Jim Schwartz and the Eagles’ defense scramble for solutions, as points and losses pile up
Schwartz and Malcolm Jenkins noted that while the record is similar to last year, before the Eagles turned their season around, the problems have changed.
Another bad loss. Two players who couldn’t stop the onslaught have been jettisoned. A player expected to be a young building block instead seems buried on the bench.
Defensively, the Eagles are flailing right now, scrambling for a foothold lest they slide into the abyss.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was asked Tuesday how long it will take his two new defensive tackles – rookies Albert Huggins and Anthony Rush, from the Texans and Raiders practice squads, respectively – to be ready to play.
“Well, it’s going to have to be quick,” Schwartz said.
Fletcher Cox is the Eagles’ only healthy defensive tackle who has appeared in an NFL game. Conventional NFL practice holds that at least two defensive tackles should be used in games, such as the one the Eagles are scheduled to play Sunday at Buffalo. There might be a chance that they’ll get Tim Jernigan back from his Week 2 foot injury this week, but head coach Doug Pederson said Monday he didn’t expect anyone from last week’s injury list to be ready to practice Wednesday.
Monday, the team released veteran defensive tackle Akeem Spence, who has appeared in six games since being signed in the wake of the season-ending injury to Malik Jackson. Spence played two-thirds of the defensive snaps in Sunday night’s 37-10 loss at Dallas, some of them because Hassan Ridgeway suffered an ankle injury that apparently will sideline him for at least a week. The Dallas offensive line had Spence on skates all night.
The Eagles also released nickel cornerback Orlando Scandrick, who played 36 of the 70 defensive snaps Sunday. Playing zero snaps was 2017 second-round draft pick Sidney Jones, whose hamstring is healed, Pederson said.
Schwartz said Tuesday that Jones’ job was to back up Scandrick on Sunday, with former practice-squad corner Craig James backing up the outside corners.
“So [Jones] still had a role out there,” Schwartz said, straight-faced.
Would Scandrick’s departure mean Jones will be the nickel corner at Buffalo?
“Well, we’ll see,” Schwartz said. “You guys know I don’t like to be pigeonholed into things. … He can play that position.”
Schwartz went on to list safety Malcolm Jenkins, concussed corner Avonte Maddox, and IR’d corner Cre’Von LeBlanc (eligible to return next week) as possible nickel corners. He stopped before he could list any members of the training staff, or the lectern he was standing behind, as alternatives to Jones.
The Eagles were 3-4 after seven games last season, and they slid to 4-6 before winning five of their last six, rallying to make the playoffs. Having done it before can be reassuring, but just because something happened once, that doesn’t mean it will happen again, with a different group, in a different season.
Schwartz allowed that this week feels like the week after that 48-7 New Orleans loss last year, which dropped the Eagles to 4-6. But he also sketched out some differences, which Jenkins described in more detail.
“I think we had a real change on both sides of the ball,” Jenkins said. “You had Nick Foles come in [at quarterback], and obviously, that changed a lot of what we did offensively. Defensively, we really had to change schematically because of the personnel we had out there, so we went to a very, very simple scheme and let our defensive line eat. A little different situation this year, especially defensively, because the D-line is the one that we’re thin there, we’re kind of fighting. Linebackers … we’ve got some young guys in there that are learning and play[ing]. We’re still trying to get healthy on the outside, at corner.
“Obviously there need to be adjustments made, some guys that need to step up and play significant roles for us, but it’s up to us to get ‘em prepared.”
A questioner pointed out that Jenkins had just listed every level of the defense as a problem area.
“It is what it is. I wish I could snap my fingers and make it different,” Jenkins said. “It is what it is … they don’t spot us 10 points because of it. We’ve gotta figure out how to win with what we’ve got.”
The key to Schwartz’s defenses has always been the defensive line, and so far this season, that group has seriously under-performed.
“The production that you normally get, that we’ve been used to getting from the front four, we’ve yet to see if that’ll continue and be consistent with new guys in there,” Jenkins said. “Obviously, we’re used to getting pressure with a four-man rush. Used to stopping the run with those guys up front being disruptive. At the end of the day, it puts more emphasis on linebackers and safeties, and how we fit the run, how we disguise, and things to help out some of those D-tackles, especially.”
Schwartz compared the defensive-tackle emergency this year to what happened last season at cornerback, when the Eagles were signing players off the street and tossing them into games.
“We were able to find a formula that worked for us and were able to make a run," he said. "We need to do the same thing this year.
Is it tough on a defensive coordinator to have guys cut the day after games in which they played a lot, as has been the case the last two weeks, with Scandrick, Spence, and linebacker Zach Brown?
“We just keep our eyes on what our job is," Schwartz said. "It’s not my job to do personnel. It’s my job to take the guys that we have and try to figure out a way to win that game that week.”