Drew Brees threw for more than 360 yards and completed four touchdown passes against the Eagles on Sunday in New Orleans, but defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz had no hesitation when asked what disappointed him most about the game.
"The run game," Schwartz said. "We have plenty to worry about on defense. I think our biggest thing is controlling the run game, and if we can do that, it can go a long way to solving a lot of our problems on defense."
It's understandable that much of the focus has been on the troubles in the defensive backfield. Instead of introducing the starters to the crowd, they should be introduced to each other before the game. That part is obvious, just as the issues posed by Brees were obvious.
"We knew we would have challenges in coverage. We knew it was tough to get turnovers. We knew it was tough to get sacks. But we put ourselves, scheme-wise, in position to stop the run," Schwartz said. "And we didn't get that done for the second week in a row. I think that's the most disappointing thing that came out of it."
He set the defensive game plan with that one goal in mind: Forget controlling Brees, just control the line of scrimmage. And the result was 173 rushing yards allowed on 37 carries. The previous week, as the Eagles concentrated on stopping Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys, they allowed 171 yards on 28 carries, with Elliott gaining 151 of those yards.
"How can you not be disappointed?" safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "You've got to man up. They had one big run, but other than that, none of the runs got out of the grasp of the defense. They just moved us five, six yards every time they ran it. So, that's a direct challenge to our demeanor, our toughness, who we are as men. It's not like they had a scheme we couldn't handle…they just ran right at us and moved the ball. That's a gut check for us."
It won't take long for the gut to get checked. On Sunday, the Giants come into Lincoln Financial Field with a two-game winning streak and rookie running back Saquon Barkley, who is fourth in the NFL for combined yards. The Eagles handled the Giants easily in early October, but Barkley rushed for 130 yards and that was really the game in which the team's defensive slide at the line of scrimmage began.
In the first five games of the season, the Eagles gave up an average of 66.4 rushing yards per game. In the last five games, they have allowed 136.4 rushing yards per game. Some of that is explainable by the nature of the opponents, but not all of it. The Eagles are still ranked 12th in the league for rushing yards allowed, but it is a very misleading statistic. They have faced the second-fewest rushes of any defense in the league. On yards per rush, they are 23rd, giving up 4.7 yards per attempt. In the last five games, it is a hideous 5.9-yard average.
"There's a ton of things on this team right now that are alarming. The run defense is one of them," Jenkins said. "I think it's most disappointing because we've always taken pride in stopping the run."
Last season, the Eagles were the No. 1-ranked defense against the run based on net yards allowed. That was misleading as well, since the team faced the fewest rushes in the league, but the average of 3.8 yards per rush was sixth in the NFL.
"At the end of the day, we've got to dominate at the line of scrimmage," Jenkins said. "That's where we make our plays as a defense, being able to challenge teams when they try to run it. You get one-yard or two-yard stops and then they are behind the sticks and you can pass rush. That puts a challenge on us. We've got to get back to being able to dominate on first and second down when they run the ball."
By the end of the day on Sunday against the Giants, we'll see how they meet that challenge against Barkley. Getting tackle Tim Jernigan back on the active roster might help in the middle of the line. The defense could use all the help it can get.
"They're leaning more – and we probably opened this box – on Barkley not only catching the ball, which he was early in the season, but running the ball and really pounding it on inside runs," Schwartz said.
After getting a look at the film of the Eagles-Saints game, it figures that New York head coach Pat Shurmur will try to use that strength often against what has become a huge and troubling weakness.