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Eagles' trials might not end until the defense rests

Tired legs could account for much of the recent struggles against the pass, and much of the sloppy tackling.

New York Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard avoids a tackle by free safety Rodney McLeod on his way to score a touchdown during the first half of the Eagles’ 34-29 win on Sunday.
New York Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard avoids a tackle by free safety Rodney McLeod on his way to score a touchdown during the first half of the Eagles’ 34-29 win on Sunday.Read moreBill Kastroun / AP Photo

It is unlikely the Eagles have forgotten how to tackle over the past month or so, or that they never really could defend a slant, and teams are just now catching on that the middle of the field is wide open, as it was in Sunday's struggle with the previously inoffensive New York Giants.

So, what in the name of Nnamdi is going on here? A defense that allowed 35 points during a three-game stretch against Denver, Dallas and Chicago has allowed 88 in its last three games. (Yes, I'm including the touchdown the Rams scored on a blocked punt, because officially, the NFL charges all points to the defense.)

Tuesday we'll get to ask defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz that question. Monday, all we had was the guy in charge, Doug Pederson, but even though Pederson mostly works with the offense, he had some thoughts.

"I do know this: It's been a rough three games," Pederson said, when asked if fatigue is a factor. "We've been on the road. There was a West Coast trip in there with Seattle and L.A., and then [we were] up in New York. I think back to when we played the Broncos — I believe the Broncos were on the road for three games in a row at the time we played them, and you saw what happened there," the Eagles winning, 51-23, against what had been considered a tough Denver defense.
"I think there's something to say about that, being on the road, and traveling," Pederson said.

Pederson didn't say so, but the Seattle loss, having to chase Russell Wilson around CenturyLink Field, had to be pretty draining; it might not be an accident that the two games since have been the Eagles' worst of the season in terms of points allowed.

Pederson also alluded to a "compounding interest of everything that's sort of taken place in the last month of our season," which also makes sense. Maybe the offensive guys knew Nick Foles well enough to trust him with their season right away, but what the defense might have seen when Carson Wentz went down was the loss of the team's leader and the best player on the roster.

If the Eagles could clinch homefield throughout the playoffs, and rest some starters, that might make the defense look a bit more crisp in the postseason. The first-round bye the Eagles secured against the Giants also could help.

It was revealing that when Pederson was asked about tackling Monday, he didn't threaten any Week 16 full-contact practices, he talked about the importance of making sure "guys are fresh." The Giants rolled up 88 offensive snaps Sunday.

Of course, there are issues that might not be fixed by rest. The quarterbacks the Eagles have faced the last three weeks – Wilson, Jared Goff and Eli Manning – are a pretty solid bunch. No Brock Osweilers or Mitch Trubiskys lately. And on the second weekend of the playoffs, when the Eagles take the field, the opposing quarterback is likely to be pretty good.

During that stretch when the Eagles were blowing teams out, maybe we convinced ourselves a bit too easily that the defense was making up for the loss of middle linebacker Jordan Hicks to an Achilles' tear back on Oct. 23. Going into the season, I would have rated Hicks as one of the five most indispensible Eagles, and Sunday, watching Manning work the middle, it was hard not to wonder if Hicks might have helped stop the bleeding.

"It's tough when you lose your starters," said Pederson, who threw in the fact that backup MIKE Joe Walker also has missed time, but did not mention that neither Walker nor Najee Goode is anywhere near as talented and intuitive as Hicks. "Yeah, it can be a little disruptive defensively. But listen, we don't use [injuries] as excuses. We still figure it out, and try to find ways to win, and we've been able to do that."

Developing storylines

*Najee Goode's rationale for taking that costly penalty on the Giants' punt, which turned fourth down into first down and led to a third-quarter touchdown, was that Akeem Ayers rocked back on his heels and drew Goode offside. Rewatching in slow motion, I couldn't see that.

*The Giants' Tavarres King caught two passes, both for touchdowns.

*The last three games, Nelson Agholor has 22 catches for 264 yards and two touchdowns.

*Jason Kelce's excellent season got a strong endorsement from Fox color analyst Chris Spielman Sunday, Spielman repeatedly narrating clips of Kelce clearing the way downfield. "That's a talented center right there," Spielman said at one point.

*Unheralded game-changing play: Brandon Graham's tackle of Shane Vereen for a nine-yard loss with the Giants driving, first and 10 from the Eagles' 33, early in the fourth quarter. Graham put the Giants behind the sticks and they eventually tried a 48-yard Aldrick Rojas field goal, which Malcolm Jenkins blocked.

*After rewatching Ronald Darby's 37-yard interception return, in which he broke three tackles, I'm wondering if Darby shouldn't be returning punts.

*Might have been a different game if Jalen Mills hadn't held Taverres King while Vinny Curry was sacking Eli Manning on third and goal on the first series of the afternoon. Three plays later, the Giants had a touchdown.

Who knew?

That with two shots at the end zone from the opponent's 11, you might choose to waste one with a run up the middle against the best run defense in the NFL?

All the Giants did, on their next-to-last snap of the game that mattered, was make the area the Eagles needed to defend on fourth down a little smaller, moving the ball from the 11 to the 6 on third down. One of the most inexplicable third-and-goal play calls I can recall.

Obscure stat

The Eagles' longest pass-play gain against the Giants was a screen that Jay Ajayi took 32 yards. Nick Foles did a wonderful job of converting in the red zone, but other than that play, he didn't manage a completion as long as 20 yards, in averaging 6.24 yards per pass attempt.

Extra Point

During the early going of Sunday's Eagles-Giants game, when the Giants were scoring on their first three possessions, I saw a tweet from an Eagles fan to the effect of "Oh gee I sure hope nobody hires away Jim Schwartz, that would be TERRIBLE."

It'll be interesting to see if the Eagles' defensive struggles the past three weeks take coordinator Schwartz out of the head coaching sweepstakes next month. It'll also be interesting to see how the Carson Wentz injury and the switch to Nick Foles might affect, say, the higher aspirations of offensive coordinator Frank Reich and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo.

Having Foles throw four touchdown passes Sunday, continuing to spread the ball around just as Wentz did, should do nothing but burnish the credentials of the guys running the Eagles' offense.

One would think that if the current defensive spiral continues, that would be a big knock against Schwartz, whose unit came out of the weekend ranking sixth in yards allowed, eighth in points per game.

But would potential suitors conclude that Schwartz's aggressive scheme wears down players, given that the Eagles' defense has faltered down the stretch the past two seasons? Or would they look at injuries, opponents, road vs. home, and conclude that there were mitigating factors?

Doug Pederson, who knows what it's like to be an assistant looking to move up, was asked Monday about how he sees this as a head coach.

"Having gone through that as an assistant coach, the biggest thing is you don't let it become a distraction to you as a coach. We still have a lot of football ahead of us … My assistants have done a nice job of sort of blocking that out right now and just focusing on job at hand," Pederson said.

"I think any time you have success, names are going to be mentioned … and it's a credit to how they are doing coaching their position. But I do feel that they can't let it become a distraction to what we're trying to get accomplished this year."

It might not be that good for Schwartz, but any perceived dulling of his luster as a head-coaching candidate heading into the playoffs might help the Eagles. Then if his group plays better when it counts, he can spend much of February interviewing wherever he wants, assuming jobs are still open.