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Eagles defense needs to help Jalen Hurts and finally force some turnovers | Early Birds

Jim Schwartz’s unit has just 11 takeaways in 12 games. It has one interception in the last five games. Its inability to manufacture turnovers has hurt the Eagles’ struggling offense.

Safety Rodney McLeod has one of the Eagles' league-low three interceptions this season.
Safety Rodney McLeod has one of the Eagles' league-low three interceptions this season.Read moreHeather Khalifa / File Photograph

Gooooood morning, EaglesNation. Well, Doug Pederson has decided on his starting quarterback for Sunday’s game against the 10-2 Saints, and it’s not Carson Wentz. With his 3-8-1 team in a death spiral after its fourth straight loss Sunday, Pederson is going to try his luck with rookie Jalen Hurts.

Hurts replaced the struggling Wentz in the third quarter Sunday, and, in the words of Pederson, provided “the spark I was hoping for” when he benched his $128 million starter with his team trailing by 17 points.

Hurts only completed 5-of-12 passes, but one of them was a 34-yarder to fellow rookie Jalen Reagor, and another was a 32-yard touchdown throw to Greg Ward on which Hurts deftly escaped pressure — something Wentz seemed incapable of doing — and threw a perfect strike to Ward. He also had 29 rushing yards on five carries, including a pair of 10- and 13-yard fourth-quarter runs that produced first downs.

Hurts will be making his first NFL start against one of the best defenses in the league. But the Saints haven’t faced a quarterback with Hurts’ running ability this season, which probably is one reason why Pederson is willing to make the switch. That and the fact that Wentz has just been absolutely awful. Hurts could use a little help from the Eagles defense Sunday in the form of some takeaways that might help shorten the field for the struggling offense. More on that below.

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Defense needs to do its part against Saints

Jim Schwartz’s defense has put up a lot of pretty good numbers this season.

The Eagles are second in sacks (38) and quarterback hits (89). They are sixth in passing yards allowed (217.2 per game) and tied for 7th in touchdown passes allowed (17).

They are seventh in third-down defense (37.3%), 11th in points allowed per drive (2.06), 13th in total defense (347.1) and 14th in opponent rush average (4.2).

But the one area where his unit has fallen woefully short this season has been takeaways.

Their 11 takeaways through 12 games are the third-fewest in the league, ahead of only Dallas (10 prior to Tuesday night’s game against Baltimore) and Houston (8).

Schwartz’s defense hasn’t had a takeaway in either of the last two games and has just one in the last four — a fumble recovery by Alex Singleton of a strip sack by Fletcher Cox in the Eagles’ Week 11 loss to Cleveland.

The Eagles have just three interceptions. Three! They’re tied with Houston for the fewest in the league. Just 11 teams in league history have had three or fewer interceptions through 12 games.

Sunday’s loss to the Packers was their fifth straight game without a pick. They haven’t had an interception in 10 of their 12 games. They had two against San Francisco and one in the first Giants game. Those two games just happen to be two of the three they’ve managed to win.

None of the three picks have come from cornerbacks. Singleton has one, and safeties Jalen Mills and Rodney McLeod have the other two.

The lack of interceptions is shocking given that the Eagles’ pass rush has been so good. Typically, pressure forces quarterbacks to make mistakes and inaccurate throws that can be picked off. But not this year.

“Hitting the quarterback means an awful lot to turnovers,” Schwartz said. “Either the guy will throw the ball a little bit too quick, or he is getting hit when he throws” and the pass doesn’t go where it’s supposed to.

Schwartz said the lack of interceptions may be causing his defensive backs to be overly aggressive.

“You can get in some bad situations when you guess and try to chase those things,” he said. “You’ve got to let them come to you, which was one of the things that was disappointing about this game” Sunday against the Packers.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed 25-of-34 passes for 295 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He was under pressure on 36.1% of his drop backs, according to Pro Football Focus, which was the second-highest pressure percentage against Rodgers this season. But it didn’t help.

“I thought the one chance that we really had to get one was when we had them backed up” on their own one-yard line in the third quarter, Schwartz said. Rodgers ended up completing a 42-yard pass to Davante Adams out of his own end zone, and the Packers drove 99 yards for a touchdown that put Green Bay up, 20-3, at the time.

“Rodgers didn’t make very many mistakes in that game,” Schwartz said. “He aired that one out, and we had overlap in zone coverage and didn’t make the play. But that was a chance to be able to get the ball. It could have been a game-changing play. We need to make plays like that.”

The inability of Schwartz’s unit to produce takeaways has had a ripple effect on a struggling offense that needs all of the help it can get. Primarily because of the lack of turnovers, the Eagles are 30th in the league in average drive start (their own 26.4-yard line). Only the winless Jets (25.2) and the Vikings (24.5) are worse. Just 16 of the Eagles’ 139 offensive possessions have started at the 40-yard line or better.

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. Jalen Hurts will be the Eagles starting quarterback Sunday and Ed Barkowitz gives you 20 things to know about the second-round rookie.

  2. EJ Smith, Les Bowen and myself discuss the Eagles’ quarterback situation on Tuesday’s Bird’s Eye View podcast. The fourth member of our award-winning Eagles beat team, Jeff McLane, was on assignment. Or sleeping. I forget which.

  3. Les Bowen examines Doug Pederson’s decision to replace Carson Wentz with Jalen Hurts.

  4. David Murphy says, whatever Doug Pederson actually thinks of Carson Wentz and Jalen Hurts, the Eagles have made themselves a mess.

  5. Les also writes about that deflating long run the Eagles allowed the Packers to reel off with the game on the line.

From the mailbag

“What is Lurie’s endgame; does he have one? In general, who does an owner consult when trying to decide between (hiring/firing) coach and GM and between continuing to build on the past or blowing it all up? What does the behind-the-scenes look like in these situations, in general?” — WadeWrote (@wadewrote) via Twitter

Most of what you asked was dealt with in one of my recent Q&As with former Eagles president Joe Banner. So I definitely suggest you click on it and read what he had to say since he’s knows Jeff Lurie well and has done the whole hiring and firing thing. First, Lurie has to decide whether or not he thinks this season is a COVID aberration. If he concludes that it is, then maybe he swallows hard and does nothing. If he concludes that it’s not, then he has to decide what to do about GM Howie Roseman. if he keeps him, then he’ll lean heavily on Roseman with respect to Doug Pederson’s future and finding a potential replacement if they decide that’s what they want to do. If he decides to fire Roseman or demote him, then he’s got a much more difficult job because finding the right personnel man is much harder — and much more critical — than finding the right head coach. Lurie will have to turn to some people in the league that he trusts for the names of some potential candidates. But as Banner correctly points out, personnel people are much harder to evaluate than coaches.