Jim Schwartz has never been a fan of exotic defenses.
"Scheme-wise, I'm a system guy. I don't like being labeled,'' Schwartz said following his hiring. "I always believe in playing to your player's strengths."
In his time with the Eagles, Schwartz has preached simplicity. Rotating up to eight linemen who can generate consistent pressure on the quarterback over 60 minutes, while dropping his defensive backs into zone coverage any chance he got, Schwartz wanted to let his players play an aggressive, attacking style of football without having to think too much. In Marcus Smith's only training camp with Schwartz, the defensive coordinator talked about the benefits his scheme could have on young, tentative players.
"This is a scheme that greatly limits what he's asked to do," Schwartz explained. "Difficult in execution, but easy in theory. It should allow him to play fast, attack spots, give him a little bit less responsibility but hopefully allow him to make a greater impact."
Granted, the notion of wanting a fast, attacking defense is hardly a novelty. Any new coach who is asked about the identity of his team will rattle off the cliche and maybe announce his team will be "smart" as well. But Schwartz has actually practiced what he preaches during his two plus years as the Eagles defensive coordinator, with varying results. The main issue being, if the defensive front doesn't quickly generate pressure, NFL quarterbacks will have a relatively easy time dissecting the Birds simple coverage.
For much of 2017, the Eagles defense boasted a deep front. With Fletcher Cox, Tim Jernigan and Beau Allen in the middle, paired with Brandon Graham, Chris Long, Vinny Curry and Derek Barnett on the outside, the Birds could keep their pass-rushers fresh well into the fourth quarter, something they don't have the luxury of doing this year. Curry and Allen are in Tampa Bay, Barnett is out for the year, Jernigan has been sidelined with a back injury since May, and although Michael Bennett has played extremely well, there is no depth along the interior of the line.
Consider this: In 2017, Graham played just 65-percent of the Eagles defensive snaps, which led all defensive linemen and the Eagles had seven defensive linemen play at least 40-percent of their regular season snaps. However, entering Sunday's game, Cox was playing 82-percent of the Birds' defensive snaps, Graham was on the field for 67-percent of the snaps and, in total, only four players on the current 53-man roster topped the 40-percent plateau: Cox, Graham, Bennett and Long.
That top-heavy imbalance has caused the Eagles pass-rush to slow late in games. Of those four players, Cox is the only one under the age of 30. Schwartz's insistence on only sending four pass-rushers can work when there is depth, but the effectiveness diminishes if you're sending the same four guys into a wall of five blockers play after play.
Along with pressure, Schwartz's scheme also relies on having talented guys on the back end of the defense to make plays. Unfortunately, the Eagles are sorely lacking in that area, thanks to injuries. Rodney McLeod is sidelined for the year, while both Jalen Mills and Sidney Jones were absent from Sunday night's game. Without those guys, as well as Ronald Darby, who left the game early with a knee injury, the Eagles are trotting out inexperienced players like Avante Maddux, Rasul Douglas and Chandon Sullivan, to varying degrees of success.
It would be accurate to describe Schwartz as a rather conservative play-caller, his "Red Rover" defense on third-and-long situations being Exhibit A. Not that being conservative is a bad thing. The Seattle Seahawks built a half-decade of defensive dominance on a conservative Cover 3 scheme. In today's explosive NFL, crafting a scheme to limit big plays makes sense.
But the Cowboys feasted on the Eagles weary defense on Sunday night. Dak Prescott attained a quarterback rating of 102.8 and Ezekiel Elliott ran for over 150 yards. The Eagles looked gassed late in the game, getting blown off the line and struggling to stop the Cowboys offense, allowing 144 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. It marked the third time this season the Birds struggled to contain an offense late, squandering leads in losses to both Tennessee and Carolina.
Last night's loss put a huge dent in the Eagles playoff hopes, and with a tough games on the schedule, their playoff hopes are hanging by a thread. With few reinforcements in the pipeline, it's hard to see Schwartz's current scheme breeding the same success it enjoyed in 2017. Unless the defensive coordinator begins to take more chances in an effort to generate turnovers and force opponents into mistakes, the Birds' season will be over before the calendar hits December.
Did not play: Darren Sproles (hamstring), Sidney Jones (hamstring), Jalen Mills (foot), Lane Johnson (knee).
Ronald Darby: Darby went down with an apparent knee injury in the third quarter and walked off the field under his own power, albeit very gingerly. He never returned to action and was replaced by undrafted free agent Chandon Sullivan, who wasn't terribly exposed in his extended time on the field.
0: The Eagles committed zero penalties on Sunday night, marking just the eighth time in franchise history they did so in a losing effort. Sunday night was just the third instance since 1965, with the latest occurrence coming in a 28-24 defeat at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks in 2007.
7: The Eagles were shutout in the first quarter for the seventh time of 2018 on Sunday night. The Eagles scored 18 times in the first quarter last season, but have really stumbled out of the gates every week this year. The Birds have just three touchdowns in the first quarter this season and keeps digging holes it can't seem to get out of until it's too late.
22: Carson Wentz set an NFL record last night, recording his 22nd-straight game with one or more touchdown passes and one or fewer interceptions, surpassing the previous mark set by Matt Ryan. Despite the uneven success this team has enjoyed in recent weeks, Wentz has been as steady as ever.
Cowboys' rookie Leighton Vander Esch had the game of his life, recording 13 solo tackles and an interception in the first quarter. Still, no play was more impressive than his stop of a screen pass on third-and-short in the fourth quarter. Vander Esch fought off two blockers to bring Corey Clement down in the backfield for a 5-yard loss. The Eagles turned the ball over on downs on the very next play and didn't get another solid opportunity to tie the game. The rookie was very impressive last night, and it looks like he will be a thorn in the Eagles' side for the foreseeable future.
Up: Zach Ertz
Through nine games, Ertz is enjoying one of the greatest seasons by a tight end in NFL history. Ertz is just the fourth player to put up 75 catches in a team's first nine games, joining wide receivers Marvin Harrison, Julio Jones and Adam Thielen. With 75 catches for 789 yards, Ertz is on pace for 133 receptions and 1402 receiving yards. Barring anything unforeseen, Ertz will be the Eagles first 100-catch receiver and challenge Mike Quick's franchise record of 1409 receiving yards.
Rob Gronkowski currently holds the tight end record for receiving yards in a season with 1327, a number Ertz should certainly surpass. Even with all the disappointment that has filled this season, it is a pleasure to watch Ertz dominate opposing safeties and linebackers every single week.
Down: Corey Clement
Clement was a complete non-factor for much of the night, save for one 11-yard carry. Since returning from his injury, Clement has looked like a shell of himself and has been ineffective in every aspect of the game, except for pass protection. He was also targeted on a screen pass late in the game that lost 5 yards on third-and-short. Without Sproles or Jay Ajayi slotted into the Eagles' future, things are looking bleak in 2019 and beyond.
Up: Michael Bennett
Bennett had another 2 sacks last night, including a vicious blindside hit that Prescott never saw coming. With most of Howie Roseman's offseason additions falling flat, Bennett has continued to play at a Pro Bowl level and has been the Eagles best pass rusher all season. The Eagles can cut Bennett this offseason without owing him any more money, or they will be on the hook for $15 million over 2019 and 2020. With a lot of question marks at defensive end, it may make sense to keep Bennett around, despite his age.
Down: Fletcher Cox
Cox played a staggering 82-percent of the Eagles defensive snaps through the first eight weeks and it looks like that workload is really wearing on him. The Birds have no depth at defensive tackle and Cox struggled to make an impact last night, registering just 2 solo tackles. There's no denying Cox's immense talent, but he, along with the rest of the defensive line starters, is being run into the ground.
1. Golden Tate's debut was hotly anticipated, but ended up being underwhelming. The veteran wide receiver had just two catches for 19 yards and seemed to not be fully incorporated into the offense yet. Obviously, it takes more than 10 days to learn an NFL offense, but the Eagles don't have the luxury to wait a few weeks for him to start contributing. If the team wasn't desperate yet, they are now. At 4-5, every game is a must-win and Tate needs to find a role in the offense quickly.
2. With the Redskins' win and the Eagles' subsequent loss, the Birds are now two games back of Washington for the division lead and face an incredibly challenging schedule the rest of the way. The Eagles can't afford to lose either of their games against Washington. They can probably only afford to lose one more game before their season is lost. Either way, Sunday night's loss complicates their road to the postseason.
3. Both Wentz and Doug Pederson described the offense's struggles as a "lack of execution," but it isn't that simple. Certainly, the Eagles are leaving some big plays on the field, but Pederson's play-calling has taken a step back this season, especially early in games. It's hard to pinpoint whether the issues stem from play-calling, poor offensive line play, a lack of weapons, or some combination of the three. With his back against the wall, it will be interesting to see what Pederson draws up for next week's game in New Orleans.
The Eagles will face their toughest test of the season next week when they travel to New Orleans and play the red-hot Saints. Drew Brees and company have won eight-straight games since losing Week 1 in overtime. It's hard to imagine the Eagles, who have struggled against average teams like the Cowboys, Buccaneers and Titans getting up to stop an offense that has scored 96 points over their last two games.