One part of that play on which Giants quarterback Daniel Jones ended up taking a pratfall at the end of an 80-yard run on Thursday was not particularly funny to Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
It was the 80-yard part. The part where Jones play-faked and took off around right end, and would have made it 88 yards for a touchdown untouched had he not lost his balance and fallen. Defensive end Brandon Graham, who otherwise played his usual tough, relentless game, totally went for the play fake, and there was no one behind him on that side.
“That certainly wasn’t our best play,” Schwartz said Tuesday. “If we can eliminate those plays, we can make it hard for people to drive the ball.”
As a one-off, this wasn’t a big deal, especially in a game the Eagles eventually won, 22-21. That was how safety Jalen Mills wanted to look at it when Mills spoke to reporters afterward. It was Mills who downed Jones after the fall.
Mills noted that Jones is the Giants' leading rusher (31 carries, 296 yards) and that “you got to clue in on him.” Then he said, “He didn’t have any [designed] keeps the whole game [before the 80-yarder]. They had a good call at the right time. You just got to tip your hat off. They had a good one. One time for the bad guys.”
The thing is, though, as Mills and Eagles fans know all too well, it wasn’t just “one time for the bad guys.”
The Eagles have been good against the run pretty consistently since Schwartz arrived in 2016, partly because they crowd the box. It’s still hard to run between the tackles on them. In the loss at Pittsburgh on Oct. 11, the Steelers' premier running back, James Conner, managed just 44 yards on 15 carries. But wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud took off on a 58-yard jaunt.
At San Francisco, in an Eagles win, the big run also came from a wide receiver. The 49ers' Brandon Aiyuk went for 38 yards. In the Eagles’ loss to Baltimore, it was a 37-yarder from quarterback Lamar Jackson, who finished the day with 108 yards on nine carries. Jackson and Jones (four carries, 92 yards) have the two best rushing days by NFL quarterbacks this season, both coming against the Eagles.
This is why the Eagles, despite giving up an average of 3.3 yards per carry to opposing running backs, rank 24th in the league against the run (130.4 yards per game). Quarterbacks are averaging 7.6 yards per carry against them, wide receivers and tight ends 10.3.
“It’s been rare that people have methodically driven the ball on us. It’s been more perimeter-oriented,” Schwartz said. "It’s been more reverse, a quarterback loose play, maybe even a quarterback scramble in some of those, a zone-read-type play. Those are plays that just stretch your whole defense.
“And every single person along the front needs to be right. And one person out of their gap, it can really, really look bad. Where a lot of inside runs, one guy out of his gap, you’ve got a linebacker that overlaps it, or a safety that overlaps it. And it’s a gain of 5, and you guys don’t even really notice.”
It’s fair to wonder how much Schwartz’s Wide 9 get-after-the-quarterback approach leaves his unit vulnerable to such plays. The Eagles talk a lot about rallying to the ball. That works when everyone understands exactly which opponent has the ball. Otherwise, not so much.
“Whenever you chase plays, you put yourself in [harm’s way] somewhere else,” defensive line coach Matt Burke said Tuesday.
“Just puts more emphasis on just being stone cold on the outside part of the field,” Schwartz said, without explaining why that so often has not been the case. "It’s just the way offenses are now. That’s been a layer to the run game that 10 years ago, five years ago, wasn’t as big. You might get a reverse in a game, but you didn’t have all those different things.
“And I would even include outlet passes like the [run-pass option] outlet passes. That’s basically a run, also. It forces you to defend the entire width of the field, and that play wasn’t our best. I mean, we didn’t come back on the quarterback the way that we should have. … Then the defense I was in, we were half-field on the other side and sort of wasted our middle-of-the-field safety that can get that ball down, because he wasn’t a middle-of-the-field safety [in that alignment].”
To many observers, it looked as though left corner Nickell Robey-Coleman got stuck on a receiver’s block and didn’t give chase very vigorously. But Schwartz had a different view.
“Robey was trying his best to hold guys off, just to buy us some time to get there. But there was nobody there to get there,” he said.
“I thought the only team that really consistently drove the ball on us was the Rams. I guess the Steelers, also. … The other games, it’s been big plays, whether it’s been run or pass that have put them in scoring range.”
Schwartz’s players don’t have a lot of explanations for why this is happening. It didn’t happen much last year when, of course, the Eagles were playing the same scheme. The 2019 Eagles had a hard-to-fool safety in Malcolm Jenkins and more experienced linebackers than the current group. There is no upside to a player pointing that out publicly right now.
“Man, I’m no defensive coordinator,” Fletcher Cox said this week, when asked to explain. “I’m employee No. 91.”