The Philadelphia Eagles fell to 3-4 after their fourth-quarter meltdown against the Carolina Panthers. Whether they can recover from the Week 7 loss depends on reviving the defense.
The defending Super Bowl champions have had a tumultuous start to their 2018 season. Seven games in, and all we know about this Philadelphia Eagles team is they’re lacking the same energy and creativity shown last season. It’s not just the players, but also the scheme and strategies being used that has disappointed.
Head coach Doug Pederson has struggled to unlock the same efficiency this season as a rash of injuries has plagued the offense. But also losing former assistants Frank Reich and John DeFilippo has clearly hurt the aggressiveness of the unit, too. Carson Wentz and the passing game has become more checkdown-happy in recent games, limiting red zone opportunities and leading to three losses in four weeks.
Not all of that is on Wentz, Pederson, or any single individual. It’s a reflection of multiple factors, including the disappearance of their running game as Jay Ajayi was lost for the season. Pederson’s lack of faith in the non-effective rush attack was evident as the Eagles ran one time despite a 17-point lead in the fourth-quarter against the Panthers.
It’s reasonable to expect the offense to improve as the Eagles get healthier and Wentz has more time to sharpen his craft. The defense doesn’t have the same excuse.
Their collapse against Cam Newton and the Panthers was shocking after their high-quality play throughout the first three quarters. They successfully took away the Panthers’ run game outside of Jarius Wright’s 34-yard scamper. It had appeared the defense had broken out of their season-long slump.
The pass-rush simply hasn’t been the same as last year. The team is currently middle of the pack in sacks, and their lack of pressure on Newton in the fourth-quarter was a microcosm of their season.
The secondary continued to be torched when it mattered. Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod were able to cover-up for mediocre corner play in 2017, but Jenkins hasn’t been able to replicate his elite play this year, and McLeod is on injured reserve. His replacement, Corey Graham, is a borderline NFL player.
Scheming to hide several ineffective players in the secondary is nearly impossible. The lack of discipline routinely displayed by cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby is almost unbelievable because the duo continue to bite on double moves.
It was Darby’s turn on the Devin Funchess touchdown above. This has been a continued issue, as offenses are thriving when they can isolate the corners with a single-high defender.
Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz must take some of the blame though, too. In Carolina’s final 28 plays, they accumulated 236 yards and all 21 of their points. It only took them eight minutes and 37 seconds of possession time to complete their comeback.
The personnel struggled dearly, rarely making Newton sweat from closing defenders, or make difficult reads due to quality coverage. Some of this was due to conservative playcalling by Schwartz.
Of the 23 final pass plays, the Eagles blitzed just twice, opting to rely on their deep group of pass-rushers instead of risking gaps behind them. But it completely backfired, as the Panthers’ offensive line routinely gave Newton time to find passing windows.
More surprising was the lack of variety in coverages. 18 of their 23 coverages had a single-high safety, Cover 1 or Cover 3 look, and all but one showed itself pre-snap. They failed to make Newton work post-snap with late rotations or zone blitzes and he carved them up.
This 3rd-and-3 call below is a perfect example of Newton simply waiting for his man to come open after the mesh routes crossed.
The chunk plays came in bunches as the Eagles relaxed. Turner did well to mix in combination routes to take advantage of man coverage, but his isolation routes were effective too. The Panthers don’t have a deep group of playmakers but they were able to create separation on shorter routes.
Even when not repetitive with their coverages, the Eagles suffered against Norv Turner’s vertical offense. It’s common to see post and streaks against zone looks, and Newton delivered a major blow with his 28-yard completion to Wright in the fourth.
Wright split the underneath help and rolling corner with ease. The inverted look from the Eagles was one of only two mixed-zone looks in the Panthers’ run, highlighting just how benign the gameplan became. Trying to bend but not break cost them the game.
A lot of this can be addressed through coaching. There’s not a perfect coverage that will mitigate the personnel issues the Eagles have suffered from for years. The only reason they were able to win last year with similar personnel was that the pass-rush was a top unit, and Jenkins was all over the field making an impact.
There needs to be more flexibility from Schwartz as far as creating confusion since they’re not out-talenting teams this year. Rolling coverages, pattern-matching, and zone blitzes can be utilized without compromising the identity of the unit. The complacency shown through seven games has led to their 3-4 record.
Some of the issue is that there’s not a major NFC East threat. The Washington Redskins sit in first but are only 4-2. Things can change quickly in this division as the Eagles play the Redskins and Cowboys twice after their bye week.
First they must take on a similarly reeling Jacksonville Jaguars team this coming Sunday. Dialing up pressure on Blake Bortles should be enough to create turnover opportunities. It also helps the Jaguars’ defense has fallen off a cliff in creating turnovers themselves, so the Eagles’ offense may not have to do too much heavy-lifting.
They possess the talent they need to win the division, both on the staff and on the roster. A trade would help bolster their secondary and/or running back position, but their lack of 2019 cap space will be a factor in any decision to acquire a long-term contract. Their margin for error is slim with any move.
Most likely, their best hope lies internally. The Eagles need Carson Wentz to be more of a downfield playmaker and be more consistent with his accuracy, as well as a resurgence in the run game. Mike Wallace will give a small boost for the offense, too.
The negative is that left tackle Jason Peters has clearly taken a step back at age 36, and the run-blocking for the unit has fallen off a cliff. Inserting a new running back won’t suddenly fix that, though a more dynamic talent would help maximize what opportunities are there.
Yes, the Eagles can recover from this bad, ugly loss. Their bye week in Week 9 comes at a perfect time as they can retool with divisional games looming in the near future. Their upside certainly doesn’t seem to be as high as perceived in the preseason, though.