Eagles coach Doug Pederson has increasingly come under fire over the past few weeks, and rightfully so. Just because defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has a track record of success though does not mean he should escape criticism for this mess.
The defense is Schwartz's and Schwartz's alone, and while the unit has experienced moments of brilliance, similar to Schwartz's defenses in Tennessee, Detroit and Buffalo, more often than not, the Eagles' defense has just been average or flat out bad. Some of that is an issue of talent, as it is on offense.
Some of the Eagles' problems on defense are because Schwartz has guiding principles in his mind and refuses to adjust.
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Back in the spring, when this Eagles coaching staff still felt fresh and new, and OTAs were just getting underway, it was easy to explain away Schwartz's decision to bury Eric Rowe on the depth chart behind Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks. Looking back on it now, after Rowe was traded and the Eagles cornerbacks are decimated, it seems more like an example of the defensive coordinator's inflexibility and arrogance.
Rowe was a second-year player with five NFL starts under his belt, and a second-round draft pick who only converted from safety to cornerback as a senior in college. McKelvin and Brooks knew Schwartz's defense having spent a season in the system in Buffalo in 2014 — also a career year of sorts for McKelvin. It seemed like a classic case of letting veterans show a prospect the ropes while he earned his place in the lineup.
Except Rowe never really got a chance to start for the Eagles this season. By the time training camp rolled around, he still was only getting very limited looks with the first-team defense. McKelvin, who at one point was benched in Buffalo and and later moved to safety, was handed a starting job without question. Brooks, a 2012 fourth-round choice with three career starts in four seasons with the Bills, was regularly playing ahead of Rowe as well.
Since he wasn't going to play here anyway, Rowe was traded for a conditional fourth-round selection in 2018 from the Patriots, where he is starting and playing well, mind you. According to charting numbers by Pro Football Focus, the 24-year-old is holding opposing quarterbacks to a 46.4 completion percentage, 10.9 yards per attempt and one touchdown in six games, five starts when targeted in coverage this season for New England.
Compare that to an aging McKelvin, Schwartz's hand-picked starter. Opposing quarterbacks are completing 59.6 percent of their passes for 18.1 yards per attempt and six touchdowns in nine games, eight starts by the ninth-year veteran. And Brooks? He's on injured reserve and done for the season now, but couldn't beat out Nolan Carroll, who has allowed a 60.7 completion rate for a 16.4 average and two scores in 12 starts.
Maybe Rowe would be struggling in Schwartz's defense too, but it's hard to imagine he could do any worse. Heck, in terms of coverage charting, seventh-round rookie Jalen Mills has outplayed McKelvin (61.1%, 14.8 AVG, 0 TD, 12 GMS), yet still only rotates in roughly half the time.
Schwartz may have mishandled Rowe, but the secondary isn't getting much help from the front four anyway. Without some form of pressure on these quarterbacks, occasionally it's easy to excuse some of the performances on the back end.
Except the lack of a pass rush is becoming yet another area where Schwartz's lack of adjustments are hurting the Eagles. With a grand total of six sacks in the last six games, the defensive line has been ineffective at getting to the quarterback for going on two months. It's become painfully obvious the front four needs a little assistance, if only to occasionally give the offense different looks from time to time and maybe confuse the protection.
Only one of Schwartz's guiding philosophies is not to blitz, and so the Eagles rarely do it. We saw the defense roll out a huge blitz package against the Vikings way back in Week 7, and they got to quarterback Sam Bradford seven times while holding Minnesota to 10 points.
Since then, the Eagles have blitzed much more sparingly, and the defense has surrendered 29, 28, 15, 26, 27 and 32 points in those six games.
After the Bengals jumped out to a 29-0 lead and coasted to a 32-14 victory over the Eagles on Sunday, Pederson promised to speak to Schwartz about the lack of blitzing. That conversation must have taken place too, because the day after, the head coach was already backing off of any insistence his team blitz more.
"The reason I brought Jim Schwartz here, is because he has the ability — and he's done it with different teams — to put pressure with four," Pederson said. "I mean, that's been his philosophy.
"I don't want to say it's a panic move, but if you start trying to re-scheme things and do things a little bit out of the norm of what you sort of have your game plans and your philosophy based around, you're going to give up something to get something. So if you're going to put pressure on the quarterback with five or six guys, then you're asking your back end to hold up.
"You're seeing that even with rushing four, you're seeing plays down the field being made."
That's correct. Right now, while only rushing four, plays are being made down the field, which is exactly why maybe there needs to be more emphasis on rushing the quarterback and asking the defensive backs to cover less. More pressure potentially makes quarterbacks uncomfortable, forces bad throws and might allow the cornerbacks to cover short and intermediate routes more aggressively knowing there's less time for passes to go over the top.
But Schwartz's philosophy as a defensive coordinator is what's important here. Actually, it almost kind of reminds you of somebody. Nobody could tell Chip Kelly that maybe he needed to mix up his offense from time to time when he was the head coach of the Eagles, either.
That's not to say is Schwartz is Kelly. Schwartz actually has a track record of success in the NFL and deserves some benefit of the doubt. If you look at specifically what he's done in his brief time with the Eagles though, one of the hallmarks has been his unwillingness to change or look at the big picture.
On Tuesday, Schwartz argued that he actually did call for blitzes with a little more frequency than normal. Then he pointed to the play of his cornerbacks, which he admitted hasn't been very good.
"Facts of life, our corners aren't playing very well right now," Schwartz said. "It doesn't mean I've lost confidence in them because that's the same bunch of corners that shut down some of the best offenses in the NFL. But we're in a slump, and it didn't matter what we were calling."
Even if that's the case, and the perception the Eagles aren't blitzing enough is untrue, these are Schwartz's guys. He wanted McKelvin. He was surely in on the decision to re-sign Carroll and draft Mills. And for whatever reason, he sure didn't want Rowe.
Pederson hasn't done a spectacular job. Injuries and other absences have been an issue. There's a rookie quarterback under center and there isn't enough talent on the roster to begin with. Schwartz was supposed to be the one sure thing in all of it though, and any way you want to look at it, his first season with the Eagles is quickly turning into a massive disappointment.