Eagles’ defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz must find a way to keep secondary from flapping in the Brees
Rasul Douglas seems likely to start the rest of the season, with Ronald Darby out. Sidney Jones might be moved outside, or stay at nickel corner.
The Eagles have an offense that is terrible early in games and a defense that falls apart late in games. This has proved to be a devastatingly effective way to get to 4-5, heading into a visit with the 8-1 New Orleans Saints, winners of eight games in a row.
Which unit's underperformance is a bigger crisis varies from week to week. This week, it seems to be the Eagles' defense. Top corner Ronald Darby went down for the season with an ACL tear in Sunday night's loss to Dallas, in which the host Eagles made the NFL's 24th-ranked scoring offense look, well, like the Saints, whose 36.7 points per game is the league's top figure.
Now defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has to get his battered secondary ready for Drew Brees, in the Superdome. Schwartz wasn't smiling when he made a grim joke Tuesday about watching film of Brees' 2018 interceptions. "There was one," he noted. To go along with 21 touchdown passes.
Schwartz suggested that to a degree, fourth-quarter helplessness might be one of those "things that come up at different times," like playing better at home than on the road earlier this season. But he didn't try to pretend it wasn't a huge problem.
"I think so many of those have come down to a play in a drive that we got a chance to get it stopped, and we haven't made the play," Schwartz said. "I think part of the NFL goes in streaks. … But I think the theme of the fourth quarter is we need to finish, and we need to make the plays when they count. We haven't done that. That's why we're 4-and-5.
"We haven't made the plays when they've needed to be made. Whether it was Carolina, whether it was last week, whatever week it is, we need to make those plays, not just in the beginning of the game. We started some games pretty good. It doesn't matter, it's a 60-minute game."
Darby is gone and the other starting corner, Jalen Mills, seems unlikely to play, again this week, with a foot/toe injury suffered in the Oct. 28 London game. Against the Cowboys, Rasul Douglas got his first start of the season, then Chandon Sullivan came off the bench after Darby went down.
Chandon Sullivan – not to be confused with safety Tre Sullivan – is an undrafted rookie from Georgia State who appeared in his second NFL game. He came up from the practice squad when defensive end Derek Barnett went on IR.
Rookie Avonte Maddox, who had been starting at safety, moved back to his original nickel corner spot Sunday in the absence of Sidney Jones (hamstring). This week, Jones seems likely to return. Jones is the most physically gifted corner the Eagles have left. Would Schwartz consider playing him outside, and leaving Maddox as the nickel, rather than facing Brees with Douglas and Chandon Sullivan outside? The 19 defensive snaps Sullivan played Sunday night were his first.
"I think we'll cross that bridge when we get to it. We'll see where he is in practice this week," Schwartz said when asked about Jones. "He's got experience doing both, so we'll just see how that goes. I wouldn't want to telegraph it either way."
The Eagles opened the season with Rodney McLeod and Malcolm Jenkins at safety, Mills and Darby at corner. Jenkins is the only member of that group likely to play Sunday at New Orleans.
"Our job as players and coaches is [to] 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."
Only a handful of Eagles players ventured into the locker room while reporters were present Tuesday, but one who faced the music was Douglas, now likely a starter for the rest of the season. Fans dissatisfied with Mills have wondered why Douglas wasn't playing more. Sunday night, more than a few tweeted that they were starting to understand.
"I think we did OK as a group. We've got to pick it up," Douglas said. "We know we can play better, we know we have better in us, but at the end of the day, until we put it out on the field, we're just OK."
Douglas looked slow against Dallas. Sometimes players look slow because they are slow, sometimes it's because they aren't processing what's happening quickly enough, a problem that lessens with experience.
Douglas missed tackles, most egregiously on a third-and-15 screen that turned into a 25-yard gain and fueled the first Dallas touchdown drive, just before halftime. Douglas was the only defender in front of Michael Gallup and he went inside, leaving Gallup the sideline.
"I could have just stayed outside. I thought I was outside enough [to defend the sideline] and I went for an inside move. I should have just stayed outside," Douglas said. "Malcolm was pursuing, running his [rear end] off and I could have given him a chance to make a play at about 12-13 yards, maybe they punt."
Asked how he thought Douglas played, Schwartz declined to be specific.
"He 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. … We all need to play better. We all need to play the pass better. We all need to tackle better," Schwartz said.
What does Douglas want to prove, as a likely starter down the stretch?
"That I'm a ballplayer. That's really it," he said. "I don't really care about anything else."