Eagles' Derek Barnett suffering NFL growing pains

Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett gets double-teamed by Chiefs offensive tackle Eric Fisher (right) and guard Bryan Witzmann.

Derek Barnett made a pair of really nice plays Sunday that gave Eagles fans a glimpse of the first-round pick’s potential.

The first was on Chris Long’s strip sack on the Chargers’ first possession. Barnett set it up by pushing left tackle Russell Okung back toward Philip Rivers, which forced the six-time Pro Bowl quarterback to flee the pocket, where Long chased him down and knocked the ball out of his hand. A hustling Barnett also recovered the fumble.

A little later, on a first-and-10 play near midfield, Barnett sped around Okung and blew up a draw play, dropping running back Melvin Gordon for a two-yard loss.

So far, however, even though he has played 40 percent of the Eagles’ defensive snaps, those kinds of plays have been few and far between.

He didn’t even get on the stat sheet against a Giants team that threw the ball 47 times, and has just six tackles, two hurries and no sacks in 97 snaps.

“He’s had his ups and downs like a lot of rookies have,’’ defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “But I thought he played an improved game against the Chargers, as opposed to the week before.

“He was a factor in the pass game. He made a great play on that draw. That’s a hard play to defend and he tackled him for a loss.

“He’s had very few missed assignments. I don’t want to give gold stars for that because that’s what’s expected of him. But I think that’s also a good sign coming from a rookie that’s getting significant playing time, particularly in some key situations.’’

In the 1967 movie The Graduate, recent college graduate Benjamin Braddock, played by Dustin Hoffman, is given one word of advice from a friend of his parents. “Plastics,’’ the guy says to him.

Barnett’s coaches and teammates have been giving him one word of advice since he was selected with the 14th overall pick in the draft in April: “Diversify.”

In college, Barnett primarily used a potent dip-and-bend move to beat offensive tackles around the edge and help him break Reggie White’s sack record at the University of Tennessee.

But he’s not in Knoxville anymore. In the NFL, one pass-rush move, no matter how good you are at it, isn’t enough. Long-armed offensive linemen will learn how to shut it down if it’s all you’ve got.

“It’s the NFL learning curve,’’ said Eagles defensive line coach Kris Wilson. “Derek’s a talent. But everybody in this league is talented. These are the best players in the world.’’

“His signature move in college was his outside speed,’’ said NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, who also was the television analyst for Eagles preseason games. “He’s not a quick-twitch guy. But he could bend better than anybody in the draft. So he would dip and bend, and that would beat just about every left tackle he played against.’’

He tried the dip-and-bend move on Okung several times Sunday, usually to no avail.

“If you watch the tape, Okung, three or four times, as Barnett went into his dip, put his hands on the top of his helmet,’’ Mayock said. “He’s trying to drop low, which means the helmet and shoulder pads are going down low. Okung has these long arms and good feet, and he basically just took the back of (Barnett’s) helmet and pushed him into the dirt.

“So the signature move that won all the time in college is not going to win all the time in the pros.’’

Barnett understands that and has been working hard to expand his pass-rushing repertoire. Helped set up Long’s sack with an impressive power move.

“There’s no magic wand,’’ Wilson said. “(Getting used to) the speed of the game. Your head is swimming. But Derek is a very mature guy for a 21-year-old guy. He comes in ready to work and he competes and he makes no excuses. I’m excited about this kid.’’

Barnett is getting a lot thrown at him out of the gate. He has lined up on both the right and left sides. He has played standing up and with his hand on the ground.

“He’s getting some stuff thrown at him that never happened in college,’’ Mayock said. “But he’s learning.

“At this level, you have to continually work at your craft. I think there’s great hope for this kid if he plays a lot. He’ll figure it out.’’

Barnett has been working with Wilson on developing other pass-rush moves. Even in training camp, he would stay after practice and work with nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters.

“He needs to develop a better speed-to-power move because they’re all anticipating his outside speed move,’’ Mayock said. “On Long’s strip sack last week, he got his inside arm into the offensive tackle’s chest and jacked him right back into the quarterback.

“That was because he got up the field with a little bit of speed and he converted it to power and got (Okung) on his heels and did a great job. But a lot of times, he gets stuck.

“You’ve got these more talented tackles with longer arms. If that first move doesn’t work, what do you do? That is so typical of young, talented defensive ends in Year 1. You’ve got to have a plan.

“Once you establish your outside speed, there’s got to be some kind of an inside move. And up-and-under. A spin move. There’s got to be something else.

“And he needs to learn to disengage from these guys. I see him working at all of this stuff. But I’m sure it’s a little frustrating for him when you’re used to being dominant.’’

Figuring the Eagles

— The Eagles’ blitz frequency Sunday was pretty much par for the course for a Jim Schwartz defense. Schwartz called eight blitzes on 40 pass plays (20 percent). But he called four of them on the Chargers’ first seven pass plays, then just four more the rest of the game, even though Philip Rivers was 1-for-6 for 19 yards with a sack and lost fumble on those seven pass plays. The Eagles didn’t blitz a single time on the Chargers’ 11 fourth-quarter pass plays. Rivers was 7-for-11 for 82 yards and one TD in the fourth quarter. The Chargers scored on both of their fourth-quarter possessions.

— Zach Ertz is tied for third in the league in receptions with 26. He has been targeted 32 times, which is more than any tight end in the league.

 Top 10 targeted tight ends in the league through four games:

— Eagles receivers have seven drops in the first four games. Torrey Smith has four of them. Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz and Trey Burton have the other three.

— The Eagles lead the league in runs of 10 or more yards with 19. They’re on pace for 76, which would be 18 more than last year, when they had the fourth most double-digit-yard runs in the league. LeGarrette Blount has a team-high six. Carson Wentz has five.

— Wentz has eight rushing first downs in the first four games. That ties him for third in the league among quarterbacks, behind Tyrod Taylor and Cam Newton, who both have nine. Russell Wilson, Deshaun Watson and DeShone Kizer also have eight. Wentz had 15 as a rookie, 10 in the last eight games.

— Wentz was 2-for-6 for 74 yards on throws that traveled 20 or more yards against the Chargers. He has attempted 22 passes of 20-plus yards in the first four games, completing four. Two of the four completions have been to Ertz. One was to Torrey Smith and the other was to Nelson Agholor. Smith has been targeted a team-high nine times on throws of 20-plus yards. Alshon Jeffery is second with six. Agholor has been targeted four times, Ertz twice and Marcus Johnson once. A look at Wentz’s passing numbers by distance in the first four games (doesn’t include batted passes or throwaways):

 Wentz’s passing numbers by distance in the first four games:

— The Eagles have allowed 52 points in the fourth quarter in the first four games. That’s the second-highest total in the league. The only team that has given up more is the Titans (56). The Colts are third with 48 points, followed by the Patriots with 44 and the Jets with 40.






Struggling in off-coverage

Every day, at the end of practice, Eagles defensive backs coach Cory Undlin gathers all of his safeties and cornerbacks and puts them through tackling drills.

“Just to make sure that if the (receiver) catches it in front of us, at least we’re right there to make the tackle and don’t let the little plays turn into big plays,’’ rookie corner Rasul Douglas said.

In a perfect world, Jim Schwartz would prefer to have his corners up in the receivers’ grills, putting their hands on them and delaying their ability to get into their routes while his front four ambushes the quarterback.

But this isn’t a perfect world. Until he gets Ronald Darby back, and/or until second-round pick Sidney Jones is finally whole and in football shape, he doesn’t have anything resembling a shutdown corner.

He has a still-learning 6-2, 200-pound rookie (Douglas) on one side and a tough, but not especially fast second-year man  (Jalen Mills) on the other side, and a slot corner (Patrick Robinson) who has spent most of his career on the outside.

Instead of playing press coverage, Schwartz has his DBs playing eight yards off the line of scrimmage, with their primary responsibilities being keeping the receivers in front of them and limiting their yards after the catch.

Schwartz has acknowledged that this is a tough way to play, and certainly not the way he’d prefer to play. But when shorthanded, you do what you have to do to survive.

The other day, when I referred to the Eagles’ coverage style as “soft,’’ he got a look on his face like he had just bitten into a lemon.

“Yeah, don’t say soft,’’ he said. “Soft isn’t a good word.’’

OK, how about “off’’ coverage?

“Yeah, off, okay,’’ he said. “Yeah, we never want to say, we never want to have anything that says soft.’’

Since defensive tackle Fletcher Cox went down with a calf injury a couple of weeks ago and the Eagles’ pass rush took a big hit, no coverage might be a more appropriate description.

In the six quarters since Cox went down, opposing quarterbacks — the Giants’ Eli Manning and the Chargers’ Philip Rivers — averaged 9.2 yards per attempt and threw five touchdown passes.

The Eagles have given up 22 passing first downs in those six quarters and 10 pass plays of 15 yards or more. Oh, and they have just two sacks after recording eight in the first two games.

“Off (coverage) is way different,’’ said Douglas, who played primarily press-man coverage at West Virginia. “You can’t mess up the timing.

“If they’re perfect, they’re going to beat you every time, no matter how good the coverage is if you allow guys to throw it out there (in front of you). Unless you break before he breaks, that’s the only way.

“In press, you can mess up their timing if you touch him at the line and get physical with him. You can widen him so that he’s not where the quarterback wants him to be. So you can make things tougher when you’re in press than when you’re in off (coverage).’’

From the lip

— “When you lose, you don’t get any text messages. No love when you lose. You don’t hear anything when you lose.’’ — Cowboys QB Dak Prescott, whose team dropped to 2-2 Sunday with a 35-30 loss to the Rams

— “It’s just been part of my story. For me, as a person of faith, I think it’s just part of a bigger plan. It’s not necessarily how I would have laid it out, but I think it’s something that’s made me better to walk this journey. It made me better as a person and certainly has given me a ton of relationships around the league.’’ — Jets QB Josh McCown, who has been with 10  NFL teams

       — “I had a chance to see what took place, and we can’t go in that direction. Listen, I love the compete in the kid and I appreciate his work ethic and everything else. But as professionals, that’s not something we want to take place.’’ — Chiefs coach Andy Reid on CB Marcus Peters shouting at a fan during Monday night’s game against the Redskins

 By the numbers

— The Dolphins and Browns have yet to score a single point off of a turnover this season. Meanwhile, the Lions, Jaguars and Texans have combined for 158.

— Tom Brady has 1,399 yards, 10 touchdown passes and no interceptions. He’s the first QB in history to twice throw for 1,000 yards with 10 TDs and no picks in his team’s first four games. The other time was in 2015.

— The Saints have yet to commit a turnover. It’s only the third time in NFL history that a team hasn’t had at least one giveaway in its first four games.

— Colts RB Frank Gore, who has 13,256 career rushing yards, needs just four more yards to pass Eric Dickerson and take over the seventh spot on the NFL career rushing list. He’s just 406 yards away from Jerome Bettis and 428 away from LaDainian Tomlinson.