Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz isn’t known as much of a blitzer. Given his brash demeanor, that’s always been surprising to me. This is the same coach that nearly started a brawl over a possibly too firm and dismissive handshake with Jim Harbaugh.
Schwartz doesn’t necessarily have the crass personality of a Rex Ryan, who is known for bringing extra men like he’s playing with thirteen on defense. Still, I’ve always had difficulty reconciling Schwartz “the man” with Schwartz “the play-caller”. For example, during the Eagles’ 2017 Super Bowl run, they only blitzed 19% of the time which checked in at 26th in the league. That year it was extremely effective, ranking 4th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. It’s telling that even with that success, and despite a noteworthy game-specific boon in 2018, rates remained low. Why?
Before we get into why he chooses when or when not to blitz, we should first examine where he dials up pressure and go from there. Having charted all of the Eagles third down plays against passes and scrambles, I can show that there’s evidence suggesting field position plays a major role.
Without additional data to back this up I’m purely making assumptions, but I would guess this looks similar to defensive coordinators around the league. Not necessarily in overall frequency, but in areas of the field where the volume gets turned up. The theory being to knock teams out of field goal range or bring pressure when the offense has their last chance for a shot play.
The areas where Schwartz blitzed the most were the only two areas where he blitzed in the Wild Card tilt. Against the Chicago Bears, he blitzed once from his own 45-yard line, which was more of a spy turned loose with Nigel Bradham. There’s an extra dimension to consider with what Schwartz did pre-snap. He refers to this as having five-man rushing principles while only bringing four.
Bradham spies here but the idea is the same. Force the center to make a “MIKE declaration” and force him to respect the potential of the MIKE coming. This creates a 2-on-2 to Fletcher Cox’s side for a split second, which is all he needs to create an interior push. This, and the other rushers, flush Mitchell Trubisky out of the pocket which gives Bradham the green light to fire his gun. That led to a punt (who punts in enemy territory?) and was followed up by a scoring drive for the Eagles to take the lead by four points.
Schwartz waited until the last chance to send another blitz at Trubisky. On 3rd & 2 from the Eagles’ 25-yard line and only 15 seconds left in the game, Schwartz let ‘em hang while clinging to a 1-point lead. The intentions to bring his go-to cover 0 blitz were very clear pre-snap.
The Eagles played press to the strength and the boundary, resulting in Anthony Miller gaining good positioning with his release against Cre’Von LeBlanc. Trubisky knows with no timeouts he can’t take a sack or throw one short of the end zone. That’s the key to the cover 0 blitz and why it tends to be less dangerous than one would think. There simply isn’t time to let routes develop; the ball has to come out. It did, but Trubisky was fading off it and threw an incredibly safe ball nobody could make a play on.
Nagy was probably fine with this at the time, but there was space to allow Miller to make a play or draw pass interference. Trubisky still missed him and it was in large part due to the pressure of Michael Bennett and perhaps the moment. The rest is history.
On the day Schwartz did well on money downs against the Bears, holding them to a 31% conversion rate. His two blitzes were effective and the spy he occasionally attached to Trubisky kept him corralled.
It wasn’t the same story against the New Orleans Saints in the Divisional Round. Schwartz once again dialed up only two blitzes on third down, this time in less critical situations. Both were beaten by Drew Brees for conversions.
To be fair, Brees was enjoying his best season against the blitz in the six seasons Pro Football Focus has tracked it. On the year, he ranked fourth against the blitz for adjusted completion percentage (80.2%) and fourth in expected points added per play (+0.29). It’s no wonder that Schwartz played it conservative with a banged up secondary and it’s no shock that when he brought heat it fizzled. Even when he did bring extra it was only one blitzer as he stayed away from his trademark cover 0.
At the COOL Clinic in 2015, Schwartz gave an example that sheds some light on how he prefers to treat quarterbacks like Brees. In this case he’s talking about Aaron Rodgers. It’s noteworthy that he’s referring to 2014 with Buffalo as they entered a matchup with the Green Bay Packers. At the time, not unlike Brees, Rodgers was torching opposing blitzes for an average expected points added per play of (+0.44).
“You’re crazy to blitz Aaron Rodgers. Aaron Rodgers was like 93% effective against the blitz. Why in the world do you wanna bring another guy out of coverage to blitz a guy when you can’t get there anyway?” - Jim Schwartz
For the season, Schwartz blitzed on a low number of third downs, coming in at only 26%. Did it work? Below is how the numbers stack up.
Judging by the numbers, you can see why Schwartz ranks lower in the league for blitz rate. His philosophy has always been that if he can get there with four, just get there with four. There’s extra context to that, such as the quality of coverage and time-to-throw, both of which the Eagles struggled with or against in 2018.
“[In 2014] at Buffalo I had outstanding corners, but a lot of times in the past we didn’t have as good of corners. [Jim Washburn] would say, ‘y’know hey look we gotta bring five against these guys,’ and I said, ‘well Wash we can’t cover these *******, I can’t bring five because we can’t win in one-on-ones on the outside part of the field…
[In 2014] we probably blitzed less than anybody in the NFL… My last year in Tennessee I think we blitzed like 8% of the time. We were one of the best defenses in the NFL. But we didn’t have to blitz; we had Jevon Kearse, we had Kyle Vanden Bosch, we had Albert Haynesworth, **** blitz just got the ball out faster. We wanted the quarterback to hold the ball. We wanted a chance to get him.” - Jim Schwartz
You can understand, based on his own words, why his lack of faith in his coverage unit would precipitate safer schemes. Outside of those numbers there’s more context to be found. You can see why he would use cover 0 with seven blitzers less frequently (18%) based on opposing success rate (63%), but why he would lean on it when he needed a big play (13% sack rate, 13% turnover rate).
Perhaps with a healthier defensive backfield Schwartz will be more aggressive in 2019. For that to be the case, he’ll also need the young group of cornerbacks play to their potential. That, combined with concerns at depth on the edges, could lead to more heat. Time will tell, but in the meantime, at least we (hopefully) have a better understanding of when, where, and why Schwartz decides to let ‘em hang.