In the age of COVID/Zoom sports reporting, you have to accept what an NFL team offers you after a game. There’s no wave of media flooding the locker room, no waiting out a player until he finishes showering and tying his shoes, no following a guy out of the stadium for the sake of extracting a small piece of insight that no one else will have. You log on and wait your turn and hope you have the opportunity to ask a relevant question to the coaches and players involved in the game’s most relevant moments.
Nate Gerry wasn’t made available for questions Sunday after the Eagles' 38-29 loss to the Steelers. A linebacker, he found himself lined up across from rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool with three minutes left in regulation and the Eagles trailing by two points. Claypool, who already had scored three touchdowns in the game, promptly scored his fourth, on a 35-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger, who noticed the potential mismatch and called a play that would exploit it. But even if Gerry had been available, what would he have said about the moment that defined the day for the Eagles' defense? Yeah, he’s faster than I am. My bad.
No, the explanation should have been coming from defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. It is, after all, Schwartz who calls the schemes, who wields so much power within the Eagles organization that, in some respects, he is practically a co-head coach with Doug Pederson. Pandemic precautions or no pandemic precautions, though, Schwartz never speaks to the media in the immediate aftermath of any game. He waits until the following Tuesday.
Ostensibly, he wants to review the film before commenting on what unfolded, but that reasoning has always seemed a cheap, cowardly dodge of the criticism that accompanies a poor effort or result. Not only does Schwartz’s refusal to talk leave pertinent questions unanswered for 48 hours, but it requires people who don’t oversee the defense to answer for its failings.
And there were plenty of failings for Schwartz and the Eagles to answer for Sunday. The Steelers converted 11 first downs on their 15 third downs. Roethlisberger completed all 13 of his passes on third down, including the game-clinching touchdown to Claypool, on which he outsmarted Schwartz.
“Ideally, would we like Nate to be on a receiver? No,” safety Rodney McLeod said. “We would prefer a defensive back. But that was the call that was made defensively, and they checked to a good play.”
Good for McLeod for telling the straight story, and good for Pederson for barely trying to hide his frustration over the loss and the primary reason for it. “It was just a double move on Nate,” he said, delivering an eye roll that was more revealing than his words. “Tough call there, but well executed by them for the score.”
The statement applied just as well to the full game. For all the money that the Eagles poured into their defensive line, for all the value that Schwartz places on pressuring opposing quarterbacks without having to blitz them, the Steelers and Roethlisberger had little trouble using quick, short passes to neutralize the Eagles' pass rush, and Schwartz had no countermove. Howie Roseman outspent the rest of the NFL for cornerback Darius Slay, and he outspent the rest of the NFL for the team’s group of ends and tackles, all presumably to accommodate Schwartz and his style and strategy, and the Eagles haven’t played a game yet in which they’ve surrendered fewer than 20 points.
“Winning is the most important stat,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. "I’d rather give up however many points but still come out with a win. Obviously, we didn’t take care of business today. If we give up 38 points and still get a win, then I’m OK with that. Then we’re not having this conversation.
“We’re not winning. If we win this game today, we’re not talking about the Eagles' defense giving up 38 points.”
On a rationalization scale of 1 to 10, 1 being Hey, that’s a decent point I hadn’t considered and 10 being That’s some top-grade excuse-making right there, Cox’s assertion grades out at, roughly, a 17.6. But at least he did put his finger on the concerning and frustrating aspect of this loss. Had the Eagles managed to pull out a victory, the entire outlook of their season would have changed. They would have been .500, which would have kept them in first place atop the lousy NFC East.
Instead, they’re 1-3-1, with the Baltimore Ravens looming, and it’s worth noting that their three best defensive performances this season have come against a rookie quarterback (Joe Burrow) and two quarterbacks (Dwayne Haskins, Nick Mullens) whose teams have since benched them. Against the two most talented and best-coached offenses they’ve faced so far, the Rams' and the Steelers', Schwartz and his defense have given up an average of 37.5 points. They’ve given the Eagles little chance to win. They’ve been embarrassed. God help them, they get Lamar Jackson next week. It promises to be something to talk about, for sure.