We conclude our Eagles report card with the defense. As you can imagine there’s a lot of good grades.
There’s little to criticize with the Eagles defense this year, but one area that consistently shows as a weakness is depth. There’s nothing the Eagles can do about it at this time so it’s unfair to really hold that against them at this point in the season, but as we’ll see, the lack of depth will be a recurring theme up and down the defense.
Besides depth, the Eagles biggest issue on defense is stopping the run. But Redskins game aside, it’s not even really an issue. They’re 11th in run DVOA, 2nd in touchdowns, 21st in yards per carry, 18th in yards per game... it’s all over the place, which is to say it’s about an average run defense. With the NFL now a passing league, being a good defense that struggles at times against the run isn’t so bad.
Depth is is biggest area in need of improvement here. When Bennie Logan went down with injury in the Redskins game, the defense got run over. And as the game goes on they get worn down, their yards per carry against increases in every quarter: 3.9, 4.3, 4.5, 4.7, though they haven’t given up a rushing touchdown in the second half.
Bringing in Jim Schwartz to run the defense was thought to be an automatic upgrade to the pass rush, and though the counting stats don’t show it, it is. Though no Eagle is in the top 25 of sack totals, they are 5th in sacks per game and have the 2nd best adjusted sack percentage per Football Outsiders. Brandon Graham has been outstanding, one of the best 4-3 DEs in football, and Fletcher Cox spent the first quarter of the season as a wrecking ball. 12 different players have a sack, including two linebackers and two defensive backs, showing that while Jim Schwartz relies on his front four to get to the QB, he’s capable of dialing up an effective blitz.
In coverage, the Eagles have the 5th best passer rating against. Nigel Bradham has been strong in pass coverage, the safety duo of Malcolm Jenkins and Leodis McKelvin has been as good as advertised, and when healthy Leodis McKelvin and Nolan Carroll are a solid starting tandem of corners. When everyone is available, it’s a very strong pass defense.
So why not a higher grade? A few reasons. The Eagles pass rush comes and goes, at times starting off slow, such as the loss at Detroit and wins over the Browns, or it doesn’t really show up at all, such as the loss to the Redskins. There’s room to improve there, and it could be had by Schwartz blitzing a little more. And Vinny Curry, who was given the 5th best contract for a 4-3 DE, has just one sack and has not played even half a game.
And depth is an issue here too. As solid as the secondary has been, when there’s any let up it stumbles. When Leodis McKelvin has missed time with injury or played banged up, there’s been a noticeable drop off, Jalen Mills consistently gets picked on when he enters the game. Fletcher Cox’s drop off in play has coincided not just with a series of penalties for over aggressive play, but also with the loss of Bennie Logan. With Beau Allen as the starter besides him, the Eagles defense is still strong, but teams can double team Cox much more.
Schwartz was hired to be the Doug Pederson’s Jim Johnson, essentially a co-head coach in charge of defense. Schwartz was given a pretty good base to build from with Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Bennie Logan, Jordan Hicks, Malcolm Jenkins and Nolan Carroll, the Eagles defense had been underrated for the past two seasons, it’s not like he was taking over the Saints. Still, he hasn’t disappointed. The Eagles defense is 1st in DVOA, 6th in points, 6th in yards, 4th in turnover percentage.... it’s one of the best defenses in the league however you cut it.
But there’s room for improvement as there is for any rebuilding team. A recurring theme for the Eagles so far this season has been slow starts, and Schwartz is not immune. Against the Lions the defense was so sloppy it was downright awful, made worse by the game coming off of the bye week. He has done a good job with in-game adjustments, but that is somewhat magnified by the slow starts. Against the Redskins, he got schooled when Bennie Logan left with injury. He’s relied too heavily on Connor Barwin, who is miscast as a 4-3 DE but spent most of the season getting more playing time than any defensive lineman. And Jalen Mills play hasn’t warranted the high faith the coaching staff has put in him. To his credit he has gotten productive and meaningful playing time out of Marcus Smith.
On offense we discussed the Eagles special teams in terms of field goals and return units, on defense we’ll look at kick and punt coverage units. Like the rest of the special teams, they’ve been excellent. Aside from Eddie Royal’s punt return for a touchdown, punt coverage has been one of the best in the league, they would average 6th in the league without it and currently have the best punt return average of any team that has given up a touchdown. In the last two seasons there each 13 total returns for a touchdown, they happen from time to time. On all the other returns, the Eagles have been stellar. They have the second fewest returns against, only 10 of Donnie Jones’ 36 punts have been fielded. On kick returns against, they are 2nd in the league.
Interestingly, the Pederson era defense is almost the opposite of the Chip Kelly defense. Under Kelly the team was good overall but the extremely high snap counts meant the team got an unfair ranking in traditional stats. They were tough against the run but mediocre against the pass, leading to some ugly games. Under Pederson (read: Schwartz), they’re still good overall, but their strengths and weaknesses have flipped. strong against the pass, okay against the run, and the low amount of snaps (the 5th fewest in the league) perhaps overstates their traditional stats a little.
When all 11 starters on are the field for the Eagles, it’s one of the best defenses, with no obvious weakness that can get picked on. But when anyone misses time, it struggles, and no team goes through a season without starters missing some games. The difference between a good unit and a great one in the NFL is often depth, and the Eagles just don’t have it right now. For a rebuilding team, they’re in a great place.