The Eagles offense has indulged in considerable hand-wringing and mea culpa-ing while trying to solve its much-discussed problem of slow starts, something that has helped propel the opposition to a double-digit lead in each of the four games the team has played.
But slow starts aren’t strictly an offensive concern. The Eagles defense has given up points on every opposition first possession this season, and on the second possession in three of the four games.
This has put added pressure on the offense. In the two games in which the opposition has had the ball first, it has meant Carson Wentz and company are standing around on the sideline for a considerable stretch, pacing as the other team eats up clock and moves down the field. The offense then takes the field already behind.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is famous for waving away such concerns. He often tells reporters that he cares only whether the Eagles win, and beyond that, whether his unit makes crucial plays that can decide the game -- whether it gives the offense a chance to win. This is a group that allowed 505 passing yards in winning Super Bowl LII, after all.
Not surprisingly, given the tone Schwartz sets, it was hard to find anyone in the Eagles locker room this past week who was terribly concerned about defensive slow starts, as the Eagles prepared for a visit Sunday from the 0-3 Jets, who ought to provide a respite from this and many other afflictions.
Linebacker Nigel Bradham, when told about the first-drive deficit, said he had no idea that was the case.
“It ain’t really a streak to me. … As long as we come out with a W, I don’t care who scores first,” Bradham said.
“I don’t think there’s a common thread. … I think we’re a pretty strong defense. I think it’s about playing the whole game, especially defensively. It’s the NFL; teams are going to score.”
The Eagles are being outscored 27-10 in the first quarter and 70-44 in the first half. They are outscoring opponents 33-21 in the fourth quarter, 66-35 in the second half.
“Not at all,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said, when asked if he was concerned. “At the end of the day, it’s about how many points you give up throughout the game. It doesn’t really matter when they’re scored. I could really care less if it’s the first drive or not.”
The Eagles allow 26.2 points per game, 26th in the NFL.
Jenkins said the early going is when the defense sees the scripted plays the opposition has chosen to counter things they’ve seen the Eagles do. (Of course, if being able to script such plays is such an advantage for an offense, you’d think the Eagles offense would have an easier time in the first quarter.)
“Every team comes in with the first 15 plays that are scripted, it’s usually things they’ve seen on tape, they want to see different looks,” Jenkins said. “I don’t know if there’s a rhyme or reason for it.”
Cornerback Rasul Douglas said the Eagles do study what the opposing offense has been doing, but “sometimes they just come out with different stuff.”
Asked about adjustments, Douglas said the Eagles learned in the most recent game, at Green Bay, “that if we didn’t give them penalties in the RPO game, they weren’t going to beat us.”
At Green Bay, the penalties started on the first play. Bradham stood up running back Jamaal Williams for no gain at the Packers’ 11, but Derek Barnett was assessed 15 yards for unnecessary roughness when he flew in and pretty much head-butted Williams. That was the first of four first-half defensive penalties for the Eagles, three of them 15-yarders.
Two plays after the Barnett penalty, Aaron Rodgers found Davante Adams for 58 yards and the Packers were off to the races. They led 10-0 before the Eagles offense lurched into gear.
The previous three games followed similar scripts. In the opener, in which the Eagles trailed the now-0-4 Washington Redskins 17-0 at home, Washington drove 80 yards in seven plays after the Eagles won the coin toss and deferred. The capper was a 48-yard catch-and-run by tight end Vernon Davis, who ran through several tackles.
In Atlanta, Week 2, the Eagles again won the toss and deferred. This time the defense wasn’t terrible, the Falcons drove only 43 yards in 11 plays, netting a 50-yard Matt Bryant field goal. They did manage to eat up 5 minutes, 32 seconds. The Eagles eventually trailed 17-6 in the third quarter, en route to a 24-20 loss.
At home against Detroit Week 3, the Eagles had to take the ball first because the Lions won the toss and deferred. The Eagles drove for a field goal – and then Jamal Agnew ran the ensuing kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown. Hard to blame the defense for that, but the D did help build a 20-10 halftime deficit en route to a 27-24 loss. On its second possession, Detroit drove 75 yards in 13 plays for a touchdown.
Defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway said he doesn’t think the Eagles have had to make a lot of adjustments defensively during games, but he believes they could “settle down more, early, and just get more comfortable. I don’t think it’s any surprises – just calm down a little bit and play our game.”
The only Eagle on defense interviewed who viewed the starts as a real problem was Rodney McLeod. The safety, coincidentally or not, probably has been the Eagles’ most consistent defensive player this season.
“We need to come off that field, preferably three-and-out, create some energy and momentum for our team. That’s really our focus,” McLeod said.
“Find a way to get off the field on third downs. … I think it just comes down to improving on third down. There has been some inconsistency there this season.”
McLeod might be on to something. Green Bay didn’t face a third down on its opening drive, but the Davis touchdown in the opener came on third-and-2. Detroit got a do-over on third-and-goal at the Eagles’ 1 on its first touchdown drive, after defensive tackle Akeem Spence was ruled offside. The Lions then ran it in for a touchdown.
“We place a huge emphasis on that, but we haven’t been able to get off the field early on, early stages of the game,” McLeod said.
The Jets have scored just 33 points in three games and have been outscored 19-6 in the first quarter, 36-9 in the first half. Their quarterback Sunday is scheduled to be former third-stringer Luke Falk, making his second NFL start, with franchise quarterback Sam Darnold sidelined by mononucleosis and backup Trevor Siemian out for the season with an ankle injury.
If the Eagles can’t stop Falk from driving the Jets down the field for a first-possession score, it might be fair to wonder if the streak will last all season.