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Renewing faith in Eagles defense

Far be it from me to complain about any aspect of a team that’s currently 12-2… But it’s impossible to ignore the green-feathered elephant in the room right now…

Even the guys at NFL.com see the same disturbing trend:

“Seeing Jim Schwartz’s defense taken to the woodshed by Eli Manning was the shocker. The 504 yards were the most by a Giants team since Week 5, 2015, and the 29 points are the most for Big Blue this season. The Eagles defense has struggled over the last three games.

First 11 games of 2017: 17.1 PPG allowed, 291.6 total YPG allowed, 227.5 pass YPG, 28.6 3rd down percent allowed
Last three games: 29.3 PPG allowed, 373.7 total YPG allowed, 278.7 pass YPG, 48.6 3rd down percent allowed…”  —- Kevin Patra, Around the NFL writer

“I just challenged them that you can’t play like this and win in the postseason obviously,” HC Doug Pederson said, via the team’s official website at PE.com. “Can’t play like this and expect to win every week. You have to come prepared and when I say prepared I mean from a mental standpoint, that emotion, that sort of sense of urgency and that dominating swagger that you want to see your team come out of the dressing room with and that was kind of the message today.”

Tommy Lawlor at Iggles Blitz wrote a summary of the biggest mistakes on defense in the Giants game:

  • “Ronald Darby struggled [at corner]. He did make a huge play, picking off a pass and returning it deep into Giants territory. It’s good he did that because he gave up too many catches and yards at other times.
  • Rodney McLeod missed a tackle along the sideline and that turned into a long TD for the Giants.
  • Najee Goode jumped offside on 4th/4…with the Giants trying to punt. Ugh. They turned that mistake into a TD a few plays later.
  • Nigel Bradham was called for a penalty for shoving a RB. That gave the Giants 15 free yards on a scoring drive.
  • Multiple CBs bit on slant n’ go routes and were burned. Jalen Mills gave up a TD on that.”

It’s clear to me that Ronald Darby is still not 100% healthy with that ankle. At least his football brain is fully engaged and he certainly has a refined instinct for jumping a route and making a huge play. But his lower body is understandably the weak link in his coverage assignments. I mean, who is even playing volleyball or tennis a mere 3 months after a total ankle dislocation?

What’s happening lately, of course, is opposing quarterbacks are targeting Darby’s side of the field. It’s going to be a continuing problem for the Eagles’ pass defense as long as Darby keeps playing non-stop this season, because that ankle is only going to get weaker from stress until he gets a full offseason of rest and therapy for it.

Is Rasul Douglas that much of a downside from Darby right now? I don’t think so. But maybe the thinking of the Eagles coaching staff was to find out if Darby could go at all the rest of the way, then rest him once the 1st-round Bye in the playoffs was clinched. I hope that was their mindset. Darby needs to be given a therapeutic break until the playoffs.

As for the sluggo routes that Jalen Mills and the other corners were sometimes getting burned on? Often that was a product of our pass rush being turnstiled by smart offensive coordinators and quarterbacks the last few games. They’re programming to let our guys fly by while they take quick 3-step drops and slither up and deliver on those slant routes. Our linebackers and corners then get caught moving up and getting sucked in to stop the slants. Ooops, there goes another one—he didn’t just slant, he broke it off vertically.

Now with Patrick Robinson out temporarily due to concussion protocol, we have lost perhaps our surest tackler in the secondary. The tackling technique back there has slipped noticeably. It better pick up solidly against the Oakland Raiders this weekend, or we will be schooled by some major RAC yardage.

As for the dumb-dumb mistakes of a procedural nature, that’s a mental awareness issue. They’re understandable in a way because it’s an emotional game. I still remember when a pretty decent DE named Juqua Parker cost us a game about 8 years ago when he jumped offsides on a 4th-and-5 hard count. It’s the kind of thing you write off to excessive desire to make a big play—at least you know the player is really into winning the game. But the lesson learned is even the most emotionally engaged player on defense must be aware of down, distance and scoreboard situation at all times. That is especially important in playoff scenarios. It’s something you can teach in a classroom environment, but a whole different animal in the heat of battle.

Doug Pederson says it’s got to improve:

“It’s not lack of effort,” he said. “We’re seeing some mental mistakes being made. We’re seeing penalties a little bit that are starting to creep up. The way we started the game is obviously not the defense that we’ve seen all season long. Now did they rebound and have a great second half of the game? Yes, they did and they played extremely well in the second half and that’s the type of defense we’re used to.

“Eli (Manning, Giants quarterback) came out and it was all quick passing, it was RPOs (run/pass options), double moves, pick routes, and that’s what they do. I think, for the Giants, it was, ‘If we’re going to win this football game, we’ve got to do it this way.’”

Our linebacking strategy could use a boost. Without Jordan Hicks in the middle, we’re getting a tad exposed there even though Joe Walker and Najee Goode are doing the best they can. Guys like Luke Kuechly and Sean Lee and Ryan Shazier excel at disrupting that quick slant play stuff. We don’t have that kind of guy right now. Of course, those guys are often injured too and now it looks like Shazier may never play again (although thankfully he has regained movement in his legs). But the point is some kind of better coverage has got to be built into the Eagles’ current linebackers alignment. I wonder when Dannell Ellerbe will be brought into the LB rotation?

Anyway, we know our weaknesses and shortcomings now on defense. It’s at least not too late to address before the elimination tournament begins. That’s when the elephant in the room always gets fed.

 

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