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Eagles defense has done a lousy job of forcing turnovers | Early Birds

The Eagles have the seventh-fewest takeaways in the league over the last three seasons. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said it’s dangerous to “chase turnovers.”

Darius Slay's third-quarter interception in Sunday's loss to the Cowboys was just the Eagles' sixth of the season.
Darius Slay's third-quarter interception in Sunday's loss to the Cowboys was just the Eagles' sixth of the season.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Good morning, everyone. I hope you’re holding up OK as we move another day closer to putting this godforsaken year in our rearview mirror.

It’s going to be a pretty exciting week for the home team. They travel to Orlando Thursday to take on the unbeaten Magic, and then are back at the Wells Fargo Center Saturday to face … oops, sorry, wrong team.

The 4-10-1 Eagles will hit the NovaCare practice field Wednesday to prepare for Sunday’s meaningless — at least as far as the playoffs are concerned — regular-season finale against the Washington Snyders. And, boy, don’t you think they’re excited at the prospect of beating the Snyders and helping propel the Dallas Cowboys into the postseason.

Doug Pederson will talk to reporters via Zoom before practice. When he spoke with us on Monday, the day after the Eagles’ 20-point loss to the Cowboys, the fifth-year coach sure did talk like a guy who seemed to know he will be returning for a sixth season, and maybe even get a little bit more say in personnel decisions. We’ll see next week if that’s the case.

The Eagles need to do a lot of things better next season than they did this season if they hope to get back to the playoffs. While many of those things have to do with the offense and the quarterback position, the defense needs to start generating turnovers the way it did during the Eagles’ Super Bowl run in 2017. More on that below.

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Defense’s takeaway troubles are impacting the offense

Somebody asked Jim Schwartz Tuesday about the 513 yards his defense gave up to the Cowboys Sunday and the 526 yards it gave up the week before to the Arizona Cardinals. That’s the most yards given up by an Eagles defense in back-to-back games in at least 40 years.

The Eagles defensive coordinator responded by saying that yards allowed are way down the list of things that cause him to lose sleep.

“It’s always about points and things that affect points,” he said. “Third down and red zone and things like that.”

Right up there at the tippy-top of the “things like that” list is takeaways.

Takeaways affect points in a huge way — both the ones you prevent the other team from scoring by taking the ball away from them, and the ones you help set up for your own offense by providing them with a short field.

In 2017, Schwartz’s defense had 31 takeaways, which was the fourth-most in the league. That helped the offense, which finished fourth in average drive start (30.0) and third in scoring (28.6 points per game), and helped the team as a whole, which, as you may recall, won the Super Bowl.

Since then, however, the defense hasn’t been very good at creating turnovers. They finished 24th in takeaways in 2018 (17), 21st in 2019 (20) and are ranked a disappointing 25th through 15 games this year (17).

Their lack of takeaways has affected the offense’s average drive start (26.9, ranked 28th), which has forced the offense to consistently play on a long field. Twenty-four of the Eagles’ 36 touchdown drives this season have been 70 yards or more. Just 21 of the Eagles’ 164 possessions (12.8%) have started at their own 40 or better. During their Super Bowl season, nearly a quarter of their possessions started at their 40 or better.

Schwartz’s defense has no takeaways in six of the Eagles’ 15 games this season. They are 0-5-1 in those six games. It has one turnover in four other games. The Eagles are 0-4 in those games. That’s 0-9-1 in games with one or no takeaways. They’re 4-1 in games in which the defense has forced two or more turnovers.

“I’ve said for a long time that if you chase turnovers, you’re going to put yourself in bad positions,” Schwartz said. “A lot of them come from game situations. A lot of them come when you’re protecting a lead, and your D-line can just do nothing but rush the passer, and your coverage can stay back and know that the quarterback can’t just afford to take checkdowns. He’s going to have to force the ball into coverage. A lot of those [takeaways] do come from those kind of situations, and we really haven’t had those kind of opportunities a bunch.”

The defense has just six interceptions. That’s the second-fewest in the NFL. Three of them have come in the last three games. They are sixth in opponent fumble recoveries, with 11, thanks primarily to their pass rush. Seven of their 11 fumbles have come on strip sacks, including four by defensive backs or linebackers on blitzes.

The Eagles have just 51 takeaways over the last three seasons. That’s the seventh-fewest in the NFL. The six teams with fewer — the Lions, Raiders, Cardinals, Jaguars, Chargers, and Bengals — have a combined .340 winning percentage (95-184) and one playoff appearance over the last three years.

“I think that turnovers are important to us, and I think that you can talk about things that you want the defense to do,” Schwartz said. “Keep points off the board and turn the ball over for your offense. It’s an important part of what we do. Again, no excuses. We haven’t done a good enough job there.”

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. Dave Fipp’s special teams have had a rough year. EJ Smith reports on Fipp’s final videoconference of the season and what he had to say and didn’t say.

  2. Jim Schwartz described his defense’s problems against the Cowboys as a case of too many fires and not enough hoses. Les Bowen takes an in-depth look.

  3. Exactly why did the Eagles take Jalen Hurts in the second round of the draft? Here’s my early-August story attempting to answer that question. With Hurts making his fourth start Sunday, now might be a good time to re-read it.

  4. And here’s a May story featuring Hurts’ two college coaches — Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Alabama’s Nick Saban — talking about their former pupil.

  5. Marcus Hayes says to bench Miles Sanders, Jason Kelce, and Carson Wentz for the finale.

From the mailbag

“Does the Eagles’ lack of coherent beliefs hurt the team? They love OL/DL/QB. Most teams do. But look at the other positions and you see random sizes, skill sets and backgrounds. No core principles on what players to target. Other teams can be very specific. They have defined beliefs.” — Tommy Lawlor (@lawlornfl) via Twitter

Good question, Tommy. The short answer is yes. Say what you will about Chip Kelly and his short-lived tenure in Philadelphia, he knew what kind of player he wanted at almost every position, right down to their neck and inseam size. Unfortunately, even if you have coherent beliefs, you still have to know a good football player when you see one, or you end up with Marcus Smith. But you’re right. Howie Roseman and his staff are all over the place in what they’re looking for at various positions. This year, he decided they needed to improve their team speed, and made speed the overriding quality in draft picks. It resulted in them taking Jalen Reagor over Justin Jefferson in the first round and taking a project linebacker, Davion Taylor, who ran a 4.39-seconds 40 at his Pro Day but didn’t have a single turnover in 24 college starts at Colorado and has been on the field for just 39 defensive snaps as a rookie, in the third round. They don’t seem to know what they want at cornerback. They draft big corners that can’t run and are afraid to play press-man (Rasul Douglas) or they draft one of the seven dwarfs (Avonte Maddox) and put him on the outside where he is completely overmatched against Land of the Giants wideouts.

“My guess is everyone will go with the obvious quarterback question. But my question is, does Zach Ertz remain an Eagle? He is arguably the greatest tight end in team history. Do you let him go?” — Attilio Santoleri (@slghtrhs)

All signs seem to indicate Zach won’t be back. He’s having the worst year of his career. He missed five games with an ankle injury. His yards-per-catch average (9.7), yards-per-target average (4.8) and catch percentage (50.0) all are career lows. Discussions last spring and summer between his agent and the Eagles did not go well. The Eagles will be facing significant salary cap challenges in 2021, and Ertz has a $12.5 million cap number. Plus, with all of the young wide receivers they’ve brought in, the Eagles almost certainly will be playing more 11-personnel and less 12-personnel going forward. And Zach is the second-best tight end on the Eagles’ roster right now, behind Dallas Goedert.