In addition to having cornerbacks who either weren’t very good or were frequently injured — sometimes both — Jim Schwartz’s secondaries often have disappointed Eagles fans by playing soft zone defense, allowing opponents to pile up yardage while trying to prevent big plays.
And then often giving up big plays anyway.
But something happened Sunday, while you were focused on the offense’s determined effort to lose a game the Eagles had no business losing. The Eagles, in the first game of the Darius Slay cornerbacking era, played man-to-man pass defense. Played it on 50 of 70 snaps, Schwartz said Tuesday. And they lived to tell the tale, holding Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins to 178 passing yards and one touchdown. Washington’s longest pass play gained 21 yards.
“The communication, it wasn’t perfect, but I think we played good,” safety Rodney McLeod said after playing every defensive snap, plus 10 on special teams. “I think there’s always room for improvement. We didn’t play great, because we didn’t win, and we didn’t find a way to prevent them from scoring in the red zone.”
McLeod said that man-to-man defense, which the Eagles played just 36 percent of the time last season, according to Football Outsiders, “fits us well.”
And it shows Schwartz’s confidence in his personnel.
“I think, after looking at this game, we’ve now given him a little more confidence than he may have had before,” McLeod said.
The 27-17 loss was fueled by field position, with every Washington score coming on a drive that started in Eagles territory, but there’s no rule that says you can’t stop a team from scoring in that situation, however tight a spot your offense has created.
Washington was three-for-four in the red zone, which is the sort of thing that Schwartz tends to frown upon; last year’s team struggled with many things but kept the opponent to a 55.81 red-zone percentage, tied for 14th in the league.
“We didn’t make enough plays down the stretch,” McLeod said. He also noted the defense failed to create a turnover, a trait of last year’s team that the Eagles would dearly like to discard.
Haskins' lone TD pass was a gimme, when the Eagles neglected to cover tight end Logan Thomas and Haskins lobbed him a 6-yarder just before halftime, starting Washington’s comeback from a 17-0 deficit.
On replays, it seemed that corner-turned-safety Jalen Mills was lined up across from Thomas but followed J.D. McKissic when the running back ran a route to the sideline. Mills might have been supposed to stick with the tight end or to hand him off to a linebacker; neither happened. Schwartz demurred on assessing blame.
“All defensive breakdowns go to the defensive coordinator,” he said. Washington "put a lot of layers onto our calls with jet motions, all those different things, which really forced a lot of quick, precise communication. I was really pleased, for the most part, in the game with how we handled that, with the big exception of that one play.
“That was a critical play in the game, third-down-and-three, chance to hold them to a field goal after the [Carson Wentz interception with 1 minute, 37 seconds left], maybe go in with a 17-3 lead at the half. End up giving up that touchdown.”
Slay, though, had only one notable miscue, a slant he allowed to Terry McLaurin and then missed the tackle on, helping to set up Thomas' touchdown. Schwartz said McLaurin, the wideout Slay followed much of the day, caught only two passes for fewer than 30 yards against Slay. McLaurin had five catches for 61 yards overall.
“We put a lot of pressure on [Slay]. All our corners, playing that much man-to-man, put a lot of pressure on those guys,” Schwartz said. “Didn’t give up a lot of big plays down the field, which I thought was encouraging. Doesn’t change the result. … You don’t get any bonus points for how one individual played, or how one group played. But I was pleased with what he was able to do with some tough duty.”
Schwartz’s secondaries haven’t featured a lot of depth, often because of injuries. He was missing injured safety Will Parks at Washington, but Schwartz seemed comfortable using several subs.
“As far as our nickel and dime, we had four different groups in the back end. … Whether it was ‘Eppsy’ [safety Marcus Epps] or ‘Strap’ [corner Cre’Von LeBlanc], whether it was ‘Robey’ [corner Nickell Robey-Coleman], you saw some different things there,” Schwartz said.
This was the defense’s first game since 2013 without safety Malcolm Jenkins. Mills seemed to pick up the slack pretty well, though you could speculate that whatever happened on the Thomas touchdown might not have happened if Jenkins were still an Eagle, and not a New Orleans Saint.
“Malcolm doesn’t play here anymore,” Schwartz said. "We can’t judge anything on how he would have done in those situations. We have our guys this year. You don’t get graded on the curve because you got new guys out there, or it’s the first game of the season, or anything else.
“A lot of times you’re pleased. Nineteen out of 20 on those plays, you’re feeling good. But that one play is the critical play. Red-zone play, traditionally over the last four years, we’ve been a really good red-zone team. Part of that comes from never making a mistake. We made a mistake on that play, and we’ll learn from it. We paid a dear price for it.”