Eagles looking for pass rush to bounce back | Paul Domowitch

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Fletcher Cox (left) and Brandon Graham talk as the Eagles hold an OTA at the NovaCare Complex.

IT'S LITTLE consolation now, but in their first six games last season, the Eagles had one of the most productive pass rushes in the league.

They had 20 sacks and 62 hurries and led the league in sacks per pass play heading into the Halloween weekend.

Won four of those six games, holding opponents to just 14.7 points per game, which was the third-stingiest average in the league at the time. Eagles fans were mentioning defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and sainthood in the same sentence.

And then, well, that old Wide-9 magic vanished as quickly as it had appeared.

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In their last 10 games, the Eagles had just 14 sacks and 45 hurries and finished 16th in total sacks with 34. Won just three of those 10 games.

"I think our pass rush reflected our defense and it also reflected our team," Schwartz said Tuesday in his first Q&A with the media since December.

"We started out hot and then we went into a slump. We went a bunch of games without being able to get any pressure on the quarterback. I've always told our defense that the engine that runs our defense is our defensive line and our pass rush, and we need to be consistent from week to week."

A couple of things happened in those last 10 games. One was that Schwartz's defensive linemen just didn't play as well as they did in the first six games. They got little productivity from the right-end position, and All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox went from an unstoppable force to just another guy who couldn't beat double teams. He had just 21/2 sacks and nine hurries in the last 10 games.

The other thing that happened was opposing quarterbacks started thwarting Schwartz's preferred four-man rush by getting the ball out more quickly.

"We saw a couple of quarterbacks later in the season, including Aaron Rodgers, who got rid of the ball real quick," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "Those are the things you have to be able to adjust to. That's something we emphasize in this defense - press-man. Being up in receivers' faces."

If the Eagles' cornerbacks had been able to do a better job of disrupting the receivers' routes, that three-step-drop strategy would have been nipped in the bud. But that didn't happen.

The result: The Eagles gave up 19 touchdown passes and 24.3 points per game in the last 10 games, which prompted the front office to blow up the cornerback position once again and give the defensive line a makeover that it hopes will allow the two units to work in concert to produce the kind of results they got in the first six games of 2016 rather than the last 10.

"The pass rush doesn't stand on its own, and I say that even though, obviously, we were in a (pass-rush) slump in the middle of the season last year," Schwartz said.

"A lot of it has to do with our corner position. If you can cover for a long time, you can buy time to get the sackers there. If you're rushing well, it helps the corners out. They go hand in hand. If we can improve our corner position, that will help improve our pass rush."

With the selections of cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Rasul Douglas in the second and third rounds of the April draft, the Eagles appear to have improved themselves at the cornerback position for 2018. As for 2017, well, we'll see.

Jones is recovering from a torn Achilles' and isn't expected to be cleared to play until midseason at the earliest. The 6-2, 209-pound Douglas is considered a bit of a project who might need a year before he's ready to make a meaningful contribution.

That leaves confident second-year man Jalen Mills; free-agent acquisition Patrick Robinson; Ron Brooks, who is returning from a torn quad that ended his season after just six games; and an anonymous cast of thousands that includes two former All-CFL players (Aaron Grymes and Mitchell White), second-year undrafted free agent C.J. Smith and former Jaguars third-round pick Dwayne Gratz. Doesn't mean there aren't any keepers in that group. Just means the jury will be out for a while.

In Schwartz's front-four-oriented scheme, the Eagles don't need their corners to be great. But they need them to be better - a lot better - than they were in the final 10 games last year.

"We're trying to figure out how to complement each other as a defense," said Jenkins, who frequently dropped down and covered the slot receiver in the Eagles' sub-packages last year.

"We're going to cut the defensive line loose. That puts a little bit of pressure on the secondary and the linebackers to cover that up and make up for some of those plays (when the rush doesn't get there). But that's the way the defense is designed.

"When we start to do things as a team and understand each other's jobs and responsibilities, it makes it more effective than having a couple of (defensive-line) guys that can win one-on-one rushes."

Jenkins said Schwartz probably will add a few new coverages that won't force the corners to play "out on an island the entire game."

"Since I've been here, we've asked a lot out of the corner position," Jenkins said. "A lot of man-to-man. The receivers in the NFC East keep getting better and better every year. So that's a tough task."

Jenkins is a big fan of Mills, a 2016 seventh-rounder who played 65 percent of the defensive snaps as a rookie.

"The biggest thing (that impresses me about him) is his mindset," Jenkins said. "Playing corner in this league is not easy. You have to be confident. That's one thing he's had since he stepped into this building. That confidence and that desire to always want (to cover) the No. 1 guy, to always be challenged."

The Eagles have had just four OTA workouts this spring. Training camp doesn't get underway until late July, and the season opener against Washington still is 31/2 months away. But Mills believes the cornerback play will be a lot better this season.

"(I believe that) 100 percent," he said. "You guys didn't see our (closed) practice last Thursday. We were just playing with a lot of energy. Whether it was the first group or the second group or the third group, we were just flying around.

"Me being a rookie last year, it was mostly the first group making all the plays. But as a whole, you're seeing everybody competing this year. That's going to make everybody better."

Better play in the secondary will benefit the pass rush and help prevent what happened in the last 10 games last year.

"It's important for us to cover, especially early in the down, and give them a chance to get that extra step to the quarterback," Jenkins said.

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