Jim Schwartz’s specialty is defense, and sure enough, he had to do some serious defending in a Tuesday session with reporters.
Schwartz’s stance, in his first comments after a 38-29 loss at Pittsburgh in which the Steelers scored on five successive possessions, was that Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was “on fire,” Sunday, and that Schwartz’s defense took too many penalties (eight for 79 yards), made it too easy for a quarterback of Roethlisberger’s caliber.
“When [a quarterback is playing really well], it puts more emphasis on you as a defense, that you’ve got to play mistake-free football, and whether it’s a call by me … or whether it’s a physical error like a missed tackle, or a penalty, a mental lapse when it comes to jumping offsides, or physical mistake like [pass interference], all of those give a hot quarterback a second opportunity,” Schwartz said.
Roethlisberger converted 11 of 15 third downs, and five of those conversions, out of nine, were third-and-5 or longer.
“Sometimes you can go out and hold a quarterback to 20% on third down, and things like that,” Schwartz said. "When he’s hot like that, you have to scrap to get 50%, and when you don’t scrap, if you make mistakes, it’s going to be 75% or whatever it was in that game.
“It puts more of an emphasis on us, and playing mistake-free football, and I think that there were too many opportunities for him to make another play.”
This is Schwartz’s fifth year as the Eagles' defensive coordinator. Schwartz’s defenses have boasted a strong pass rush pretty much every year of his tenure. They’ve been good against the run, allowing a league-low 93.4 yards per game from 2016, when Schwartz arrived, through 2019. They have risen to the occasion in late-season situations in which key players were out with injury. They walked off the field victorious in Super Bowl LII after giving up a record 505 passing yards. Despite some ugly moments, they managed to somehow rank seventh overall between 2016-19 in the most important defensive stat, points allowed, at 20.8
But this year, once you get past an overstocked, extremely well-paid defensive line, the Eagles don’t seem to have much. The linebackers are a mix of rookies who aren’t ready yet and vets promoted from careers on special teams. The secondary is Darius Slay, Rodney McLeod, and a bunch of guys who would seldom see the field if they played for a true contender.
The 2020 Eagles are allowing 29 points per game, which ranks 23rd in the NFL. Opponents are scoring touchdowns on 73.8% of their red zone opportunities, which ranks the Eagles 27th.
Insiders say Schwartz has a lot of pull in the personnel acquired to fit his scheme, so fans are more inclined to blame him than general manager Howie Roseman.
All of this crystallized, you might have heard, in a crucial third-and-8 from the Eagles' 35 Sunday at Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger audibled into a pass down the middle to fleet rookie wideout Chase Claypool, covered by overmatched Eagles linebacker Nate Gerry, who already was the focal point of fan ire. The resulting touchdown set the final score of a game that dropped the Eagles to 1-3-1.
That touchdown, Claypool’s fourth of the afternoon, has been dissected like a frog in 10th grade biology class over the last few days. Schwartz raised two points that haven’t overexamined: He called for quarters defense because Slay had left the game with a concussion, leaving Schwartz wanting to protect his corners, and, calling timeout in that situation would have been strictly up to head coach Doug Pederson; Schwartz indicated that Pederson hasn’t been a fan of defensive timeouts, generally.
“That’s always been the head coach’s responsibility here. There’s been a couple times over the years that we’ve had 10 guys on the field, and [calling a timeout] is up to Doug. Doug has to weigh that with saving timeouts for if we get them stopped and we’re trying to go down and kick a game-winning field goal. …That really never enters our thought process on defense.”
To some of the questioning, even if you understood Schwartz’s point, he came off as defending the indefensible. The Steelers gained 58 yards on a misdirection run by wideout Ray-Ray McCloud, which set up a touchdown. Wideout runs, particularly using misdirection, have resulted in several big plays against the Eagles this season.
Schwartz’s stance was that except for that play, his defenders were good against the run. (Insert Mrs. Lincoln/play reference here.)
“I thought our guys did a good job of those misdirection things and those distraction things. Really turned into one play,” Schwartz said. “We’ve got to get that play tackled for an 8, 10-yard gain, and then live to fight the next down, as opposed to giving up sort of the back-breaker in that situation.”
One problem that becomes more and more obvious is that the Eagles, who mostly played zone defense before acquiring Slay, really aren’t very experienced at playing man, which is the best use of Slay. Picks and rub routes seem to be a total mystery.
“If you’re a zone team, you’re not worried at all about picks. You’re just leveraging off,” Schwartz said. "If you’re a man team, picks are a big problem. If you’re a zone team, there’s different [challenges from offenses] in there with trying to conflict zone defenders, giving them high-lows, giving them horizontal stretches, giving vertical stretches. It is what it is, what you play on defense.
“There’s really no defense that has — that stops everything. … If you want to play a tight coverage, if you want to get up in guys' faces and challenge guys a little bit more, which is something that we’ve done this year, then all of a sudden, it comes with some other things that you’re going to have to battle.”
Jalen Mills, game but flawed as a cornerback, was moved to safety this season after Malcolm Jenkins departed, but now is back at corner because Avonte Maddox is out with an ankle injury. He said most of the Eagles' defensive backs have played long enough in the NFL to know how to play man.
“We’ve got to know teams are going to start attacking us like that, and when we get that opportunity, teams knowing that we’re in man, maybe switch up our disguise, or switch up leverage on different guys … just different looks, so it’s not plain and simple for a quarterback,” Mills said.