Asante Samuel never played for Jim Schwartz. If he had, it would’ve been a very turbulent — and very brief — marriage.
Samuel was a talented, four-time Pro Bowl corner who intercepted 51 passes during his 11 NFL seasons, which is just three fewer than another former Eagle, Eric Allen, and two fewer than Ty Law, who made it to the final 10 in last year’s Hall of Fame voting.
But Samuel was allergic to tackling. His disinterest in it drove the late Jim Johnson to distraction and probably would’ve driven Schwartz to 25-to-life in a maximum-security prison.
“We preach all the time, it’s part of Jim’s philosophy, no matter what the coverage is, no matter what the technique is that we’re playing with, they’re going to catch balls,’’ Eagles defensive backs coach Cory Undlin said. “And it’s our job to limit the damage after they get a catch.’’
Since losing their best corner, Ronald Darby, to a dislocated ankle in Week 1, the Eagles have played a lot of off-coverage, focusing on keep receivers in front of them, not giving up the deep ball and limiting yards after the catch.
They had problems with that in their 26-24 Week 4 win over Philip Rivers and the Chargers (giving up five 20-plus-yard pass plays, 9.1 yards per attempt), but have been solid the last two weeks. They’ve given up just two 20-plus-yard pass plays in the last two games, and both of those were just 20 yards.
For the season, the Eagles have given up just 14 pass plays of 20 or more yards. That was the ninth-lowest total in the league heading into Week 7. Last year, they gave up 57, which was the sixth highest.
“When you’re [playing] off [coverage], obviously you’re giving them a little bit of space in front, and it’s going to be hard to stop a two- or three-yard completion,’’ Schwartz said. “But it you can make a quick tackle, then they’re going to have a hard time continuing to get first downs and moving down the field.’’
Two numbers bear that out. The first: the Eagles have given up the fifth-highest total of passing yards in the league through their first six games (273.5 per game). The second and much more significant one: they’re a respectable 13th in touchdown passes allowed (9) and have given up more than one in just two of their first six games.
Schwartz hasn’t had many elite cover corners in the 16 years he’s been a coordinator and head coach. But he’s made sure he’s always had corners and safeties that could tackle. His current group is no exception.
The Eagles defensive backs go through tackling drills almost every day during and/or after practice. The repetitions and the constant emphasis by Schwartz and Undlin on the importance of limiting yards after the catch have been paying off on the field.
In last Thursday’s 28-23 win over Carolina, the Eagles held Cam Newton to a puny 4.6 yards per pass attempt. Newton completed 28 passes. His receivers managed just 105 yards after the catch on those 28 pass plays. They were held to two or fewer yards after the catch on 14 of those completions.
The week before, the Eagles held deep-throwing Carson Palmer to 6.6 yards per attempt in their 34-7 win over the Cardinals.
“It’s an old, overused phrase, but this game is basically about blocking and tackling,’’ Undlin said. “Especially the way offenses are built right now.
“Whether it’s run or pass, the ball is going to be on the perimeter and you’ve got to tackle. You can’t hide yourself. You can be a great cover player, whether you’re a safety, corner or linebacker. But you’re going to be in situations where you’ve got to tackle in space. Those guys have done a good job of working at it, and it’s shown up in the game.’’
Poor tackling or a lack of aggressiveness is not tolerated on the defense. That was evident late in the Carolina game
The Eagles were up by five points with 3:41 left. The Panthers had a third-and-17 at their own 40.
Newton completed a short pass on the left side to running back Christian McCaffrey. Safety Malcolm Jenkins had one of his few missed tackles of the season. Rookie cornerback Rasul Douglas should’ve been right there to bring McCaffrey down after Jenkins missed him, but he was playing too deep and failed to close on him after the ball was thrown.
Linebacker Mychal Kendricks ended up coming over and bringing him down, but not before he picked up 15 yards.
An angry Jenkins immediately ran over to Douglas and gave the rookie an earful for not being more aggressive on the play.
Tackling “is always a big emphasis with Coach Schwartz and Coach Cory,’’ cornerback Jalen Mills said. “Guys are going to catch the ball. Tight coverage, loose coverage — quarterbacks are getting paid, receivers are getting paid. They’re going to catch the ball. If we can’t get our hands on the ball, we have to try to get them down as soon as possible.’’
Said Undlin: “The players have taken pride in that. I think a lot of that goes back to the effort and the speed that those guys are playing at. When you have that, even if the first guy misses, and you got somebody else there to finish, it’s going to look just like it’s looked. They’ve done a good job with that. But we have to keep that going.’’
Figuring the Eagles
— Fifty of LeGarrette Blount’s 70 rushing attempts have been from under center. He is averaging 6.7 yards per carry from under center as opposed to just 2.7 out of shotgun. The rest of the Eagles’ running backs have a total of 24 rushing attempts (for 51 yards) from under center.
— The Eagles blitzed on 11 of 54 pass plays (20.4 percent) against the Panthers. Cam Newton was 4-for-11 for 22 yards, one touchdown and one interception when the Eagles blitzed. For the year, the Eagles have blitzed on 22.0 percent of pass plays. Opponents have a 53.5 passer rating, a 44.4 completion percentage and have averaged just 4.2 yards per attempt when Jim Schwartz has sent more than four rushers.
— In the Eagles’ Week 1 win over the Redskins, they blitzed Kirk Cousins on 13 of 44 pass plays (29.5 percent). That was their second highest single-game blitz percentage so far. They blitzed on 15 of 46 pass plays (32.6 percent) against Carson Palmer and the Cardinals in Week 5.
— In their first two games, the Eagles ran the ball on first down on just 24 of 65 plays (36.9 percent). In their last four games, they’ve run on first down on 72 of 116 plays (62.1 percent). That’s the fifth highest first-down run percentage in the league from Weeks 3 to Week 6. The four teams with higher first-down run percentages during that period: Chicago (70.8 percent), Washington (68.2 percent), Jacksonville (64.1 percent) and Indianapolis (62.2 percent).
— Zach Ertz has four red-zone touchdown catches in the first six games. Going into Week 7, that tied him for the third most in the league behind only the Packers’ Jordy Nelson and the Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins, who both had five. Also with four: Bucs tight end Cameron Brate, the Packers’ Davante Adams and Chargers running back Melvin Gordon.
— Ertz was fifth in the league in receptions going into Week 7 with 34. Twenty-two of them, or 64.7 percent, have resulted in first downs. Last year, 42 of his 78 receptions, or 53.8 percent, resulted in first downs.
The Eagles’ defense has allowed just 23 rushing first downs in their first six games. Only two teams had allowed fewer going into Week 7 – Denver (14) and Miami (20).
— In the Eagles’ last four games, the defense has allowed just 1.65 yards per carry on first down. Twenty-two of their opponents’ 69 rushing attempts in the last four games have been for losses.