For just the second time in their last 32 games, and for only the seventh time in Jim Schwartz’s three-plus years as the defensive coordinator, the Eagles failed to register a sack in the 27-24 loss to the Lions on Sunday at the Linc.
Sack totals don’t always paint an accurate picture of pass-rush pressure. But this one did. The Eagles rarely got anywhere close to Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford in their second loss in three games.
Stafford’s overall numbers – 18-for-32 for 201 yards and one touchdown – weren’t that impressive. But the protection he was afforded by his line enabled him to complete several big passes, including a couple of third-and-longs that kept drives alive, and 27- and 22-yard completions to Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola on the Lions’ game-winning touchdown drive.
As he did last week in the Eagles’ loss to Atlanta, Schwartz occasionally used blitzes to compensate for his front four’s inability to get to the quarterback. It backfired last week on Julio Jones’ 54-yard game-winning touchdown. And it backfired again Sunday on Stafford’s 10-yard touchdown toss to Jones early in the fourth quarter, which gave the Lions a 27-17 lead.
“That’s something we have to look at, generating a pass rush, whether [it’s] with four, five, six [rushers], whatever it is,’’ Eagles coach Doug Pederson said after the game.
The Eagles have just two sacks in their first three games and now have the unenviable task of traveling to Green Bay for a Thursday night game against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
The Lions surprised Schwartz and the Eagles by using the same pass-protection blueprint that the Falcons used the previous week. They often used “max-protection,’’ keeping seven blockers in to deal with the Eagles’ rush.
That works only if the three receivers you’re sending out on routes are able to get open. Against an Eagles secondary that lost its best cornerback, Ronald Darby, to a hamstring injury early in the second half, they were.
“They came out and fooled us,’’ defensive end Vinny Curry said. “They went seven-man protect. When they weren’t in seven-man protect and we got the opportunity, I think we knocked [Stafford] around a little bit. But at the same time, we have to get there a little faster.’’
Curry was overly optimistic in his assessment of the Eagles’ ability to get to Stafford when the Lions weren’t in max-protect. The quarterback could have played in a tux and been ready to go clubbing in it after the game.
“They used it way more than we expected,’’ defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “Coming into the game, they hadn’t done much max-protection. But I guess after looking at the way Atlanta blocked us, they had no choice but to do it.
“We have to come up with a plan to attack that. And I know Coach Daniels will do a good job at it," he said, referring to the defensive line coach. "We’ll sit down and talk about it. You’ve got to buy in as a group.
“I know that teams are trying to slow down our pass rush. But we have to get more aggressive up front and get to the quarterback.’’
The Eagles’ pass rush has been hurt by injuries. They signed defensive tackle Malik Jackson to a three-year, $30 million free-agent deal in the offseason, only to see him suffer a likely season-ending foot injury in Week 1.
Then, last week, another one of their defensive tackles, Tim Jernigan, hurt his foot and is expected to be sidelined at least a month and probably longer.
Defensive end Derek Barnett, the Eagles’ 2017 first-round pick, is coming off shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and doesn’t appear to be anywhere close to where he was before the injury.
Cox, a four-time Pro Bowler, is coming off a foot injury that prevented him from fully practicing until right before the start of the season. So far, he’s been nowhere close to the disruptive player he was a year ago, when he notched a career-high 10½ sacks and was a first-team All Pro selection.
“It’s tough to swallow,’’ Cox said after the game. “Especially the way we lost the game. We’ve got to be better and I know we will.
“We’re not getting to the quarterback. Especially me. I’m getting there, but I’m not getting there quick enough. We have to do a better job as a group.’’
In an attempt to give Cox some help inside, Schwartz did what he’s often done in the past and occasionally moved edge-rushers – Graham and Curry in this case – inside in obvious passing situations. It helped a little but not enough to make a difference and force Stafford into mistakes.
“I know how sacks go,’’ Graham said. “Right now, we just have to let people say what they’re going to say. We have to keep on working.
“It’s a long season. You never know how stuff is going to go. There could be some funny stuff happening. I’m hoping we’re on the good side of it. The only thing I’m worried about is that we don’t separate from each other, which I doubt we’ll do.
“Right now, nobody believes in us. That’s cool. We just have to fix some stuff. We know we’re right in it. We know we’ve got some injuries and a lot of stuff. But we just haven’t made the plays we need to make to win the game.’’
Cox played pretty well in the Eagles’ Week 1 win over Washington. But he wasn’t much of a factor last week in the loss to the Falcons, and the Lions kept him at bay Sunday.
Asked if he was disappointed in the way he has played the last two weeks, Cox said, “I can’t be disappointed in myself. Because at the end of the day, I’m out there giving everything I got.
“I’m just doing my job. I’m just doing what the coaches ask me to do. Sometimes a player can try to do too much and end up making a mistake. I just need to do my job and try to be as disruptive as I can be.
“At the end of the day, I’ve got to get to the quarterback, and I’m not doing a good job of that right now.’’
Schwartz likes to call his front four the “engine’’ of his defense. As they go, the rest of the defense goes. With two sacks in three games, it’s pretty clear the engine isn’t firing on all cylinders right now.