Jim Schwartz studied economics at Georgetown, but the Eagles defensive coordinator was too busy calling the game to do the math about how depleted his defense was on Sunday – or how many key players they could be out this week against the Los Angeles Chargers.
The Eagles were down four opening day starters throughout most of the 27-24 victory over the New York Giants: defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, linebacker Jordan Hicks, safety Rodney McLeod, and cornerback Ronald Darby. Add in injuries to top reserves Corey Graham and Jaylen Watkins, and the Eagles were missing six notable players on defense on Sunday. They still won.
“I’m glad you didn’t tell me that and that somebody didn’t tell me that during the game,” Schwartz said of missing four starters. “You get lost in the moment of games and you just do whatever you have to do at that moment. I think players are no different than coaches when it comes to that. I think people outside of our building may obsess more over injuries than we do. We’re used to them. It’s the NFL and it’s going to happen. I’ve said before: no explanations, no excuses. I think you have to carry that over to injuries.”
It’s not yet known whether Cox (calf) and Hicks (ankle) will be available on Sunday. Both are considered day-to-day. Darby is out for a few more weeks, and McLeod, Graham, and Watkins all have calf injuries that already forced them to miss a game. That could force Schwartz and the defense to continue to shuffle the lineup.
Cox is the key player to watch this week. He’s the defensive centerpiece. If he’s out, the Eagles would turn to Beau Allen in the starting lineup. Destiny Vaeao has missed the last two games with a hand injury, so the depth at the position is already thin.
“We’ve had some rashes of injuries,” Schwartz said. “It seems like we get one guy hurt at a position and all of a sudden there’s a chain reaction. I was proud of the way the guys [played] — it was a hot day. That’s tough duty. We usually have a four-man rotation [at defensive tackle]. We went down to a three-man rotation. Beau and [DT Tim Jernigan] both took a lot of reps.”
Allen and Jernigan played 50 snaps – 72 percent of the game. Cox exited after 17 plays. Rookie Elijah Qualls, who was the fourth defensive tackle, took 14 snaps. Allen has replaced Bennie Logan in the past, but never Cox. Cox has not missed a game since Week 17 of his rookie season in 2012.
If Cox is the best player on the Eagles defense, Hicks is in contention for second. He’s also vital in making the defensive calls and signals as the middle linebacker. When Hicks was sidelined during the summer, Nigel Bradham took work in that spot in the nickel defense as a way to get Bradham and Mychal Kendricks on the field together. That was the route the Eagles took last week. Kendricks made a key deflection in forcing an interception and finished with seven tackles. The linebackers helped limit the Giants to 49 rushing yards, 20 of which came on one play. The Eagles would likely go with that combination on Sunday if Hicks cannot play and use Joe Walker as the middle linebacker when they have three linebackers on the field in base defense.
“We had to juggle a lot of different positions when Jordan went down early in the game,” Schwartz said. “They did a good job limiting the run game. …A lot of that [success against the run] was due to the fact that Nigel and Mychal did a good job in the run game along with Malcolm Jenkins.”
At safety, Maragos might have the fourth option on the roster. But with three safeties down, the Eagles needed to turn to the special teams standout on defense. He played every snap and “tackled well until that fourth quarter and executed the coverages well,” Schwartz said. Maragos couldn’t make the tackle on a 77-yard touchdown that gave the Giants lead, but he was part of a secondary that held their own throughout most of the game.
“Nobody ever says [in chess], ‘Yeah, you won the match but you didn’t need to give up your queen,’ ” Schwartz said. “It’s all about just getting the win, and however you do it, you do it.”
The Eagles return to practice on Wednesday, and there will be a better idea of how the injuries will affect them by the end of the week. But after three games, the depth Schwartz’s unit has already been tested in a big way.
“The next guy has to step up,” Schwartz said. “That’s sort of life in the NFL, and we’ve got a lot of confidence in those guys.”