Three Issues The Eagles Need To Address

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By Paul Bowman, Sports Talk Philly Editor

The Eagles are stuck with a 3-4 record this season, but have yet to be beaten by more than one score. The games have been close and there have been clear opportunities to win them all. While it is easy to blame injuries or poorly called penalties for losses, the Eagles must take the blame themselves. In my opinion, there are three key reasons that the Eagles are not undefeated.

    Prevent Defense Usage

Watch nearly any chunk yardage play that the Eagles have allowed this year and the defense is in prevent. The Eagles continue to implement prevent defense far too often and it clearly does not work. As Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills continue to take heat for allowing so many big plays, Jim Schwartz is not doing them any favors. The Eagles have been repeatedly burned in prevent defense. Here are the strengths from the draft profiles of these two:

” Four-year starter from deep, talented conference. Has slot cover ability. Hips are loose and he’s able to open and mirror receivers from press. Uses crisp, controlled footwork out of his transitions. Locates the deep pass and can turn to make plays on the ball. Very aware from zone and handles his responsibilities without many busts. Good blitzer from the slot.”

” Former high school track star with “world-class speed.” Can change directions suddenly with few false steps. Has requisite body control to handle the strain of press-man coverage. Easy swivel to his hips with ability to open, run and hit top speed quickly. Plays with instincts and awareness. Ready to come off his man to overlap and contest a catch or make a tackle. Digests combo routes and helps teammates lineup before snap. Recognizes route development and makes early break on throws. Ball-tracker with excellent timing to high-point and disrupt the catch. Lack of on-ball production tied to quarterbacks avoiding him. Technically proficient with hand usage in press and maintains feel for receiver. Constricts throwing windows in zone coverage. Steps downhill and attacks against the run.”

The key word in each is press. Neither makes a reference to prevent. This is especially true for Mills who is a physical player and not a speedy guy. Those are the qualities of a corner who excels with contact at the line, not allowing a free release.

Week two against the Buccaneers is where this became very obvious. Schwartz obviously feared the high-powered receiving corps in Tampa Bay would burn the Eagles and he made an adjustment from week one. Instead of starting at the line, Schwartz had everyone in coverage play 10 yards off their man. Prevent defense can be useful in third or fourth and long situations, but Schwartz played this nearly all game. It should have become obvious that this was not working after the first play from scrimmage was a 75-yard touchdown and even more so when they allowed a second 75-yard touchdown pass, but the message was not received by Schwartz.

In week one, the Eagles stood tall against the Falcons with goal line stands – when there was not enough room to play prevent and they instead played press. That won them the game. They played one corner in press and the other in prevent against the Giants and allowed only 13 points. They played press and the same press/prevent mix as in the Giants game against the Panthers while they kept them off the board. I’ll give you one guess as to how they were lining up when the Panthers put up 21 unanswered points. If you guessed prevent, you’d be correct. Schwartz moved them into prevent in order to run out the clock and the Eagles defense suddenly failed to stop the very same team they had stopped on all five previous drives.

Schwartz’s defense relies on the defensive line getting pressure, but he is regularly implementing a play style that allows opposing wide receivers with free releases to catch quick passes easily. The corners the Eagles are playing are skilled in press and not prevent and have proven that with their play. Why Schwartz refuses to keep press coverage on is beyond me.

    Offensive Play Calling

The Eagles won the Super Bowl last season in large part due to their play calling. This season, the play calling has been atrocious. At no point was this more apparent than in the Panthers game when an eight-yard run up the middle set up a third and two. Running the ball up the middle with Smallwood two more times would almost certainly have netted a first down, if not a touchdown.

Doug Pederson blasted the media and fans saying that they weren’t on the sideline and haven’t seen the tape, but the tape on Smallwood is clear. With injuries to Sproles, Ajayi and Clement, Smallwood has made plenty of carries across six games this season. He is much better as a North-South runner than as an East-West runner. His stats this season are:

Wendell Smallwood Statistics

Type Of Carry Carries Yards Yards Per Carry
To The Sideline 18 81 4.5
Behind Tackle/Guard 15 60 4
Up The Middle 18 89 4.9

They seem to show the Smallwood is a good runner all around, but Smallwood is prone to large losses when running toward the sideline. His statistics in that area are inflated by the game against the Colts where he did not suffer such a loss and averaged 6.3 yards per carry on those types of rushes. If we remove that outlier, his stats look like this:

Wendell Smallwood Statistics Sans Outlier

Type Of Carry Carries Yards Yards Per Carry
To The Sideline 12 43 3.6
Behind Tackle/Guard 15 60 4
Up The Middle 18 89 4.9

Those tables also do not count an additional 15-yard rush or 51-yard rush up the middle that Smallwood had called back by penalties on Goedert and Brooks. Having that information handy and not running the ball to get the first down and give your team four chances to score the game winning touchdown instead of two is insane. Also suspect is how often they go to Smallwood on those carries to the sideline on third down. Their two point conversion attempt earlier this season (that was ultimately successful thanks to an impressive effort by Smallwood) was a handoff to Smallwood running East-West instead of the type of rush that better suits his strengths. The Eagles are not handling their running backs as they should. Instead of the smart use of Blount and Clement last year where each played to their strengths, they are simply using Smallwood and Clement as the same runner who they can interchange no matter the play call.

Combine that with issues like the repeating of that ridiculous “misdirection” play that they run at least twice a week with Agholor getting the ball in the backfield and never gaining more than two yards, and it is fair to wonder where that innovative play calling went. Did it travel with Frank Reich to Indianapolis or John DeFilippo to Minnesota?

    Tunnel Vision

Tunnel vision was an issue that many finally noticed on the last couple offensive plays against the Panthers where Clement and Agholor ran open on the final few plays as Wentz looked to force the ball to a double covered Zach Ertz or Alshon Jeffery.

This issue is not new, however. It has been present all season. It started with Foles who looked to Agholor and Aiken in the first half of his starts. Ertz was open on so many of the plays that Foles forced a short attempt to Agholor that it is not even funny. In week two, Foles began to fix that problem in the second half by hitting new targets, but he would only shift to two new targets and Agholor would suddenly vanish.

Carson Wentz seems to have picked up in that same mind set. He will look to two targets for much of the game – Ertz and Jeffery – with the occasional look toward Dallas Goedert. Nelson Agholor all but disappeared from the offense other than those “misdirection” plays where he gets the ball behind the line of scrimmage, Jordan Matthews has made only a few catches, running backs that venture beyond the line of scrimmage almost never get looks, etc.

It is an issue that can go unnoticed because Ertz and Jeffery are both monsters who can make contested catches and run excellent routes, but there are clear passes that are routinely over looked or not taken. A prime example of this was the touchdown pass to Jeffery in the Panthers game.

Jeffery makes a nice grab and Wentz makes a great throw, but there is a defender in the area of the pass. If you look to the bottom of the screen, the Panthers corner is playing prevent defense on Agholor, who begins to run across the middle while the defender “covering” him is in the back corner of the end zone. It is the safest throw and one that was an obvious easy throw before the snap was made.

Sure poorly called penalties and injuries have slowed down the defending Super Bowl Champions this season, but there are clear problems that the team needs to address. There is no reason this team should not be undefeated let alone sitting at 3-4.

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