We tried to win the game right there. That’s something Jim Schwartz said Tuesday afternoon as he looked back on the Eagles’ all-out blitz that the Falcons exploited to perfection on Julio Jones’ game-winning 54-yard touchdown sprint off a screen pass on Sunday night. The philosophy itself wasn’t all that interesting. The Eagles had a 20-17 lead and the Falcons were facing a fourth-and-3 with just over two minutes remaining. Stop them there, and the game is all but theirs. The notable thing occurs when you square the playcaller’s presnap mentality with the play that he dialed up.
Schwartz spent much of his press conference Tuesday batting down suggestions that he utilized the blitz any more than usual. That’s fair, and the numbers more or less back him up. But those numbers do not erase the fact that, on a play that the Eagles felt they needed to have, their defensive coordinator felt like their best chance at having it required more than a four-man rush.
We do not have nearly enough evidence to conclude that Schwartz’s decision-making against the Falcons was indicative of anything greater than a veteran playcaller reacting to the unique strengths of a single opponent. There aren’t many teams in the NFL that have a wide receiver with the ability to trump the best efforts of a secondary the way the Falcons do in Jones. Against that sort of athlete, you occasionally have to step outside your comfort zone to regain the upper hand.
“Every game’s different,” Schwartz said. “They were protecting their edges. They were chipping our defensive ends quite a bit. They were a little bit more vulnerable to the inside at times where you saw us get free, we were on the inside. Every week it’s different. Every week it’s a different quarterback, it’s a different set of receivers. I mean, you wrestle with every part of the game plan weekly.”
The big question is about that wrestling match moving forward. Aside from Jones disappearing into the horizon like Usain Bolt, the most concerning sight at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sunday night was Tim Jernigan hobbling out of the visitor’s locker room with his left foot in a boot. One week after marquee free-agent acquisition Malik Jackson suffered a season-ending foot injury, the loss of another defensive tackle for an extended period of time will only complicate Schwartz’s pocket-collapsing efforts. This, after an offseason that saw the departures of edge rushers Michael Bennett and Chris Long.
Through two games, the Eagles have managed just two sacks, a number that ties them with several other teams for second-fewest in the NFL. While sacks only tell part of the story about the pressure a defense generates, they do offer a baseline for comparison’s sake, and the Eagles have averaged more than two per game in each of the last two seasons.
With a cornerback group that remains susceptible to the big play -- the Eagles have allowed eight pass plays of 20-plus yards through two games after finishing tied for third in the NFL with 60 such plays last season -- pressure would seem to be at a premium this season. There’s reason to believe that the coverage will improve. Safety Rodney McLeod and cornerback Ronald Darby are both coming off significant injuries that ended their 2018 seasons early. Cornerback Sidney Jones is just beginning his second full season as an NFL player. While Darby struggled against the Falcons, Schwartz credited Jones with a “bounce back" game after a rough opener against the Redskins. Assuming Darby can get back to where he was before the injury, and Jones can continue to improve while also remaining healthy, it’s fair to think that the back end of the defense will only get better as the reps pile up.
What the Eagles really need is for their front four to get to a point where it can help even the odds on the back end rather than exacerbating them. In his three seasons as defensive coordinator, Schwartz has shown the ability to make the most out of the healthy bodies that he has at his disposal. Last year, the Eagles played the second half of the season without McLeod, defensive end Derek Barnett, and cornerback Jalen Mills, and much of it without Jernigan. The numbers weren’t pretty, but the season ended with the Saints scoring 20 points at home and the Eagles offense with a chance to take a last-minute lead.
“[That’s] life in the NFL,” Schwartz said. “We went through it at different positions last year. We went through it at defensive tackle for a little while last year. Things have a way of settling down after an amount of time. There’s always going to be an adjustment period when you have new guys coming in and guys are settling into new roles. That’s part of the job description for coaches in the NFL. That’s part of the job description for players in the NFL. We preach all the time that if you’re on our 53-man roster, if you’re here, if you have a seat, practice squad, regular, 53, 46, whatever it is, you’re going to have to be counted on at some point during the season, so get yourself ready. I think we’ve seen that plenty of times, and we might be in that same boat pretty soon.”
Against the Falcons, Schwartz decided his front four needed help to keep that boat afloat. It will be interesting to see if that continues to be the case.