Eagles playbook: No defense for bad tacklers

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Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz talks to the defensive backs on the sideline during the 28-23 victory over the Carolina Panthers.

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.’’

Poll

Which team is the biggest threat to the Eagles in the NFC East?

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.

Chucky talking football

After ESPN’s production meetings with Eagles players and coaches at the NovaCare Complex on Saturday, Jon Gruden hopped on the Monday Night Football bus and headed over to PDQ Restaurant in Cherry Hill to talk to high school coaches and players from Lenape, Pennsauken, and Vineland High Schools.

The MNF analyst gave them the same kind of pep talk he used to give his players when he coached the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Bucs.

“I’m just here to encourage them to finish strong,’’ Gruden said. “Take coaching hard. Challenge them to get better in the offseason if they’re going to play again next season or in college.

“And remind them what a great game football is and the benefits they’re getting from it, even though they might not know it. Sportsmanship, teamwork, physical toughness, dedication. All the things that are intangibles you’re looking for, they’re getting from playing football.’’

Gruden, like his brother Jay, who coaches the Eagles’ Monday night opponent, the Redskins, has been very impressed by quarterback Carson Wentz.

Last week, Jay said Wentz has “progressed at a rate as fast as anybody I’ve seen.’’ Jon agrees.

“He’s doing it all at eye level right now,’’ he said. “He’s seeing the field well. He’s making changes at the line of scrimmage. He’s making plays. And he’s making plays in critical situations. Third down. When you’re No. 1 in the NFL on third down, that says a lot.’’

Wentz leads the league in third-down passing with a 130.5 rating. He’s completed 66.7 percent of his third-down attempts, is averaging 10.2 yards per attempt and has thrown seven touchdown passes and just one interception on third down. Thirty-five of his 42 third-down completions, or 83.3 percent, have resulted in first downs.

Last year, Wentz was 28th in third-down passing (67.0) with a 55.8 completion percentage, 6.1 yards per attempt, three TDs, five interceptions and a 69.0 first-down percentage on his completions.

THIS AND THAT

— Former Temple defensive lineman Matt Ioannidis is having an excellent season for the Redskins. He is second on the team in sacks with 3 ½, and has a team-high 20 total quarterback pressures. The 6-3, 300-pound Ioannidis, a fifth-round pick in the 2016 draft, has played 53 percent of the Redskins’ defensive snaps this season, mostly in their nickel package. That number is expected to rise now with last week’s season-ending foot injury to first-round pick Jonathan Allen. “Matt’s really come on,’’ Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. [Nose tackle] Ziggy Hood has really taken him under his wing as far as the weight room and practice habits are concerned.’’ The biggest difference in this Ioannidis and the one who was released by the Redskins after his first NFL training camp is strength. He is considerably stronger than he was as a rookie. “He’s pushed back some big guards,’’ Gruden said. “Bull-rushed [the Raiders’ 350-pound] Gabe Jackson a couple of times, which isn’t easy to do. His strength is what’s taken him over the top this year.’’

— Ballots are due today from the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 48 selectors as the field of 108 modern-era preliminary nominees is reduced to 25 semifinalists. In January, that number will be pared to 15 finalists, with the class of 2018 selected during an eight-hour meeting of the selectors the day before the Super Bowl. In the interest of transparency, my 25 semifinal selections:

QBs: none.

RBs (3): Edgerrin James, Tiki Barber, Ricky Watters.

WRs (3): Terrell Owens, Randy Moss, Isaac Bruce.

OL (5): Tony Boselli, Alan Faneca, Joe Jacoby, Kevin Mawae, Steve Hutchinson.

DL (1): Richard Seymour.

LBs (3): Ray Lewis, Sam Mills, Brian Urlacher.

DBs (7): Brian Dawkins, Eric Allen, Darren Woodson, John Lynch, LeRoy Butler, Steve Atwater, Ty Law.

P/K (1): Sean Landeta.

STs (1): Brian Mitchell.

Coaches: (1): Dick Vermeil.

Five of my selections — Moss, Lewis, Urlacher, Seymour, and Hutchinson – are eligible for the first time. Eleven —  Dawkins, Owens, Boselli, Bruce, Faneca, Jacoby, Lynch, Law, Mawae, James and Atwater —  have been finalists at least once previously. Dawkins made it to the final 10 last year in his first season of eligibility.

— Eagles wide receivers already have seven touchdown catches in the first six games and are averaging 14.5 yards per catch. Last year, they had eight TD receptions all season and averaged just 10.8 yards per catch. The additions of Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith and rookie Mack Hollins obviously have helped. But so too has the addition of wide receivers coach Mike Groh. “It doesn’t get mentioned enough the asset he is to that receiving corps,’’ said former Eagles wide receiver Mike Quick, the team’s longtime radio analyst. “The way he teaches those guys. The way he emphasizes the small things that make a difference when you get into games. Little detail stuff like stance, position, leverage. All these little things that he emphasizes and tries to make sure they understand have made a difference. He has been a big, big addition and a big, big reason why the receivers are where they are right now.’’

From the lip

— “I’m proud of him, 209 consecutive starts. As a guy who played, I appreciate how Eli has been there for his team every Sunday. He’s taken a lot of hits. For him to do that for going on 14 years in a row, I’m proud of him for that.’’ – Peyton Manning on the remarkable durability of kid brother Eli

— “I’ll say in full honesty, our bottom line has been hurt much more by bad coaching hires and [bad] decisions by me than anything that has happened here [with national anthem protests].’’ – 49ers owner Jed York

— “If we make the playoffs this year, John Harbaugh will have made the playoffs in seven of 10 years. When I fired Brian Billick, if John walked in here and said, ‘I will be in the playoffs seven of the next 10 years,’ you would’ve said, ‘Hallelujah. God bless you.’ But now, because they all came at the same time, then you can say he hasn’t been to the playoffs. So, if he doesn’t get to the playoffs in four of the last five years, then the immediate reaction is, ‘Off with his head.’’’ – Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti on his support for Harbaugh

 By the numbers

—  Raiders QB Derek Carr has eight game-winning drives in the fourth quarter/OT since the start of last season. That’s second in the NFL to the Lions’ Matthew Stafford (9) during that period.

— The Raiders have three one-point wins since the start of last season. Carr has thrown game-winning touchdown passes to Michael Crabtree in each of those games.

— Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt is just the second player in NFL history to put up 1,000 yards from scrimmage (rushing and receiving) in his first seven career games. The other: Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson.

— Texans QB Deshaun Watson’s 15 touchdown passes are tied with Mark Rypien and Kurt Warner for the most by a player in his first six career games.

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.