Jim Schwartz Knows His Pass Rushers Have to Finish in 2017

Brandon Graham walked through the Eagles locker room, from the showers toward his stall, after a late-season win at home last December with a big smile on his face. Actually, it was more of a grimace. 

The Eagles' best defensive end was happy his team picked up a much-needed win, but couldn't help to think about another play he couldn't finish, another quarterback he let slip through his fingertips. 

"I should have had him!" Graham yelled. 

That scene played out plenty throughout the 2016 season and Graham, perhaps more than anyone, was the poster boy. The Eagles' defensive line got pressure throughout much of its first season under Jim Schwartz but had trouble sacking the quarterback. 

For the first time since the conclusion of the 7-9 campaign in 2016, the defensive coordinator fielded questions hurled at him from reporters on Tuesday before an OTA practice. 

"Well, I think our pass rush reflected our defense, and it also reflected our team," Schwartz said. "We started off hot and then we went into a slump. We went a bunch of games without being able to get any pressure on the quarterback. We started getting it back a little bit toward the end. I've always told our defense that the engine that runs our defense is our defensive line and our pass rush, and we need to be consistent from week to week."

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By season's end, the Eagles ended up being an average team in terms of quarterback sacks. They had 34, tied for 16th in the league. 

But that's not the whole story. Because at times, sacks came in bunches, and at other times, they dried up completely. 

The season high came against Sam Bradford and the Vikings in Week 7, when the Eagles took their former teammate to the ground six times. Through six games, the Eagles had amassed 20 sacks and a 4-2 record. They had just 14 the rest of the way. 

And in their seven wins, the Eagles had 21 sacks (3 per game), compared to 13 in their nine losses (1.44). Chicken-or-egg this correlation all you want but it's pretty clear the Eagles' defense under Schwartz is simply better when that front four generates pressure. 

Schwartz said the Eagles did some studying of sacks this offseason. They looked at other teams and tried to determine the factors that lead to them. "Sacks go hand-in-hand with so many other things," he said. 

Specifically, Schwartz mentioned the score - when the Eagles were up, they obviously faced more passing downs and had a chance to pile up sacks - and the cornerbacks. When corners can't cover, it doesn't give the Eagles a ton of time to get after QBs. That part of it might not get any easier in 2017, as the team's noticeable weak spot is still at corner. 

But just as much as the secondary can help the front four, the front four can help the secondary. 

"It makes it really easy when you know you only have to cover for a certain amount of time before the quarterback's getting hit, and it forces a lot of bad throws, opportunities to get turnovers," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "But we play a part in that as well. We have to give our rush time to get to the quarterback. We can't allow quick throws to escape the rush, and so that coverage and pressure go hand-in-hand. The more productive our rush is, the more productive the secondary will be, and vice versa."

With a secondary that now includes Patrick Robinson, Jalen Mills and rookie Rasul Douglas at corner, the Eagles' veteran defensive line is hoping to help as much as it can. 

"When you got a bunch of young corners, pass rush is very important," Fletcher Cox said, "because we're covering up those guys a lot by getting the quarterback on the ground, making the quarterback make quick decisions because the pass rush is already in his face. It's never too early to think about pass rush."

Schwartz's defense is predicated on getting pressure from the front four. While he uses blitzes (mainly zone blitzes) at times, it would be foolish to expect him to, all of a sudden, start blitzing more. So the pressure needs to come from the defensive line. 

This season, the Eagles are without Connor Barwin, who was cut during the offseason, but they added veteran Chris Long and used their first-round pick on Derek Barnett out of Tennessee. 

Schwartz trumpeted Barnett's attributes - his bend, toughness and production in college - but also admitted he isn't sure how much the rookie will be able to give the Eagles this season. 

"How much he can contribute [and] how quickly he can be ready is up to him and coaches," Schwartz said. "It's our job to get him ready to be out there."

To start OTAs last week, the Eagles used Vinny Curry and Graham as their starting defensive ends and would have likely continued that Tuesday had Curry not been sick. 

While Graham was second on the team with  5 1/2 sacks last year (Cox had 6 1/2), Curry had just 2 1/2 after signing a $46 million contract last offseason. 

"You know, when we watched film a lot of times with Vinny, and I think you guys probably saw the same thing, his pressure numbers were high, but his sack numbers were low," Schwartz said. "I've had this conversation with Vinny, so I don't feel like I'm talking out of school with this. He didn't do as good a job finishing the rush as he did starting the rush."

Schwartz, as he often does, told a story to make his point. This one was about Kevin Carter, who played for him in Tennessee. Carter was traded to the Titans from the Rams after three straight double-digit-sack seasons. His first year in Tennessee, he had a career-low two sacks, but Schwartz said Carter got much more pressure than that. Carter had 10 sacks the next season. 

While Carter's situation isn't exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, Schwartz is hoping Curry - and the rest of the D-line - will be able to convert those pressures into sacks in 2017. 

"Good players can make that transition - Kevin Carter did, had a good career," Schwartz said. "It was sort of a one-year blip. And that is the challenge for Vinny - proving last year was a one-year blip."

Really, it's a challenge for the entire unit. 

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