hard and gives us good energy. I mean there are some things he can do better. He was playing tough. He was playing physical. He affected the game, did a good job against the run.
Barnett didn’t cash in with a sack, but he did record a team-high three quarterback hits. On this play, he read Keenum’s naked bootleg and forced an errant throw.
Donald Penn, at this stage in his career, is a far cry from the Redskins’ normal left tackle, Trent Williams. But he has 175 career starts and is still playing in the NFL for a reason. Barnett has spent much of his first two years in the NFL gaining strength, and he showed power with this bull rush vs. Penn (No. 72).
But Barnett’s outside speed rush is his bread and butter. If the bull rush can be one of his counter moves, and he can use his added strength to get around tackles – as he did here with a stab that tipped Penn over – he could become the elite edge rusher the Eagles are currently lacking.
Barnett also drew two holding penalties vs. Penn. He took a few penalties himself, however, inexplicably jumping offsides when Keenum was spiking the ball to kill the clock before the half, and late during the Redskins’ final drive.
Schwartz: Rather not get those two penalties that he got. It was a good learning experience for him.
Graham (48 snaps) didn’t do much as a rusher, but he performed well vs. the run and notched a tackle for loss on a third-down screen attempt. Curry (23 snaps) and Sweat (14) had relatively quiet days. The latter drew a Morgan Moses hold in the first quarter.
As Schwartz said, the group needed to get home more often during the Redskins’ last drive when the rushers could just pin their ears back against 5-man protections.
On Keenum’s last touchdown pass, he had 3.3 seconds to throw as Sweat (No. 94) was blocked out of the play.
Schwartz: Those are good chances to get rush and I think at that point you saw it was first game for us and a lot of guys were playing their first game of the year and our conditioning probably wasn’t where it can be and where it will be and there were opportunities to make some plays there because there we weren’t getting all those heavy play actions and heavy double chips.
Schwartz prefers not to blitz. Why send more, he often says, when you can get pressure with just four? But he did send extra rushers on several occasions Sunday, and the results were mixed. Keenum competed 3-of-8 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown vs. the blitz and could have hurt the Eagles more.
Schwartz blitzed on this second quarter play, and the Redskins picked it up.
Cornerback Rasul Douglas (No. 32) was matched up vs. receiver Terry McLaurin (No. 17) in man coverage. But he played off with outside leverage, leaving himself susceptible to a deep post.
It sure looked like Douglas was expecting inside help, but he said he wasn’t supposed to have any.
Douglas: That’s on me.
A reporter mentioned that was still a lot of ground to cover.
Douglas: Yeah, a lot.
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said there wasn’t a missed assignment. Cornerback Ronald Darby (No. 21), who lined up opposite Douglas, ran with Richardson on a short crosser.
Schwartz: Didn’t get home on the pressure. Didn’t cover very well. Every play there’s a combination of a million things. If a guy doesn’t cover well, you can cover it up sometimes with somebody winning in pass rush or somebody winning on the blitz. If a guy covers really good, like we talked about before, sometimes you can cover up a guy not winning in pass rush. That one we had a combination of a lot of different things, and we paid the price for it.
Schwartz didn’t mention that it was poorly timed call, but Douglas was placed in an untenable position, even if his technique and long speed were lacking.
Darby was clearly supposed to provide help when Schwartz blitzed here. Cornerback Sidney Jones (No. 22) got beat, but Darby was late to pick up McLaurin’s route.
Schwartz: Everybody always wants a blitz, but nobody likes when those deep balls go up against the blitz. But, yeah, it was a very similar situation. We have to do a better job in coverage, a better job in pass rush and a little better in our overlapping coverage. We were lucky we didn’t pay the price for that one.
Jackson injured his left foot on the Redskins’ final drive. He got blocked back into the legs of Washington center Chase Rouillier (No. 73).
Cox was still clearly working his way back into shape after not playing in the preseason. He played a lower percentage of snaps (44 of 67) than usual. Tim Jernigan (No. 93) will assume Jackson’s starting spot. He recorded the Eagles’ lone sack of the day on this stunt.
Schwartz: That sack that he had was a really, really well executed stunt between him. … It was a hurry-up situation, so you weren’t able to get Timmy’s shimmy, so-to-speak, after he makes his play. But that brings us energy, any time he makes a play it brings us energy on defense.
Spence, who was cut by the Dolphins last month, will need some time to get caught up to speed. The Eagles aren’t asking a lot of him initially.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson: He’s a big guy. Physical. [Defensive assistant] Matt Burke was with him in Miami. He can be disruptive. He definitely fills the need that we have there at that open spot. He will give us some really good minutes as a fourth tackle.
Spence (No. 93) has played almost exclusively in 4-3 defenses and his skill set makes him a natural one-gap penetrating interior rusher. He’s not especially explosive, but he can shoot the gaps.
And he’s not especially large at 6-foot-1, 303 pounds, but he has power.