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Eagles film breakdown: Why has the pass defense been struggling?

The Eagles' pass defense has struggled over the last three weeks. Cornerback Ronald Darby in particular has been susceptible against top-tier quarterbacks, a worrying sign with the playoffs around the corner.

Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby stops New York Giants wide receiver Roger Lewis during Sunday’s game at MetLife Stadium.
Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Ronald Darby stops New York Giants wide receiver Roger Lewis during Sunday’s game at MetLife Stadium.Read moreYong Kim/Staff Photographer

Each week this season, we'll breakdown a player, trend or scheme from the Eagles' previous game using the coaches all-22 film. This week, we spotlight the Eagles' pass defense, which has struggled the last three games, but especially in Sunday's game at the New York Giants.

The Eagles allowed more points (29), first downs (27), first downs by penalty (5), total yards (504), passing yards (429) and third down conversions (10 of 18) than they did in any other game this season. While it's true that the final score — a 34-29 Eagles win — is the only number that matters, a December swoon by Jim Schwartz's unit is concerning with the postseason around the corner.

Schwartz: Our goal was to win the game. It's not to hold them to a certain amount of yards rushing, or a certain percentage on third down, or a certain thing in the red zone. We're 2-1 in the last three games. I think that's the bottom line. That being said, there's certain things that help you win a game.

One of those is strong cornerback play, particularly in the playoffs. The Eagles are likely to face a top-tier quarterback — Drew Brees? Matt Ryan? Cam Newton? — in the divisional round.

Ronald Darby

Darby struggled more than anyone in the secondary. He allowed six catches for 139 yards and a touchdown on ten targets, and committed two penalties (one was declined). Darby did have a momentum-altering interception and a few plays with tight coverage, like on this early third down conversion when he pressed at line. His technique wasn't perfect, but he was also giving up four inches to tight end Evan Engram.

On the next play, Darby played off, and quarterback Eli Manning and receiver Roger Lewis, Jr. got him to bite on a slant-and-go double move.

Schwartz: We didn't do the greatest job in the first three series of recognizing some situations where there was potential for them to throw a double move. Not all of them are identifiable, but some of them I think we could have been a little bit better [on] there.

Darby didn't talk after the game, and said on Twitter a day later that he was blocking those critical of his performance. He has since erased those messages. He wasn't available to interview during Wednesday's open locker room either.

With the Eagles trailing 20-7 midway through the second quarter, Manning threw a third down pass to Lewis. The Giants quarterback had taken advantage of the Eagles' soft coverage, but on this play, Darby anticipated the throw and jumped the route.

Schwartz: That helped spark us. We were struggling. That interception had a lot to do with us getting back in that game and winning that game. You have to give him some credit. I give him credit for that also.

On the Giants' first drive of the second half, Darby pressed and disrupted the timing on another slant to Lewis.

But a series later, Darby got toasted off the line by receiver Tavarres King. He wasn't quite pressing and got beat by a stutter-step move off the line. King was off to the races and beat free safety Rodney McLeod to the pylon for a 57-yard touchdown.

Schwartz: When you look at it from a coaching standpoint and you look at it from a technique standpoint, I think that's where he can play a little bit better.

On the Giants' drive to go ahead late in the fourth quarter, Darby got beat on a broken play for 25 yards, and was also whistled for holding. But he battled back and had better off technique on this double move. He played Lewis rather than the ball, turned back as soon as the receiver did, and broke up the pass. He did everything but catch the ball.

Schwartz: Ron can play better than he did, he knows that. He's another one that had a chance to be able to make an interception down in the end zone. High point the ball, man, get that thing down. Those are the plays he can make.

Jalen Mills

In the season's first meeting with the Giants, Mills was targeted 18 times. That was back when Odell Beckham, Jr. was healthy and Mills was shadowing him. Manning only went at the cornerback five times on Sunday, but his first pass was a slant and a sign of throws to come.

Schwartz: [Mills] made a good, strong, tough tackle, but it was still second and four. There's ways to be able to play off coverage to still stop short passes. A lot of it has to do with underneath coverage stuff.

After playing mostly press as a rookie, Mills has predominantly played off coverage this season. He got caught flat-footed by King on this third down play and took a holding penalty that negated a third down sack.

Schwartz: We have to get back to playing clean football, not giving people stuff for free. First drive, we have them stopped on third and goal from the seven, I believe. Three points, we're battling the next series.

A series later, Mills was also victimized by a slant-and-go double move. He wasn't playing off, but he wasn't quite pressing either.

Schwartz: We were giving up plays up front early. When we tighten down to start being more aggressive, the down part of that is you become susceptible to double moves. We got to play both. That's part of the job description of a corner: you have to be able to defend short passes and deep passes.

Mills pressed here, but Sterling Shepard got behind him and he grabbed the receiver.

Mills: Those guys are in the NFL. They get paid, too.

Mills has a short memory, though, and essentially locked down his side of the field from that point onward. His pass breakup here on another slant showed why he can effectively play off.

Patrick Robinson

Robinson was the most consistent of the cornerbacks through the first three months of the season, but he has regressed in the slot of late. He was up and down in the first half, but on this Shepard 67-yard touchdown he stumbled out of his break and ran into the rub-route running Rhett Ellison.

The Eagles thought that Ellison picked Robinson.

Safety Malcolm Jenkins: It's definitely beyond the 1-yard cushion that they get. When you execute it well the referees don't call it and it's a tough play to stop.

Safety struggles

McLeod took a poor angle during Shepard's run after the catch. He has missed six tackles over the last five games. McLeod did make some stops, though, and delivered three big hits against the Giants. But he has not played as well as he did earlier in the season.

Schwartz asks a lot of Jenkins. He plays both safety positions, a quasi-linebacker spot in the dime package and sometimes in the slot depending upon the matchup. But he didn't have his best performance on Sunday. On this third and nine play, the Eagles were in Cover 2. Manning found a hole and hit Engram for 28 yards. Jenkins should have dropped with the tight end.

Jenkins: I think we need to be able to detail some of our calls, figure out what we're really good at, and what we need some work on … Few things like pace and tempo have bothered us the last couple of games.

Schwartz: Everybody has different tempos, and it really doesn't change anything that we do.

Lack of pass rush

Manning was getting the ball out quick. Schwartz blitzed some early, but he was basically subtracting a man in coverage for nothing. He then went primarily with a four-man rush. The secondary was doing little to give the defensive linemen time to apply pressure, but the Eagles needed to generate more than one sack in 58 rush attempts.

On the Engram catch, Manning needed some time for the route to develop. But the Eagles' front four couldn't get off blocks, including defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who saw a rare one-on-one opportunity.

Corey Graham

When it was time to button down the hatches, the Eagles pulled through. Corey Graham — whom Schwartz noted was the lone defensive back who did not get beat on Sunday — had the coverage when Manning couldn't hook up with Engram on fourth and goal.

Schwartz: On that play I think everybody knew where he was going with the ball. Corey had good leverage and also went up and played the ball. It's easy to get a [defensive pass interference] right there, have your back turned, freak out and panic.

Engram: My arm was kind of held, it was obvious.

Pederson: I saw an incomplete pass. The ball was high. Out of the back of the end zone. I don't know if anyone could have caught the pass, quite honestly.

Engram said he could have caught it.

Engram: Definitely, definitely.

Graham: It's rare making a call like that when you're playing the ball and looking back. It don't make a difference no matter how much you bitch about it.