As Eagles’ offense fails, defense a bright spot against Patriots | Bob Ford
Bringing extra pressure on Tom Brady showed a growing confidence in the defensive backfield.
Finding bright spots after the Eagles loss to the New England Patriots on Sunday – a loss that dropped the team to 5-5 and further diminished its chance of making a postseason run, or even a leisurely trot – was like finding ice cream in a hardware store.
That was true overall, but particularly on the offensive side of the ball. It is one thing to exit a game less certain a team can complete its mission that season. It is quite another to finish the day wondering if the franchise quarterback, upon whom years of hope are laden, is actually more of a McDonald’s franchise than a McCormick & Schmick’s franchise.
Not that the fan base is given to overreaction or anything, but the sudden backhanding of Carson Wentz is surprising. His completion percentage is higher and his interception percentage lower than in 2017, when everyone was awarding him the MVP trophy long before he injured his left knee in December.
What is different – aside from the team’s record – is that he is virtually alone on offense. With DeSean Jackson gone and Alshon Jeffery out, most of his receiving targets are laughably undertalented. Without punishing running back Jordan Howard available, there was no weight to the running game. No kidding Wentz had trouble putting points on the board against a very good NFL defense. And just try it with Lane Johnson out and Hollawhenbeaten Vaitai replacing him.
We’ll leave the offense where it is at the moment. It might well rebound against a Seattle team that is 25th in overall defense and 28th against the pass. (The Patriots are first and second in those categories.) A week from now, the script of concerns could completely flip. That’s not the way to bet, given their modest talent at the skill positions, but it is possible.
On the other hand, looking for bright spots against the Pats was a lot easier on the defensive side. (Seattle could change that, too, but let’s keep this as upbeat as possible.)
Against Tom Brady, the defense held the New England quarterback to just 216 passing yards, or 289 fewer than it allowed him in the Super Bowl two years ago. It gave up just 74 rushing yards and, overall, kept the Pats a full touchdown under their normal scoring output. It could be that Brady and the Patriots are more mystique than real on offense this season, with a 9-1 record built on the back of an easy schedule, but that was still Tom Brady out there looking mortal against the Eagles.
The positive spin is that the defensive backfield is finally healthy, and that allows defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz some latitude in how he calls the game. In the three games that preceded Sunday’s, Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby and Avonte Maddox all returned from injury, and defensive tackle Tim Jernigan made a comeback as well.
With his three starting cornerbacks available, and his two veteran safeties still sound, Schwartz played more of a man-to-man scheme and even jacked up the number of blitzes he called. It takes belief in the backfield to do that, and Schwartz had it.
“You see the confidence he has in the whole defensive unit,” safety Rodney McLeod said. “From the d-line to us in the back being able to cover, especially versus a team like the Patriots and Tom Brady.”
The decision to bring extra pressure also speaks to the fact the Patriots have a shaky offensive line and haven’t been able to run the ball all year. Nevertheless, blitzing Brady and his legendary quick release only works if the coverage is there. On Sunday, it was.
“I think that’s what you’re seeing with the health of Darby and Jalen back there, and Avonte back in there,” Doug Pederson said Monday. “It does help when you can hold up on the perimeter to be able to dial up a few more pressures and get to the quarterback. You have to do that against great quarterbacks to try to disrupt some timing.”
Brady was only sacked once, but he was hit another six times dropping back and was forced to scurry out of the pocket and find safe ground on other occasions. To whatever extent his timing was disrupted, he finished with a 67.3 quarterback rating.
“We’re just doing a good job of matching up and were playing a lot more man-to-man,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “Getting guys back in the secondary healthy is definitely helping.”
That was last Sunday. What about next Sunday? Will chasing Russell Wilson with the blitz be as recommended, particularly against a team that can counter with a top-10 rushing offense? Will playing man-to-man against a quarterback who can really extend plays be the ticket?
Those answers will say a lot about whether the bright spots of one week are actual headlights or merely fireflies. For the Eagles to contend for anything meaningful this season, they need at least some of their fluctuating strengths to become reliable. And it wouldn’t hurt if the current scouting report on their weaknesses – here’s looking at you, Mr. Quarter Pounder – was proved false.