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Will the Eagles’ Jim Schwartz stick with a man-heavy scheme against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers? | Early Birds

Two days after Darius Slay surrendered 10 catches for 177 yards to Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf, Schwartz gave the cornerback credit for his competitiveness.

Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf catching a pass near Eagles cornerback Darius Slay in the fourth quarter Monday night.
Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf catching a pass near Eagles cornerback Darius Slay in the fourth quarter Monday night.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Good morning, Eagles fans! Me again. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re still following the team closely, either excitedly or with a subtle feeling of dread. Either way, welcome to the Thursday edition of the newsletter. We’re happy to have you. Wednesday morning, we took a look at the things ailing the Eagles offense the most. This morning, we’ll discuss the other side of the ball.

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Stand by your man

Jim Schwartz’s biggest takeaway from Darius Slay’s rough showing against DK Metcalf on Monday night had nothing to do with the final stats.

Two days after the Eagles’ No. 1 cornerback surrendered 10 catches for 177 yards to the Seahawks’ imposing wideout, Schwartz gave Slay credit. Not necessarily for his play but for his willingness to continue to be matched up with Metcalf one-on-one without safety help, benefiting the rest of the Eagles defense.

“We put a real, real big hat on Slay in that game because we gave him no help,” said Schwartz, the Eagles’ defensive coordinator. “And I would like to say, with a player like that, never once during the week did he ask where his help was going to come from. Never once during the game did he say, ‘I need some help.’ He just kept going out there and battling. He didn’t have the greatest day. He knows that.”

Metcalf has been one of the league’s best wideouts this season, leading the NFL in receiving with 1,039 yards and catching nine touchdown passes. Slay is hardly the first cornerback to have trouble with the second-year star.

It’s fair to point out that Slay was brought in to do much better than he did against Metcalf. The Eagles traded third- and fifth-round draft picks for Slay last offseason, and then made him the fourth-highest-paid cornerback in terms of annual salary. He was in tight coverage for most of the game but gave up several contested catches to the 6-foot-4, 229-pound wideout. Metcalf averaged just 2.2 yards of separation on his 17 targets, according to Next Gen Stats, slightly lower than his season average of 2.7.

Schwartz said the team was able to handle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Metcalf’s fellow receiver, Tyler Lockett, better because of Slay’s island.

“In order to keep Russell from scrambling, in order to handle their run game, in order to handle Lockett and do all those other things, we had to put that hat on Slay,” Schwartz said. “I don’t look at it like he cost us the game. I look at it like he was the reason that we were able to do all those other things.”

The Eagles have used man coverage more frequently this season than in years past because of Slay’s ability to match No. 1 receivers, and the results have been mixed. They’re ranked No. 8 in total passing yards allowed, but that’s partly because they’ve seen a limited number of passing attempts (eighth fewest in the league) due to their being behind in almost every game. Their passing defense is ranked 20th by Football Outsiders, which takes into consideration situation and quality of opponent.

It’s not about to get easier for Slay in this short week. There aren’t many receivers in the league better than Metcalf, but Davante Adams is one of the few who can make that case. The Packers receiver leads the league in yards per route run and is fifth in catches.

Slay, who spent the first eight years of his career with the division-rival Lions, has consistently matched up against Adams dating to Adams’ rookie season of 2014. Their most recent matchup came in Week 17 last year when the Packers beat the Lions, 23-20.

Adams was targeted seven times with Slay in coverage and had four catches for 63 yards, although it’s important to note that Slay suffered an injury midway through the game and returned in the third quarter with a visible limp. Still, Slay gave up two catches for 50 yards on three targets before going out. Adams’ biggest play in the game came on a 33-yard catch when he beat Slay on a fade route in which Slay’s safety help was late coming over the top. Slay could be in for a similar lack of help Sunday, although Schwartz obviously didn’t commit to using the same game plan against the Packers that he employed last week.

“Every game plan’s a little bit different,” Schwartz said. “But it is comforting for a defensive coordinator to know that he has a guy that’s willing to go out there and take those matchups and put himself out there.”

While it sure sounds as if Slay will be in for another man-heavy evening in Green Bay, Schwartz has reason to reconsider the approach. The Eagles struggled against Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers and Sean McVay’s Rams earlier this season. Packers coach Matt LaFleur, who worked with both of those whiz kids, runs a similar scheme that utilizes rub routes and other man-coverage-beating concepts.

The only real difference? He has Aaron Rodgers, who is 78-for-128 for 1,038 yards and 22 touchdowns to only two interceptions against man coverage this season, according to USA Today.

“It’s just a credit to our players being able to go out there and execute and win their one-on-ones,” LaFleur said Wednesday of what’s led to the success. “You’ve gotta beat the man in front of you, and so that’s a credit to those guys to be able to go out there and execute that. It’s a credit to our offensive line to give our quarterback time and our quarterback to go out there and make the right decision and throw an accurate ball. I think that there’s no real secrets to it.”

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. It’s hard to believe that the last time Carson Wentz visited Lambeau Field, he outdueled Rodgers. As Les Bowen writes, it’s hard to know whether Wentz realizes how unlikely it is he’ll be able to do it again considering his shocking regression.

  2. Doug Pederson often points to the offensive-line problems when explaining why this season’s gone awry. As Marcus Hayes explains, he’s not wrong.

  3. There might be yet another offensive-line shuffle coming. Bowen has the details, along with the rest of the Eagles notes from Wednesday.

From the mailbag

How does Miles [Sanders] only touch the ball 8 times? That’s criminal and got way too pass happy on Monday night! — from Nick (@EaglesLIIChamps) on Twitter

Good question, Nick. Sanders’ lack of touches has been somewhat surprising all season. I’m typically a proponent of favoring the pass, as it is a more efficient option for most teams. But with Wentz struggling so much, and with the offensive linemen being so inexperienced together, it might make more sense to turn into a run-heavy team that doesn’t ask its quarterback to do so much.

Against the Seahawks, Sanders’ lack of involvement was in part due to how stagnant the team was early. When you go three-and-out on the first three series, nobody is getting many plays called for him. The other part of the problem, if we’re talking specifically touches, is Sanders’ sudden and concerning problems catching the football. He dropped a couple of passes, and he’s tied for the league lead among all players with eight drops this season.

Still, I would add this to the list of questions for the Eagles coaching staff this year. It’s hard to say why the offense hasn’t prioritized more rollouts for Wentz, more carries for Sanders, and more touches for Travis Fulgham. It’s confounding.