The Eagles are heading into the playoffs with the NFL’s No. 1-ranked run defense. Their pass defense, however, has been leaking a little bit of oil lately
Not including last week’s meaningless game against the Cowboys, the Eagles gave up nine touchdown passes and had a 94.7 opponent passer rating in their previous four games against the Raiders, Giants, Rams and Seahawks. That’s more than 24 points higher than their opponent passer rating in their first 11 games this season (74.0).
As Jim Schwartz has told us on more than one occasion, the defensive line is the engine that makes his defense go.
When the front four gets pressure on the quarterback, good things generally happen. When it doesn’t, well, check out what happened last season when the Eagles recorded 20 sacks in their first six games then managed just 14 the rest of the year on their way to a 7-9 finish.
This time around, the Eagles are 13-3 and are the No. 1 playoff seed. But there are questions about the pass rush after they recorded just just nine sacks in their last six games. That’s the fourth-fewest in the NFL over that period.
Their 38 total sacks are the 15th most in the league, but they’re 22nd in sacks per pass play.
Sacks, of course, aren’t always an accurate barometer of a pass rush.
“Sometimes you play just an OK game but get a sack, and everybody says, ‘Man, you’re really rolling. We really see it. You’re playing your best ball,’ ’’ said Eagles defensive end Chris Long.
“But you can play one of your best games and not get a sack on that stat sheet. I think we’ve had a little bit of that going on, where guys have rushed well, but the ball might be out.
“I think teams respect us up front, and they’re going to change the way they operate on third down against us. We’ve been seeing a lot of seven-man [protections] and things like that. We’ve seen quarterbacks who are getting it out fast, like Eli [Manning]. It’s all respect for our front.’’
A better gauge than sacks with respect to the effectiveness of a pass rush is pressure. And the fact of the matter is, the Eagles haven’t pressured quarterbacks lately with the intensity and regularity that they did earlier in the season.
Pro Football Focus keeps track of each player’s pass-rush productivity, including pass-rush snaps, sacks, hits and hurries. In the last five games, not including Sunday’s JV tilt against the Cowboys, the Eagles had 83 total pressures in 757 pass-rush snaps. That’s a 9.1 pressure percentage. It was 12.1 in their first 10 games..
There have been exceptions, of course; most notably Long and fellow defensive end Vinny Curry.
Long’s pressure percentage in the last five games (minus Dallas), according to PFF figures, is 19.8, up from 13.6 in the first 10 games. He has 20 total pressures in 101 pass-rush snaps in the last five games, including a pair of strip stacks against the Raiders’ Derek Carr and the Rams’ Jared Goff.
Curry has just three sacks this season and none in the last five games. But he has a 17.7 pressure percentage (17 hits and hurries in 96 pass-rush snaps) in the last five games, up from 11.7 in the first 10 games.
The guy who has been struggling the most lately is rookie defensive end Derek Barnett. He clearly hit the rookie wall. His pressure percentage has dropped from 14.5 over the first 10 games to just 6.6 over the last five. He has just six pressures in 91 pass-rush snaps in the last five games. He had 31 in 215 pass-rush snaps in the first 10 games.
The Eagles aren’t getting the pressure inside from their tackles they got early in the season. Fletcher Cox’s pressure percentage has dropped from 14.5 in the first 10 games to 10.1 in the last five. He hasn’t had a sack since Week 12 against Chicago. Tim Jernigan’s pressure percentage has dropped from 8.6 in the first 10 games to 6.0 in the last five.
Compounding the problem is the fact that the Eagles aren’t blitzing nearly as effectively as they did earlier in the season.
In their first 10 games, the Eagles had a 48.1 opponent passer rating when Schwartz sent extra rushers after the quarterback. In the last five games (minus Dallas), it’s 115.9. Four of the seven touchdown passes the Eagles have given up against the blitz have come in the last five games.
Given the iffy state of their pass rush, the team they really don’t want to face in the divisional round of the playoffs next week is New Orleans. If the Rams beat the Falcons on Saturday and the Saints beat the Panthers on Sunday, Drew Brees and the Saints will be coming to the Linc next week.
Brees is second in the NFL in passing and sixth in third-down passing. He has put up 100-plus passer ratings in eight of his last 10 games.
He’s been sacked just 20 times this season, which is the fewest since 2009. He has found the second coming of Darren Sproles in rookie running back Alvin Kamara, who has 81 catches and is averaging 10.2 yards per catch.
“He’ll check it down,’’ NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said. “He’ll throw it to Kamara every play. There have been situations this year where he’s thrown it to him five times in a row.
“Kamara is like Sproles, except he’s bigger and faster. Drew isn’t going to sit there and hold it because he doesn’t have to anymore.’’
Figuring the Eagles
— Eight of Nate Sudfeld’s 22 aimed passes (he had one batted down) against the Cowboys on Sunday were either thrown at or behind the line of scrimmage. He averaged just 3.7 yards per throw distance-wise. Just six of his 22 attempts were longer than five yards.
— Eagles quarterbacks have a 31.1 completion percentage on throws of 20 or more yards this season, including 33.8 by Carson Wentz. They have completed 24 of 77 20-plus-yard throws. Last year, Wentz was 21 for 67 (31.3 percent) on passes of 20 or more yards.
— Alshon Jeffery has been targeted a team-high 22 times on throws of 20 or more yards but has just three completions. Nelson Agholor has been the team’s most productive deep-ball receiver. He’s been targeted 18 times on throws of 20-plus yards and has seven catches, three for touchdowns. Tight end Zach Ertz has been targeted eight times on 20-plus yard throws and has five catches.
— The Eagles used more three-wide receiver sets this season and fewer two- and three-tight end personnel groupings. They used “11’’ personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3 WRs) on 65 percent of their offensive plays, compared to just 56.3 percent last year. Their use of “12’’ personnel (1RB, 2TEs, 2WRs) dropped from 29.4 to 23.5 percent, and “13’’ personnel usage (1RB, 3TEs, 1 WRs) dipped from 10.6 to 7.4 percent.
— The Eagles averaged 5.3 yards per carry with 11 personnel, 3.6 with 12 personnel and 2.8 with 13 personnel this season. They were most effective throwing the ball with 12 personnel. They had a 105.2 passer rating and 62.9 completion percentage with 12 personnel, including 11 touchdown passes and just one interception. They had a 91.3 passer rating and 58.3 completion percentage with 11 personnel (21 touchdown passes, seven interceptions) and a 93.1 rating and 52.9 completion percentage (five TDs, one interception) with 13 personnel.
My all-pro ballot
You don’t have to agree with it, and I’m guessing you won’t, but in the interest of full disclosure, here’s a look at my 2017 Associated Press all-pro selections as well as how I voted for the individual awards:
WR – Antonio Brown, Steelers; DeAndre Hopkins, Texans
FLEX – Le’Veon Bell, Steelers
TE – Travis Kelce, Chiefs
LT – Trent Williams, Redskins
LG – Zach Martin, Cowboys
C — Max Unger, Saints
RG — Brandon Brooks, Eagles
RT – Lane Johnson, Eagles
QB – Carson Wentz, Eagles
RB – Todd Gurley
EDGE RUSHER – Von Miller, Broncos; Khalil Mack, Raiders
INT LINEMAN – Calais Campbell, Jaguars; Aaron Donald, Rams
LB – Sean Lee, Cowboys; Bobby Wagner, Seahawks; Chandler Jones, Cardinals
CB – Xavier Rhodes, Vikings; A.J. Bouye, Jaguars
S — Harrison Smith, Vikings; Earl Thomas, Seahawks
DB – Patrick Peterson, Cardinals
PK – Greg Zeurlein, Rams
P – Brett Kern, Titans
KR – Pharoh Cooper, Rams
PR – Jamal Agnew, Lions
STer – Cory Littleton, Rams
MVP – Carson Wentz, Eagles
COACH – Doug Pederson, Eagles
ASSISTANT COACH – Todd Walsh, Jaguars defensive coordinator
COMEBACK – Keenan Allen, Chargers
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE – Marshon Lattimore, Saints
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE – Kareem Hunt, Chiefs
DEFENSIVE PLAYER – Calais Campbell, Jaguars
OFFENSIVE PLAYER – Todd Gurley