You’re forgiven if, at times last Sunday, you might have wondered whether Jim Johnson had risen from the dead and taken back the reins of the Eagles defense.
Johnson, who was Andy Reid’s defensive lieutenant until losing his battle with cancer in July of 2009, loved to blitz. The Eagles’ current defensive coordinator, Jim Schwartz, not so much.
He has typically preferred to rely on his front four to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks and drop seven into coverage.
But there Schwartz was Sunday, repeatedly sending extra rushers after the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson. The Eagles blitzed Wilson on 14 of 31 pass plays (45.2%) in their 17-9 loss.
Wilson, who entered the game as the NFL’s leading passer, completed just 13 of 25 passes for 200 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. He was sacked six times by the Eagles, including four times on blitzes.
In two previous games against Wilson since becoming the Eagles’ defensive coordinator, Schwartz had relied mainly on a four-man rush to get pressure on the Houdini of NFL quarterbacks. He blitzed him just eight times in 66 pass plays in the two games (12.1%). Wilson completed 5 of 7 passes for 111 yards and a touchdown when Schwartz had sent extra rushers in those two games, both of which the Seahawks won easily.
While the outcome of this latest game was no different, the effectiveness of the Eagles’ blitz most definitely was. Wilson was just 5-for-10 for 102 yards and was sacked four times when the Eagles came after him with extra rushers.
“With the blitz, it’s never just one guy,’’ Schwartz said. “It’s everybody doing their job within the scheme. All 11 guys need to execute or you can look bad on a blitz, whether it’s a physical mistake or a mental one.’’
Until recently, the Eagles had looked bad a lot when they had blitzed. In their first eight games, opponents had a 114.4 passer rating against them when they blitzed. Take out the Jets game when they feasted on deer-in-headlights quarterback Luke Falk, and opponents had a 137.5 passer rating vs. the Eagles’ blitz, including a 66.7% completion rate, an 11.7-yards-per-attempt average, and just one sack in 49 blitzes.
But the return from injury of starting corners Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby and nickel corner Avonte Maddox has stabilized the defense and given Schwartz the confidence to be more aggressive.
“I think the corners obviously had a lot to do with it,’’ Schwartz said of the Eagles’ blitz success against Wilson, as well as the week before against the Patriots’ Tom Brady, who was an un-G.O.A.T.-like 4-for-10 for 32 yards and sacked once when the Eagles blitzed him.
“I put an extreme amount of pressure on [the corners] in this last game,’’ Schwartz said. “I mean, it’s hard to play Russell Wilson and try to contain him, not only the passing game but all his scrambles, unless your corners are able to shoulder an extremely heavy burden.
“We also knew going into the game that they weren’t going to be perfect. Our message to them was, ‘You give up a completion, bounce right back and complete the next play.’ And I thought they did a good job with that.’’
In their last three games, the Eagles have blitzed on a healthy 29.8% of their opponents’ pass plays, up from 21% in the first eight games. They have a 70.5 opponent passer rating in the last three games when Schwartz has sent extra rushers.
“Just getting everybody back has been big, whether we’ve been blitzing or not,’’ defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “You’ve got a lot of guys who’ve been in this system for a while now with Jim. Everybody knows their roles and what to expect.’’
Defensive end Brandon Graham had 1 ½ of the Eagles’ six sacks of Wilson, giving him a team-high 7 ½. He had a solo sack in the second quarter when the Eagles rushed five and shared one in the fourth quarter with safety Malcolm Jenkins when they attacked with six.
"Everything we did we were doing in practice,’’ Graham said. “Some of the blitzes were hitting home in practice and hit home in the game.’’
Don’t expect Schwartz to morph into Johnson. Sunday’s game was more the exception rather than a new rule. He always will prefer to rush four out of his wide-9 scheme and drop seven into coverage.
In his first three seasons with the Eagles, his blitz rates were 21.2%, 21.7%, and 15.8%. Through 11 games this season, it’s 23.2%.
If they continue to be as effective with it as they were Sunday, he might blitz a little more on occasion. But this Jim never will never be mistaken for the other Jim.
“I would rather him not blitz at all,’’ Cox said. “Let the guys up front do their thing. But I understand that you gotta change it up every now and then.’’