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Domo: Pass rush, not corners, is the key for Eagles' defense

ELI MANNING threw 63 passes against the Eagles Thursday night. And wasn't sacked a single time. If you didn't watch the game and saw those numbers, you probably would assume that the Eagles' defensive line took the night off.

Fletcher Cox grabs the Giants’ Eli Manning.
Fletcher Cox grabs the Giants’ Eli Manning.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

ELI MANNING threw 63 passes against the Eagles Thursday night.

And wasn't sacked a single time.

If you didn't watch the game and saw those numbers, you probably would assume that the Eagles' defensive line took the night off.

In truth, it played a helluva game.

While the Eagles never actually sacked Manning, their front four put consistent pressure on him most of the evening, forcing rushed throws and poor decisions that resulted in, among other things, three interceptions, including the first of two by safety Malcolm Jenkins eight minutes into the game that he returned 34 yards for a touchdown.

Manning threw for 356 yards and had four completions of 25-plus yards. But overall, he averaged just 5.6 yards per attempt and completed just 60.3 percent of his passes.

He was 3-for-8 for 12 yards and one touchdown in the red zone and was 10-for-20 on third down. All three of his interceptions came on third down.

What was most heartening to defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz was that his unit was able to pressure Manning with a four-, and at the end, a three-man rush.

He called just two blitzes the entire game. Both were in the first half. Neither of them worked. Manning hit Odell Beckham Jr. for 30 yards on one of them and Victor Cruz for 29 yards on the other one. Manning averaged just 4.9 yards per attempt on his other 61 passes.

"We played 89 snaps, which is a lot," Schwartz said. "I think it was 63 dropbacks or something like that. That's a lot of passes to defend.

"We only played an eight-man front a handful of times and relied on the front seven to try to stop the run. It wasn't a shutout against the run (they gave up 114 yards on 25 carries), but we controlled the running game (well) enough that we could devote an extra defender to coverage.

"(When it comes to) blitz versus a four-man pass rush, there's always that give-and-take between sending extra guys at the quarterback and having extra guys in coverage.

"In this game, we took the approach that we needed to have the extra guys in coverage, not just to cover guys, but also for run after the catch, because they had some good run-after-the-catch guys."

For much of this season, that approach worked pretty well for Schwartz's defense. In the Eagles' first 10 games, opponents had just an 80.6 passer rating against the Eagles when they rushed four.

But then came an ugly three-game stretch against Green Bay, Cincinnati and Washington when the Eagles' four-man rush wasn't getting there, and their secondary paid the price.

Those three teams had a collective 136.9 passer rating against the Eagles' four-man rush, including an .809 completion percentage and a 10.5-yards-per-attempt average.

That forced Schwartz to blitz much more than he prefers. In a 27-26 loss to Baltimore two weeks ago, the Eagles blitzed on 33 percent of the Ravens' pass plays.

Against Manning and the Giants, he went back to relying on a four-man rush.

On the Giants' final three plays of the game, Schwartz even went to a three-man rush, which he had used just seven times in the previous 14 games.

On the first, Brandon Graham managed to get pressure on Manning and force an overthrow to Cruz in the end zone.

On the Giants' final play, a third-and-10 at the Philadelphia 34, Vinny Curry got to Eli and forced a hurried, underthrown, backfoot throw for tight end Will Tye that backup safety Terrence Brooks was able to intercept.

"Sometimes (a pressure) gets overlooked," Schwartz said. "You get a third-down stop or you force an errant pass or something like that, but it doesn't really go down in the stat book.

"But stopping drives is what it's all about. I thought our d-line did a good job of doing that, and also playing the run game."

As I mentioned last Friday, the defense's performance against the Giants underscores why Schwartz probably isn't going to pound the table for a shutdown corner in the offseason.

It's not that he wouldn't like one. But it's clear that Schwartz feels you can get by with tough, competent corners who may never see the inside of a Pro Bowl if you have people up front – and particularly on the edge - who can get to the quarterback.

Connor Barwin has had a tough year and may or may not be back. Graham and Curry both are solid pass rushers, but neither of them ever is going to be mentioned in the same breath as Von Miller or Khalil Mack.

What the Eagles lack, what the Eagles need, is their own Miller or Mack. Someone dominant enough off the edge who can take those double-team shackles off defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.

If you can get pressure on the quarterback with a four-man rush the way the Eagles did the other night, you don't necessarily need All-Pro corners.

"Our lifeblood is always going to be putting pressure on the passer," Schwartz said last week before the Giants game. "I think that's the best way to succeed in this league.

"If you can find a way to do that, I think you're going to be successful over the long term. If you struggle to do that, you're going to be behind the eight-ball the whole time."

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