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Five reasons the Eagles lost to the Panthers | Paul Domowitch

Rodney McLeod was one of the most underappreciated members of the Eagles defense. His value was evident Sunday in the Eagles' fourth-quarter collapse against the Panthers.

Malcolm Jenkins goes after Panthers receiver D.J. Moore. Jenkins picks up a lot of accolades, but it might be Rodney McLeod the Eagles could use most.
Malcolm Jenkins goes after Panthers receiver D.J. Moore. Jenkins picks up a lot of accolades, but it might be Rodney McLeod the Eagles could use most.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

What happened?

A day-after look at the Eagles' 21-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers:

Missing Rodney

The Eagles turned the next-man-up approach into an art form last season, somehow managing to overcome one injury after another to key players and win a Super Bowl.

But sometimes, there just isn't a next man to be the next man up. The Eagles failed to address their need for safety depth sufficiently in the offseason, and Sunday, it came back to bite them in the butt.

Rodney McLeod might have been the most underappreciated member of the Eagles defense. Malcolm Jenkins got all the attention and the Pro Bowl invitations, but McLeod was every bit as valuable to the back end of that defense, and his absence played a big role in that unit's fourth-quarter collapse against Carolina.

There were screwups and miscommunications that just didn't happen when McLeod was back there with Jenkins.

>> READ MORE: Doug Pederson invited writers to coach the Eagles. You've got yourself a deal. | Marcus Hayes

Rookie Avonte Maddox, who was a corner until just a few weeks ago, looked like a guy who, well, was a corner until just a few weeks ago, during the Panthers' comeback.

He missed tackles – though he certainly wasn't alone there — and got suckered by misdirection, including on Curtis Samuel's 14-yard touchdown run on a reverse and Cam Newton's completion to Jarius Wright on a successful two-point attempt after an 18-yard touchdown catch by Devin Funchess.

Maddox and cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Dexter McDougle all had a hand in letting ex-Eagle Torrey Smith turn what should have been a 12-yard completion on that fateful fourth-and-10 play on the Panthers' final touchdown drive into a 35-yard gain.

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz didn't even have Maddox in the game on the Panthers' go-ahead touchdown with 1:22 left, a 1-yard, play-action lob from Newton to a wide-open Greg Olsen. He replaced Maddox with an extra linebacker, obviously expecting a run play. That's something he wouldn't have considered with McLeod.

>> JEFF McLANE: There's no defending Jim Schwartz and his unit after this one

Coverage collapse

Schwartz no doubt will catch some flak for not blitzing more in the fourth quarter. The Eagles sent extra rushers on just three of 24 pass plays on the Panthers' three touchdown drives.

But the fact is, the Eagles got decent pressure on Newton with a four-man rush in the fourth quarter. It was their coverage that let them down, though some of the blame for that rests with Schwartz.

After the Eagles went up by 17-0, the defense switched to softer coverages, seemingly taking the approach that there was no way the Panthers could throw the ball underneath and score three times in 15 minutes.

"They got comfortable,'' Panthers wide receiver Jarius Wright said after the game. "They got too relaxed."

>> READ MORE: How did the Eagles manage to blow a 17-point fourth-quarter lead to the Panthers?

The Eagles have played soft coverages before, relying on sure tackling to minimize gains. The problem in the fourth quarter was sure tackling was nowhere to be found.

Newton, who completed just nine of 17 passes for 68 yards in the first three quarters, was 16-for-22 for 201 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. More than half those 201 yards came after the catch.

One of the few times the defense did exhibit some coverage aggressiveness in the fourth quarter, it backfired.

Cornerback Ronald Darby inexplicably bit on a stutter move by Devin Funchess on a second-and-3 play with 4 minutes left and got beat for an 18-yard touchdown.

Linebacker Jordan Hicks was late picking up running back Christian McCaffrey on a pass in the left flat and gave up a 22-yard catch-and-run that set up the Panthers' game-winning touchdown.

Third-down struggles

A week after converting nine of 16 third-down opportunities in their runaway win over the Giants, the Eagles were just 3-for-12 on third down against the Panthers.

Yes, a pair of successful fourth-and-1 quarterback sneaks by Carson Wentz helped soften the edges on that number a little bit. But they have to be better on third down.

Wentz had just seven incompletions the entire game, but five of them came on third down. He was 2-for-7 for just 23 yards, a sack and one first down on third down. Against the Giants a week earlier, he was 13-for-14 for 167 yards and two TDs on third down.

The thing is, the Eagles didn't face a ton of third-and-longs Sunday. Eight of their 12 third-down situations were 5 yards or less.

In their three wins this season, the Eagles have converted 47.8 percent of their third-down opportunities. In their four losses: 29.4 percent. If you win third down, you usually win the game.

Run woes

Doug Pederson stood in front of a roomful of reporters Monday morning and insisted, "I have no lack of confidence whatsoever in our run game.''

He has to say stuff like that because, well, he's the coach and he has to face those guys and try to win with them. But if you really think he believes it, then I've got a bridge I'd like to sell you.

The Eagles averaged 2.4 yards per carry Sunday against a Panthers defense that was giving up 4.6. Pederson kept mentioning the girth of the Panthers' two defensive tackles, Dontari Poe and Kawann Short. But the Eagles faced a lot of sun-blocking DTs last season and had no trouble running the ball.

There's a reason the Eagles traded for Jay Ajayi last October, and there's a reason they're struggling now without him. And there's a reason running back still is on the Eagles' shopping list as the trade deadline approaches.

Fifteen of the Eagles' 24 rushing attempts Sunday went for 2 yards or less. They gained just 29 yards on 12 first-down carries.

Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement collectively gained 16 yards on nine first-down carries. They were 1-for-3 when they ran the ball on third down and 2 yards or less to go. So, if you want to know why the Eagles ran the ball just one time in the fourth quarter, that's why.

>> READ MORE: It's panic on Pattison Ave. | Bob Ford

Changing personnel

For three quarters Sunday, the Eagles attacked the Panthers defense with a heavy dose of 12 (1RB, 2TE) and 13 (1RB, 3TE) personnel.

They ran 52 plays in the first three quarters. Thirty-two of those 52 plays were with 12 (25) or 13 (7) personnel.

There's an old saying that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Yet, Pederson decided to do just that on the first two of the Eagles' three fourth-quarter possessions.

After the Panthers scored their first touchdown to make it 17-6, the Eagles came out in 11 (1RB, 1TE, 3WR) personnel on five of their six plays on their next possession. Wentz completed a 14-yard, third-and-3 pass to tight end Zach Ertz with 11 personnel. But that was followed by a jet-sweep pass to Nelson Agholor that lost a yard and a sack (with 12 personnel), when Corey Clement failed to pick up Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly on an A-gap blitz.

They stayed in 11 personnel on their next possession after the Panthers scored again, and went three-and-out.

Pederson finally switched back to primarily 12 personnel on the Eagles' final possession after Carolina took the lead, and probably would have won the game but for one of the few poor decisions Wentz made all afternoon.

On a first-down play at the Carolina 22, he had rookie tight end Dallas Goedert wide-open on a seam route but went one time too many to Ertz.