Hardest thing to explain is how easily Eagles’ defense folded to Panthers in the fourth
Once the pass rush sagged, the home team looked helpless to stop anything.
Rewatching Sunday's fourth-quarter Eagles defensive meltdown didn't make it any easier to comprehend.
The Eagles' three fourth-quarter offensive series were severely inadequate, but you could kind of understand what caused the failures there, from the incomplete pass that was ruled a Luke Kuechly sack, to the humdrum back-to-back passes behind the line of scrimmage that doomed the three-and-out middle series, to the last two ill-considered Carson Wentz throws in the final sequence, and finally to the way the right side of Wentz's pocket collapsed, taking away Wentz's opportunity to make a last-gasp fourth-down play in the final seconds.
But what the heck happened to the defense?
The Carolina Panthers didn't just score three touchdowns on back-to-back-to-back drives Sunday, they scored them with ease. The Panthers gained 226 yards on 26 fourth-quarter snaps – after netting just 145 yards on 33 plays through the first three quarters. That's nearly 9 yards per snap in the final 15 minutes, after three quarters' worth of getting less than half that. They entered the fourth with seven first downs, finished with 19.
The only time the Panthers failed to convert a third down in the final quarter (they were 3-for-4 in the fourth after going 2-for-7 through 45 minutes), they then went for it on fourth-and-10, and got 35 yards – the longest gain of the game by either team, except for the pass-interference penalty Carolina took near the end. Four Eagles, starting with Jalen Mills, should or could have tackled Torrey Smith, as he rambled down the right sideline like a skinnier Saquon Barkley.
"Fourth down, I wish we had it back," a forlorn-sounding Brandon Graham said in the postgame locker room. Graham dived at Cam Newton's ankles and missed, as he stepped up to throw. "We just gotta make a play."
They gotta, but they didn't.
That was the most troubling part. So many times over those 26 fourth-quarter Carolina snaps, somebody could have made a play. Could have stopped fourth-and-10, if Mills hadn't fallen down and left Smith wide-open right in front of Newton, who pitched the ball forward as Michael Bennett was tackling him. Could have stopped the two-point conversion play after Carolina's second touchdown, and given Jake Elliott a shot at winning the game with a field goal late, instead of needing a touchdown. (Yes, Carolina would have then gone for two after its final touchdown, as well, but no rule says the Panthers would have made it.)
The Panthers' second touchdown, they drove 87 yards in just seven plays, running just 2 minutes and 44 seconds off the clock. In front of a roaring Lincoln Financial Field crowd, into a roaring northwesterly wind.
Carolina is not a big-play team. Running back Christian McCaffrey and 33-year-old, ailing tight end Greg Olsen are Newton's only elite weapons. The Panthers have managed two 40-plus-yard plays all season. Yet the Eagles' defense seemed scared to come up and try to force anything. Most of the 16 Newton completions in the final quarter were uncontested. The touchdown plays were slam dunks, Carolina catching the Eagles flat-footed each time.
Was Jim Schwartz's headset disconnected or something?
We don't know for sure, because the Eagles' defensive coordinator doesn't talk after games, won't be available for questioning until midafternoon Tuesday. The best the team could offer Monday was head coach Doug Pederson.
Pederson was asked if the foldup was a matter of scheme or personnel.
"I look at it and it's not either, really," he said. "I mean, you look at personnel and you go, 'OK, is it lack of pass rush?' Well no, we still put pressure on Cam. Is it, 'Maybe we can tackle a little bit better in the back end?' I think sometimes we allowed too many yards after contact … I think guys have to understand situations, where we are in the game, the timing of it, and the score. There are a lot of things.
"I talk about situational ball all the time with the football team, understanding that, playing for 60 minutes and finishing. We just didn't do that. … Offense — yeah, you could maybe sit here and point the finger at the defense, but the offense had a chance to win the game at the end and didn't. Special teams, we missed a field goal early in the game. Difference in the football game. There's enough to go around that I think we can all look at and get better from."
This was an unsatisfying answer in many respects. First, they most certainly did not pressure Newton in the fourth quarter. The 35-yard fourth-and-10 play was the only time Newton came close to being sacked, though he was under pretty constant duress the first three quarters. And the missed field goal? The Panthers missed one as well, plus an extra point. Not a big deal.
Put this together with the loss at Tennessee, in which the Eagles gave up a fourth-and-15 conversion en route to blowing a 17-3 third-quarter lead, add in evidence from their other two defeats, and it is hard to escape this conclusion: If Schwartz's defense isn't getting constant, every-down pressure – which is nearly impossible to sustain for 60 minutes, especially when the bench is thin – it seems helpless.
Either the scheme doesn't prioritize the kind of pass coverage Eagles opponents seem to regularly produce, or Schwartz's defensive backs and linebackers aren't capable of providing it.
Either way, huge problem.
*Carolina averaged 7.1 yards per carry for the game, against the Eagles' allegedly elite run defense.
*On the incompletion that broke Carson Wentz's streak of 15 completed passes in a row, safety Mike Adams clearly should have been called for pass interference, going over Dallas Goedert.
*Zach Ertz's total of 378 catches in 82 games ranks him fifth on the franchise's all-time receiving list, 211 behind all-time leader Harold Carmichael. Ertz is 27. He has a really good chance of breaking the record if he and Carson Wentz are healthy for a few more years.
*Dexter McDougle, cut last November, rejoined the Eagles Tuesday evening and started Sunday at nickel corner, playing 48 of a possible 59 snaps, as 2017 third-round pick Rasul Douglas languished on the bench between special-teams forays. The coaching staff only likes Douglas playing outside, doesn't want to play him as the nickel. Even though the same coaches didn't feel they needed McDougle on the team 11 months ago.
Corey Clement, the guy Howie Roseman challenged to prove to him that the Eagles didn't need to add a running back before the Oct. 30 trade deadline, carried eight times for 6 yards Sunday, and would have fumbled the ball away in the third quarter if Carson Wentz hadn't dived on it. Clement's longest gain covered 4 yards.
Clement also seemed to be the blitz-pickup culprit on the "phantom sack" by Luke Kuechly, in which an incomplete pass retroactively became a sack by ruling of ref Clete Blakeman.
Probably not what Roseman was hoping to get from 2017's rookie phenom. Clement played 25 snaps.
It sure looks as if Wentz is forcing throws to Zach Ertz and Alshon Jeffery, his only true, certified weapons. Does Wentz need to look at other guys more – such as Wendell Smallwood, on that final series, the play that ended up being an end-zone incompletion to Jeffery? Maybe, sure. But what Wentz really needs is another weapon, ideally a top-level running back with excellent route-running and pass-catching skills. At this point, that seems unlikely to be Darren Godot, er, Sproles.
That you could blow much of the good will from winning the first Super Bowl in franchise history in just a seven-game span?
Carson Wentz's 173 successive passes without an interception is the Eagles' longest such streak since Nick Foles went 237 in a row without a pick in 2013.