Win or lose, Jim Schwartz watches film of his defense three times immediately after games. The Eagles defensive coordinator first looks at the scheme and where a play broke down. He then focuses on individual players and how they played within the scheme. And finally, he self-scouts and evaluates his calls.
"I circle back like was this an effective call? Is there a better alternative in those situations?" Schwartz said Tuesday. "Nobody ever calls a perfect game. It's always a matter of trying to figure out why something didn't work and have a better alternative for the future."
There's been a lot of head-scratching around the NovaCare Complex this season, and not just from Schwartz. The 4-5 Eagles have struggled in almost every facet, despite the natural inclination to search for one prevailing reason why the team has struggled this season.
On the offensive side of the ball, coach Doug Pederson and his players are doing the same second-guessing. Why aren't the plays working? Is it the design? Is it the call? Is it execution (which is still part of the coaching)? Is it personnel? Is it injury?
Schwartz has been without three linemen and four defensive backs for extended periods this season. He lost a fifth defensive back for the season when Ronald Darby tore his ACL against the Cowboys. Cornerback Sidney Jones is slated to return, but the secondary will be without three starters – Rodney McLeod, Jalen Mills and Darby — this Sunday in New Orleans.
"Our job as players and coaches is work to find a formula that works for the guys that we have," Schwartz said. "In my mind, that's the essence of coaching: Take what you have and try to figure it out."
There have been games when the backups haven't done their jobs, but there have been errors throughout the lineup. The Eagles have done well situationally, in terms of third down and red zone, but the results haven't been there, and it starts with Schwartz and some of his decisions.
But when his unit has flopped — specifically in late-game situations vs. the Titans, Panthers and Cowboys – it's been a systemic breakdown. Here's a closer look at Sunday's loss to Dallas and some of the key plays on defense in which the Eagles failed:
The lack of big plays from the defense has hurt. The Eagles have forced only seven turnovers in nine games for a .78 per game average. Last season, they averaged 1.94 turnovers per game. The defense has yet to score a touchdown when last year they had five.
The Eagles could have had both a turnover and touchdown when Kamu Grugier-Hill (No. 54) jumped a route and nearly picked off quarterback Dak Prescott (No. 4). But the linebacker had recently broken his thumb, had surgery and was playing with a cast. He couldn't hang on and an opportunity was missed.
Eagles linebacker Jordan Hicks: I feel like we had one opportunity this game with Kamu, but he has that big 'ol thing on his hand. It's tough on him. We have to find a way to get the ball back for our offense. We have to get after that ball when it's in the runner's hands. We haven't done that well enough yet.
Schwartz wants turnovers, of course, but he doesn't want players chasing them.
Schwartz: When you do, you start giving up gaps in your run game. You start guessing on routes and start looking bad in coverage when you start chasing turnovers. We need to guard against those things.
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Rasul Douglas started in place of Mills. As a rookie, he had five starts and held his own. There were growing pains, but the Eagles could see potential. Some fans had called for Douglas to start earlier in the season, under the assumption that he would be an improvement over the struggling Mills.
But his performance against Dallas was abysmal. To his defense, he had only played about 60 snaps at corner in the first eight games. But he allowed eight catches for 105 yards in ten targets on Sunday. On one of the few incomplete throws, Amari Cooper (No. 19) had gotten behind Douglas (No. 32) in man coverage, but Prescott missed his receiver.
Schwartz: [Douglas] played like a 27-20 loss. And that's the way the team played. That's the way the defense played. That's the way he played.
The Eagles' four-man rush pressured Prescott throughout the first half. He was sacked three times and hit an additional three times.
Schwartz: There was a lot of blitzes in our game plan that I just scratched at different points because it really didn't make sense. We needed more help in coverage. It didn't make sense to blitz a lot of times because the four-man pass rush was rush was getting there.
But on third and two, at the Eagles 45, Schwartz called a zero blitz. Avonte Maddox (No. 29) was in the slot vs. receiver Cole Beasley (No. 11) – a tough assignment in man coverage — but he was playing off, well beyond the marker.
As poor as Douglas was in coverage, his lowest moments might have come as a tackler. The Cowboys converted a third down late in the second half on a screen pass when Douglas took an inside angle and allowed receiver Michael Gallup (No. 13) to get outside.
Douglas: I could have stayed outside. I thought I was outside enough and I went for an inside move and I should have just stayed outside. Malcolm [Jenkins] was pursuing, running his ass off, and I could have given him a chance to make a play, had about 12, 13 yards and maybe they punt.
Schwartz has mostly used a soft, picket fence zone vs. third-and-fourth downs longer than 15 yards the last three seasons. The Eagles have yet to allow a first down in that defense, although the Jaguars did gain enough yards to kick a field goal two weeks ago.
The Cowboys gained 14 yards vs. the picket fence earlier in the game, and had it not been for a false start, they may have converted fourth and one. That near-conversion may have influenced Schwartz's decision not to call his sticks defense here.
Schwartz: That was man-to-man. That wasn't soft zone. Our picket-fence-type defense has not given up first down.
Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 151 yards on 19 carries. It was the most the Eagles have allowed to a single running back under Schwartz. They kept Elliott in check early, but he started gashing the Eagles in the second quarter and it never stopped.
Some of the holes he ran through were huge. Dallas was taking advantage of the Eagles' aggressive front and running Elliott (No. 21) into gaps in which defensive backs – Douglas in this case — had responsibility.
Schwartz has gone with essentially a three-man defensive end rotation since Derek Barnett's season-ending shoulder injury. All three – Michael Bennett, Chris Long and Brandon Graham – are over 30. Schwartz said fatigue – at least as it pertained to the rush — didn't factor into the Eagles' fourth quarter meltdown.
Schwartz: I wasn't as disappointed in the pass rush over the course of the game as I was the run defense. And that's not just the d-line. But linebackers, defensive backs, defensive coordinator, position coaches, we all have a hand in that. And that's where I was most disappointed. That's where it looked like we might have got run down a little bit.
On this play, the Eagles looked like the Keystone Cops. The Cowboys faked a jet sweep, ran Prescott naked to the right and released Elliott into the flat. The Eagles showed blitz and nobody picked up Elliott.
Hicks (No. 58) and safety Corey Graham (No. 24) ran into each other and the running back had an easy 7-yard touchdown.
Hicks: I was the blitzer and just got a good read on it. I saw that Zeke was in a different position than he normally was and when I saw him coming back I really had the "B" gap. I was really going for the quarterback just to pull him up, but me and Corey ran into each other.
Graham: It was unfortunate. Honestly, they ran a good play against the scheme that we were in. It would be great if I could see it. I was man on the tight end. But he blocked down and I just have to see it.
The injury to McLeod has forced Schwartz to play Graham more than he would like to, and move Maddox to safety, where he previously had never played before. Even Tre Sullivan played some safety against the Cowboys. He missed three tackles.
Tackling has a been a season-long issue. The Eagles are averaging fewer missed tackles this season (8.1 per game) vs. last season (8.5). But they haven't swarmed as much to the ball, per Schwartz.
Schwartz: I think a lot of times last year we would miss the same number of tackles, but we were just flying around so fast and guys were covering each other up. I think that we got a lot of new faces and they're all sort of working their way through playing off of the other guy.
Douglas, again, couldn't wrap up when tight end Dalton Schultz caught a screen.
A play later, Douglas lost Cooper in coverage and gave up a 24-yard catch, and three plays after that, he got beat inside by Allen Hurns (No. 17) on a slant.
The Cowboys ended the drive with the go-ahead touchdown.
Douglas is slated to start again Sunday vs. Drew Brees and the Saints.
Schwartz: He's got a lot of pride. He's got a lot of confidence. He'll bounce back from it.
Can the Eagles defense?