This is why they pay Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz the big bucks. To use that Georgetown-educated brain of his to magically come up with save-the-day solutions when injuries gut the defensive tackle and cornerback positions just a quarter of the way into a season with Super Bowl hopes.
Schwartz no doubt is hoping that wheelin’-dealin’ general manager Howie Roseman will help him with the cornerback problem. Maybe put together an offer for Jalen Ramsey that Jacksonville can’t refuse, or convince John Elway that the winless Broncos are a dead team walking and should hand over their 30-year-old corner, Chris Harris, for a conditional fourth-round pick.
The defensive-tackle problem, though, well, Schwartz probably is going to have to do a MacGyver there and take care of it himself with duct tape and some old-fashioned X’s-and-O’s creativity.
He doesn’t have Malik Jackson (foot injury, likely out for the season) and he doesn’t have Tim Jernigan (foot injury, out indefinitely), and Fletcher Cox, who is coming off offseason foot surgery, bears little resemblance to the unstoppable All-Pro force of a year ago, when he posted a career-high 10½ sacks.
“Any time you come off surgery, it takes time,’’ defensive line coach Phillip Daniels said of Cox. “He missed a lot of reps. We probably logged 2,000 reps in the offseason and he missed all of them.
“It’s frustrating when you miss a lot of time and you don’t have all of the little technical things in place to help you go out and be successful on the field. At the same time, that’s going to improve. As the weeks go by, he’s going to get better and better. He knows that. He knows the defense needs him to be at his best to be really good.’’
Schwartz doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for Cox to turn back into Superman. The playoff clock is ticking for the 2-2 Eagles. He needs to find ways to kick-start his pass-rush now.
The last couple of games, those ways have included sliding 256-pound edge-rusher Josh Sweat inside in some nickel sub-packages.
Schwartz is a big fan of moving defensive ends inside on passing downs. He did it a lot last with much success last year with both Michael Bennett and Brandon Graham.
The most famous sack in franchise history, Graham’s fourth-quarter strip-sack of Tom Brady in Super Bowl LII, came on an inside rush.
Before the bodies started falling, Schwartz had hoped to go with regular rotations at tackle and end this season. But that was then and this is now.
He’s reluctant to move Graham inside all that much because Graham has really been their only consistent edge-rusher. The 10-year veteran has a team-high 26 quarterback pressures in 139 pass-rush snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Vinny Curry, whom the Eagles re-signed in the offseason, has been used some inside, but he hasn’t been particularly effective He has just eight pressures (two QB hits, six hurries) in 62 pass-rush opportunities.
So Schwartz is giving 2018 fourth-round pick Sweat a shot inside. He played 26 snaps against Green Bay, seven of them inside. He had two hurries in the game, both of them on inside rushes.
“I like it a lot,’’ Sweat said. “It was fun rushing in there. I didn’t think it would be that much fun. I got some pressures. I hope I can get some more [reps] inside.’’
Sweat said Daniels approached him a few weeks ago after Jackson and Jernigan went down and told him the Eagles were thinking of occasionally sliding him inside.
“We talked a lot,’’ Sweat said. “He said he felt I could help us a lot rushing from the three [technique, on the outside shoulder of the guard]. I think I helped a lot [against the Packers]. I was collapsing the pocket and was actually getting some good pressure the week before [against the Lions] too.’’
The Eagles’ other two tackles, Hassan Ridgeway and Akeem Spence, are more run-defenders than pass-rushers, though Ridgeway has two hits and three hurries in 81 pass-rush snaps.
“When you lose guys like Malik and Timmy, you lose some good stuff,’’ Daniels said. “But [Ridgeway and Spence] have gone out there and worked hard. They’re doing a pretty good job. They’re fighting.’’
Sweat is giving away from 60 to 100 pounds to the guards he’s going against inside. But the idea of moving an edge-rusher inside isn’t to try to outmuscle interior linemen. It’s to attack them with speed. Sweat ran a 4.51 40 before the 2018 draft.
“He just needs to get off the ball and use his speed,’’ Daniels said. “That’s one of the reasons we moved Josh inside. So he can use his speed.
“You’re going against guys who might not move as fast as those outside guys. If you can get on the edge of those guys, you can make things happen for yourself. The main thing is just get off the ball and try to penetrate the gap.’’
Sweat was a four-technique tackle (lined up over the offensive tackle) at Florida State, so playing inside wasn’t foreign to him.
“I played in there a lot" in college, he said. “So I’m pretty used to it.’’
Sweat weighed 265 pounds at the end of training camp, but he has dropped nine pounds since then.
“I still have all of my strength,’’ he said. “But I feel a lot better. My speed can translate to power now a lot better than last year.’’
Graham said edge-rushers with the kind of speed Sweat brings to the table pose problems for guards.
“Guards don’t want to come out,’’ he said. “They want to keep you in a phone booth. They don’t want to have to go too far to get you. It strains them a lot when you have a speed guy in there. You just have to make sure to keep your feet moving.
“He looked good. I think it’s going to be something good moving forward.’’
Given the injuries on the back end, it’s imperative that the Eagles get their pass rush going, particularly with the likes of Dak Prescott, Tom Brady, and Russell Wilson waiting for them in future weeks.
They had 76 hurries in the first four games, according to Pro Football Focus, but just three sacks and 16 quarterback hits.
“We want the sacks more than anything,’’ said Sweat. “We’re working hard at it. We think we’re going to take off soon.’’
Excelling in the red zone
Safety Rodney McLeod made a pair of huge plays on the first of the Eagles’ two fourth-quarter goal-line stands against the Packers.
McLeod broke up a first-down pass to tight end Jimmy Graham in the end zone. Then, two plays later, he read a bootleg by Aaron Rodgers, charged him, and forced the Packers quarterback to throw the ball away.
“Nobody talks about that, but that’s just straight him,’’ defensive backs coach Cory Undlin said of McLeod’s blowing up the bootleg. “Understanding how the defense works. Huge play.’’
“We talked about it all week, the possibility of Rodgers keeping that ball,’’ McLeod said. “And what do you know, it shows up. They tipped it off a little bit with the way the running back set, and the positioning of Graham out there. It raised my antenna to get out there. I was glad I was able to make the play.’’
The Packers had seven red-zone opportunities against the Eagles but converted just three of them into touchdowns. The seven red-zone chances were the most against the Eagles since 2008, when the Giants also were in the red zone seven times in a 36-31 win.
Last year, the Eagles finished first in the league in red-zone defense, allowing touchdowns on just 44.6 percent of opponent red-zone opportunities. But they also had the ninth-most red-zone challenges (56) in the league.
That’s a dangerous way to live. Just one of the eight teams that faced more red-zone challenges — the Chiefs — won more than seven games.
So far this year, the Eagles have given up seven touchdowns in 15 red-zone challenges (46.6 percent).
“We prepare hard for the red zone,’’ McLeod said. “It starts with Cory. Usually on Fridays, having an early meeting, then taking it into our regular meetings later on. But then also doing a couple of walk-throughs to make sure we understand exactly how they’re going to try and attack us [in the red zone]. Guys are locked and focused. We made a lot of big plays down in the red zone last week.’’
Rodgers completed just 5 of 16 passes in the red zone. He was 29-for-37 outside it.
Figuring the Eagles
--Thirty-one of the Eagles’ 60 offensive plays against Green Bay were run with “11’’ personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR). Twenty-nine were run with either “12’’ (26 plays) or “13’’ (3) personnel. Through four games, the Eagles have used 11 personnel on 191 of 272 plays (70.2%), and 12 or 13 personnel on 76 plays (27.9%).
--The Eagles are averaging 3.6 yards per carry with 11 personnel (69-250) and 5.2 with 12 (38-199). Rookie Miles Sanders is averaging 6.7 yards per carry in 12 personnel (15-100) and 2.5 in 11 (29-73). Jordan Howard is averaging 3.9 in 12 (12-47) and 4.4 in 11 (24-106).
--Opponents have scored on their first possession against the Eagles in every game (3 TDs, 1FG). They’ve scored on their second possession in three of the four games (1 TD, 2 FGs). Opponents are averaging 9.2 yards per play on their first possession and 5.0 on their second. Thirty-seven of the 105 points the Eagles have given up, and 26 of the 81 first downs they’ve allowed, have come on their opponents’ first two possessions.
--Carson Wentz has completed just 3 of 13 deep balls (throws of 20 yards or longer) in the three games since DeSean Jackson got hurt. He was 2-for-5 with two touchdowns in the one game with Jackson.
--Wentz has thrown just two interceptions in 219 career pass attempts in the red zone. A look at how that compares with some other NFL quarterbacks over the last four years, according to Pro Football Reference: Tom Brady (3 in 255 attempts), Aaron Rodgers (2/225), Drew Brees (5/275), Philip Rivers (6/246), Dak Prescott (6/187), Jared Goff (3/205), Russell Wilson (3/222), Ben Roethlisberger (7/227), and Matt Ryan (6/251).
Looking for improvement
With 24 catches in the first four games, tight end Zach Ertz is on pace for another prolific season. But he’s still looking for his first touchdown catch and is averaging only 10.6 yards per catch and 3.0 yards after the catch.
Ertz caught more passes last season — 116 — than any tight end in NFL history. He also had eight touchdown catches for the second straight year. But he averaged a career-low 10.0 yards per catch and finished 32nd among the league’s tight ends in yards after the catch (3.2).
Determined to improve those last two numbers, Ertz worked with Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley in the offseason on running with the ball after the catch.
So far, though, Ertz is averaging fewer yards after the catch (3.0) than last season. Week 2 injuries to wide receivers DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery allowed defenses to double-team Ertz, which left him with little room to run after the catch.
Jeffery returned last week ,and Ertz had seven catches against the Packers. But he had just 65 receiving yards on those seven catches and averaged just 2.1 yards after the catch.
“I think the work I did with Duce was beneficial,’’ Ertz said. “The play against the Lions where I kind of stopped and jumped over a guy was exactly what we were working on.
“I’m just trying to bring more explosive plays to the offense. The yards-per-catch last year was a career low. I’m always looking for ways to improve. Even though the numbers might not show it yet, I think it’s paying off. I mean, it definitely doesn’t hurt.’’
“I never thought he was bad" after the catch, tight ends coach Justin Peelle said. “It wasn’t a strong suit of his, but you could see he’s improving there. He’s sidestepped a few people. He’s dropped his shoulder a couple of times.
“I know that he and Duce worked together and that’s awesome. Whatever little bit he can do to improve his skill-set, that’s great.’’