Can The Schwartz save Christmas?
With Nick Foles quarterbacking the Eagles instead of Carson Wentz, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's unit probably is going to have to command center stage, if the expectations raised during an 11-2 season are to be met.
And the last few games have been pretty alarming for a group that allowed just one touchdown in the month of November.
First, Russell Wilson threw for three touchdowns in a 24-10 Seahawks victory at Seattle. Then, until the final minutes of Sunday's 43-35 victory, the Eagles couldn't stop the Los Angeles Rams on the ground (6.4 yards per carry, two TDs) or through the air (12.4 yards per reception, two more TDs).
All of this had the Birds' feisty, sarcastic defensive mastermind in rare form when he addressed reporters Tuesday at NovaCare.
Schwartz was asked if having injured middle linebacker Joe Walker to play in the base defense would have helped against the Rams. Schwartz said the Eagles had to play nickel almost the whole game, so, no.
"They played three wides the entire game. There was one snap where they were going to play only two wide receivers … that's when we jumped offside," Schwartz said. "So we were so shocked at the fact that there were [two] wide receivers, we couldn't even stay onside."
Someone told Schwartz that his players credited him with making changes Sunday to correct problems. "Yeah, most of my changes didn't work," Schwartz said.
Take his defense … PLEASE!
But seriously, folks, Schwartz explained that a lot of the problems the past few weeks have had to do with tackling. At Seattle, getting Russell Wilson to the ground would have solved a lot of problems that developed on the back end. The Rams presented several challenges – chiefly Todd Gurley (13 carries, 96 yards, two touchdowns, plus three catches for another 39 yards) and Cooper Kupp (five catches, 118 yards and a touchdown).
Rams QB Jared Goff likes to throw downfield and has been very good at it, but the only 20-plus-yard completion he managed against the Eagles was that short pass to Kupp on which both Malcolm Jenkins and Patrick Robinson whiffed, and Kupp scooted 64 yards.
"Last couple of games, it hasn't been up to par," Schwartz said when asked about tackling. "There were a couple things in that game. First, the Rams had made a lot of big plays with play-action [passes] deep down the field, and one of our objectives … was to prevent those kinds of things. We actually did a pretty good job preventing them … but we countered that by missing some tackles in the run game and those shorter passes, and they still got those explosive plays.
"They're an offense that thrives on explosiveness. I think we gave up four plus-20s in that game [including a 30-yard Gurley run on the first series], and they had everything to do with that scoring. Our style of play dictates that we must be good tacklers. If we don't, we're going to give up yards and give up points."
Asked about misdirection, about how the Eagles' defensive ends always seemed to be caught inside on runs to the outside, Schwartz agreed this was the case, and added, "Except when they were trying to get inside and we were [caught] outside."
Schwartz said the Rams' scheme "presented a lot of challenges for our defense, and quite honestly, we weren't up to the challenge. Particularly those first two series of the second half, we couldn't even get 'm to a third down. We're a pretty good third-down team. When we got the Rams to third downs, we did a pretty good job," the home team converting just two of seven. "But it was a challenge getting them there. You have to give some credit to Gurley, he's a really good running back, and they executed their scheme well. We didn't execute well enough to get those plays stopped. We take pride in being a good run defense. We weren't a good run defense Sunday."
Two things from that outing might feed optimism that the Eagles' defense can still lead the way to a playoff victory or two: These guys have been good tacklers. As Schwartz said Tuesday, they have to get back to swarming to the ball, not relying so much on open-field, one-on-one encounters. Also, they rallied late, when they absolutely had to. Chris Long got the strip sack of Goff and Rodney McLeod recovered the ball, setting up the game-winning field goal, and it wasn't just a fluke.
"That was the play of the game," Schwartz said. "We needed that."
"We were talking about some different adjustments and everything, and our consensus was, you know what, we've just got to be us better," Schwartz said. "Chris got a lot of attention on that play for what he did, and rightfully so, got that fumble and we were able to pick it up and kick the game-winning field goal, but the coverage really did an outstanding job there of taking those guys away. The linebackers took the inside windows away. Malcolm was in great position, our corners were over the top … Chris is able to make that play because the quarterback had to hold the ball and wasn't able to get rid of it quick."
And once he got to the QB, he went for the ball, in a situation, Schwartz said, where "a sack isn't enough."
Then when the Rams got the ball back, with three minutes and 45 seconds remaining, after Jake Elliott's 33-yard field goal, the Eagles' defense forced a three-and-out, for only the third time all day.
"There were so many highs and lows in that game, I'm sure it was a great game to watch," Schwartz said. "It certainly didn't do well for the number of gray hairs on my head on the sideline, but veteran players like Chris can be relied on in tough situations."