So far, Eagles' blitz has been potent

EAGL09
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz doesn’t call many blitzes, but the ones he does have been effective.

As we – and many others – have frequently pointed out since he was hired as the Eagles’ defensive coordinator last year, Jim Schwartz is not a big blitz guy.

Jim Johnson he ain’t.

He’s a terrific defensive coach, but he prefers to primarily attack quarterbacks with a four-man rush rather than going all Tora! Tora! Tora! every other play.

During the 16 years he’s been either an NFL head coach or in charge of his own defense, his units usually can be found in the bottom tier of the league as far as blitz frequency.

Last year, he sent five or more rushers on only 124 of 587 opponent pass plays, or 21.1 percent. This year, through five games, he’s in the same blitz ballpark, blitzing on 47 of 209 pass plays, or 22.5 percent.

There’s been one big difference this year, though: the Eagles have been a lot more effective with their blitz.

Heading into Thursday night’s game against Carolina, opponents have a lowly 58.0 passer rating against the Eagles’ blitz compared to 89.6 a year ago.

The Eagles have held opponents to a 46.5 completion percentage and just 4.5 yards per attempt when they’ve sent extra rushers in the first five games, compared to 59.1 percent and 9.2 yards per attempt last year.

The reason for the improvement?

“We’ve definitely gotten better execution [with the blitzes] in the second year of the defense,’’ safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “We have a better understanding of them. The timing’s been better.

“And Jim has done a great job of when he calls them. He’s good at catching the offense a little off-guard.’’

Jenkins said the Eagles also have gotten better at disguising their blitzes, as well as showing fake blitz looks that have forced quarterbacks to incorrectly change their calls.

“One of the things we’ve done better this year is come up with calls that compliment the blitzes,’’ Jenkins said. “For a quarterback, they all look exactly the same. One play might be zone. One play might be blitz.

“There have been a few times where we’ve gotten them to check into their blitz checks and we’re in full zone.’’

Schwartz picks his spots with the blitz. Blitzed on 13 of 44 pass plays (29.5%) in Week 1 against the Redskins’ Kirk Cousins, then kept the blitzing to a minimum against the Chiefs’ Alex Smith (5 of 32 pass plays) and the Giants’ Eli Manning (6 of 47).

Against the Chargers’ Philip Rivers, he blitzed five times on their first eight pass plays, then backed off, blitzing just three more times the next 32 pass plays. Rivers was just 3-for-8 for 47 yards when the Eagles blitzed.

Last week, against the Cardinals’ Carson Palmer, Schwartz blitzed a season-high 32.6 percent. Palmer was 6-for-13 for 44 yards and was sacked twice.

The only time the blitz backfired was on Palmer’s 13-yard touchdown pass to John Brown in the second quarter. Schwartz sent six rushers on the play, one of a season-high six times he did that in the game. The other five times, Palmer was 1-for-3 for six yards and was sacked twice.

“Every game is different,’’ Schwartz said. “Every offensive line, every protection scheme is different. Every quarterback is different – the way they react to it.

“I said before that we could’ve blitzed 12 guys against Eli Manning and it wouldn’t have had a whole lot of effect, because the ball was coming out so quick.

“I think the whole thing – whether we blitz, whether we play man, whether we play zone – it’s all about executing the scheme. It’s all about being efficient and limiting big plays and getting off the field on third down and creating some turnovers.’’

Schwartz isn’t likely to ever turn into a guy who regularly blitzes 30-35 percent of the time. It’s just not him. He believes the front four drives the defensive engine.

“We like balance,’’ Jenkins said. “We don’t want to be a blitz-happy team that everybody knows, third-and-three, you’re sending the house. Because they can take advantage of that [predictability].

“Whenever you have a nice balance of blitz and zone or man, you keep people on their toes. It might go from drive to drive. It might go from game to game.

“Some quarterbacks, we feel like we’re better off sitting in zone. Other quarterbacks, we feel like we can go get them. Having that versatility [to do both] puts us in a little better position when it comes to teams scheming against us.”

In the first five games, Schwartz has blitzed 12 times on first down, 19 times on second down, 14 times on third down and twice on fourth down. Opponents have completed just 4 of 12 passes against the blitz on first down and 3 of 13 on third down.

SIZE ADVANTAGE

The Eagles’ cornerbacks will be facing a big challenge Thursday night. Actually, two of them – the Panthers’ 6-5 twin-tower wideouts, Devin Funchess and Kelvin Benjamin.

Jalen Mills, Patrick Robinson, and rookie Rasul Douglas hardly are small. Mills is 6-foot, Robinson is 5-11 and Douglas is 6-2. But they’re still giving away inches to a pair of tight-end-like receivers with big catch radii.

Funchess has 18 receptions in the last three games, 12 for first downs, three for TDs. He is Cam Newton’s go-to guy on third down. He has seven third-down catches in the last three games, six for first downs.

Benjamin, who had 1,000-plus receiving yards in 2014 before missing all of 2015 with an ACL tear, is averaging 16.0 yards per catch. He had a 31-yard touchdown catch last week against the Lions and had 43- and 39-yard catches against the Patriots the week before.

“Those big guys, they’re going to put their weight on you and try and use that big body,’’ Mills said. “Me being a little bit smaller guy, I’m going to try to use my skills to move around them and get in position.

“Both of those guys bring the same thing to the table. They run the whole route tree. Big bodies. Cam (Newton) likes to throw them the ball and let them hop on it.’’

Douglas played just 20 snaps last week, which was his fewest in the four games he’s played. Jim Schwartz wanted to drop safety Malcolm Jenkins down in the slot to cover Larry Fitzgerald and moved Robinson outside. Douglas was the odd man out.

That isn’t likely to be the case Thursday. At 6-2 and 209 pounds, Schwartz is going to want to use Douglas against the twin towers.

“They have that great catch radius,’’ safety Rodney McLeod said. “That ability to go up and get those [50-50] balls. You toss it up and they go up and make a great play or get a pass interference call.

“They can box you out. But we’re prepared for the challenge. I have faith in Jalen, Patrick, and Rasul.

FIGURING THE EAGLES

–The Eagles have outscored opponents in the first quarter, 41-3, in the first five games. Those 41 first-quarter points are the most in the league, and are just 15 points fewer than they scored in the first quarter all last season. Twenty-four of those 41 points have come on the Eagles’ first possession. They are averaging 6.9 yards per play on their first possession this season.

–Carson Wentz, who had just 12 red-zone touchdown passes last season, already has seven in the first five games. That’s the fifth most in the league, behind the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers (11), Texans rookie Deshaun Watson (9), and the Chiefs’ Alex Smith and the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott (both with 8).

–The average number of rushing attempts against the Eagles in the first five games is 16.0. That’s the fewest in the league. No team has run the ball more than 19 times against them. That almost certainly will change Thursday night.

–In the last three games, the Eagles have held opponents to 36 rushing yards on 27 carries on first down. In their first two games: 122 yards on 23 first-down carries.

–The Eagles already have five touchdown drives of four plays or less. That’s as many as they had all last season.

–Just 8 of the Eagles’ 56 possessions have been three-and-outs. That’s the best percentage in the league.

THIS AND THAT

–Playing a short-week game on the road is a distinct disadvantage for teams. It means less preparation time than the home team is afforded. It means players putting their sore bodies, which still haven’t recovered from the previous Sunday’s game, on a plane for two to three hours. Until the NFL finally wised up a few years ago, it even meant crossing multiple time zones. In 2011, the league made the Eagles fly across the country and play a Thursday night game in Seattle. It wasn’t pretty. The Eagles were pummeled by the Seahawks, 31-14. The numbers bear out the difficulty of winning on the road in a short week. Since 2006, the NFL has played 145 Thursday night games, including the three on Thanksgiving every year, but not including the Week 1 season-openers. The visiting teams have won just 64 times, or only 44.1 percent of the time. So far this year, however, the visiting team has won three of the four Thursday night games. So maybe that’s a good omen for the Eagles. Or not.

–Doug Pederson has given Carson Wentz unprecedented freedom to change calls at the line of scrimmage. Wentz doesn’t do it a lot, but he has the green light if he sees a look from the defense that doesn’t mesh with the play-call or if he feels something else might work better. “It hasn’t gotten out of control,’’ offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “That’s what I like. An immature young player might have one success doing something and then just start doing it at will. Carson has demonstrated control and restraint in not getting crazy with it and knowing when to pick his spots. And he’s picked them well.’’ Said Wentz: “The relationship that we have, the trust factor [with Doug Pederson], he has a lot of confidence in me to get out of plays and to get us into the right thing. It just helps me to be more confident when I do that.’’

–Steve Wilks replaced Sean McDermott as the Panthers’ defensive coordinator after McDermott left in January to become Buffalo’s head coach. But the defense hasn’t changed much. Wilks had been the Panthers’ assistant head coach and defensive backs coach the previous two years. “It’s pretty similar,’’ Frank Reich said of the Panthers’ defense. “There have been a couple of things that – small nuances in coverage and tendencies in coverage that maybe are just slightly different. But that’s about it.’’

–A couple of years ago, Jason Peters showed up at training camp at about 315-320 pounds. It was the lightest he had been in a long time. The nine-time Pro Bowler had hoped that carrying less weight would benefit him health-wise. It didn’t. So now, in his 14th NFL season, with his 36th birthday coming up in January, Peters has gone the other route. He’s playing at around 350 this season. “I’ve been around him not only these last couple of seasons, but even before [when he was an assistant coach with the Eagles] where he’s come back heavy, he’s come back light, he’s done different things,’’ Doug Pederson said. “I just think that he knows his body and knows how to get himself ready to play, and he does an outstanding job with it. He’s been maintaining his weight this year. Even [carrying] a little bit of bulk, to be able to move the way he moves is pretty impressive for a big guy.’’

FROM THE LIP

–“I want them to have the ammunition to tell anybody that asks them to do anything otherwise that, ‘I don’t get to play if I do that.’ I want to do everybody a service, as I should, in leading the team.’’ – Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who said that any player on his team who kneels during the National Anthem will not be allowed to play in the game

–“All of a sudden, it has become a big deal now – about oppression. There has been no oppression in the last 100 years that I know of. Now, maybe I’m not watching it as carefully as other people. I think the opportunity is there for everybody [regardless of] race, religion, creed, color, nationality. If you want to work, if you want to try, if you want to put the effort in, you can accomplish anything.’’ – former Bears coach and Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka

–“Bad day at the office. I’m a gunfighter. I got in a gunfight and I lost. It’s not the worst game I’ve ever played.’’ – Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger who threw 5 interceptions in a 30-9 loss to the Jaguars

BY THE NUMBERS

–Ten of the league’s 14 games last week were decided by six or fewer points. That equals the highest percentage of games decided by six or fewer points in a single week in the last 25 seasons.

–The Chiefs’ Alex Smith, who has thrown 11 TD passes and no interceptions, is just the third quarterback in NFL history with at least 11 TD passes and zero interceptions in his team’s first five games.

–The Jaguars lead the NFL with 20 sacks, 10 interceptions and four defensive touchdowns. They’re just the fourth team in history and the first since the 1984 Seahawks, with at least 20 sacks, 10 interceptions and four defensive TDs in their first five games.

–Adam Vinatieri, who booted a game-winning 51-yard field goal in overtime to lift the Colts over the 49ers last week, has 24 game-winning field goals in the regular-season in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime in his career, including 10 game-winners in overtime. Both are the most in league history. – Paul Domowitch