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May 31, 2017

Eagles defense will win or die with the pass rush

Eagles NFL

In the Philadelphia Eagles' seven wins in 2016, they had 20 sacks, or just under three per game. In their nine losses, they only had 13 sacks, or right around one and a half per game.

Here's a breakdown of the number of sacks in each of the Eagles' 16 games, and the end result:

 OpponentSacks Result 
Browns Win 
 BearsWin 
 SteelersWin 
 LionsLoss 
 RedskinsLoss 
 VikingsWin 
 CowboysLoss 
 GiantsLoss 
 FalconsWin 
 SeahawksLoss 
 PackersLoss 
 BengalsLoss 
 RedskinsLoss 
 RavensLoss 
 GiantsWin 
 CowboysWin 


The Eagles were at their best last season, obviously, when they were getting after the opposing quarterback. In the first two weeks of the season against the Browns and Bears, they knocked out both starting quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III and Jay Cutler. In their next two wins after that, against the Steelers and Vikings, they got consistent and sustained pressure on Ben Roethlisberger, and they absolutely mauled Sam Bradford for four quarters.

The bold statement to be made here is that if you're able to hit the opposing quarterback frequently, especially if he still has the ball in his hands, your chances of winning increase. This is high-level analysis, obviously.

Jim Schwartz acknowledged on Wednesday that the pass rush died in the middle of the season last year.

"Well, I think our pass rush reflected our defense, and it also reflected our team," he said. "We started off hot and then we went into a slump. We went a bunch of games without being able to get any pressure on the quarterback. We started getting it back a little bit toward the end. I've always told our defense that the engine that runs our defense is our defensive line and our pass rush, and we need to be consistent from week to week. We need to find ways to have guys be consistent. 

"That being said, pass-rush doesn't stand alone. A lot of that has to do with our corner position. If you can cover for a long time, you can buy time to get the sackers there. If they're rushing well, it helps the corners out. But I think that both of those can go hand in hand. If we can improve our corner position, that will help improve our pass rush. It's well-known that we rely on four-man pass rush, but if you're going to blitz, you need to be able to cover outside man-to-man. So, we need to be able to make those improvements. There are things that we can help with. But pass rush doesn't stand on its own, and I say that even though, obviously, we were in a slump in the middle of the season."

A season ago, the Eagles' depth chart along their defensive line looked like this:

Defensive line depth - 2016 
 LDEBrandon Graham Vinny Curry 
 LDTBennie Logan  Beau Allen
 RDTFletcher Cox  Destiny Vaeao
 RDEConnor Barwin  Marcus Smith


This year, for now anyway, it may look something closer to this:

Defensive line depth - 2017 
 LDEBrandon Graham Chris Long 
 LDTTimmy Jernigan  Beau Allen
 RDTFletcher Cox  Destiny Vaeao
 RDEVinny Curry  Derek Barnett


After having used a first-round pick on Derek Barnett, trading for Timmy Jernigan, and adding Chris Long, the Eagles look to have an improved pass rush unit, at least on paper. 

Schwartz spoke about the two newcomers, Barnett and Jernigan, both of whom could be in the starting lineup Week 1, along with Vinny Curry, who the Eagles need to step up in 2017.

On Derek Barnett: "Well, anytime you turn around and look at that number 92 [Reggie White mural in NovaCare Complex auditorium] back there, anytime they can break any record that that guy has, that's going to get your attention pretty quick. [He] played right away as a true freshman at the University of Tennessee, was productive game-in and game-out. He's really tough. He's got a great center of balance. He's not on the ground very much. He's got some things to work on, like any rookie. But he was an effective player. I think that against all competition he was consistent from game to game. He's tough as can be. He's good against the run and good against pass – played right and played left. All those things led us to draft him. 

"How much he can contribute [and] how quickly he can be ready is up to him and coaches. It's our job to get him ready to be out there. But we're really excited about him. He can turn a corner and be like this high off the ground. You guys will notice that when you see him out there. He's also been giving great effort in practice. We've pointed out his effort a couple times – chasing the ball and those kinds of things. For a rookie to do that kind of stuff has been pretty impressive so far."

On Timmy Jernigan: "Yeah, watched him when he came out of Florida State and then a little bit with the Ravens. You always cross over film and you watch him. He's playing a different scheme now. It's a lot less reading; it’s a lot more attacking. I think it fits him. He can win individual pass rushes, meaning when the center is sliding away, he's a tough matchup for a guard. He's not physically the biggest guy, but he's very strong and he's very active. It's been a great addition for us. I really look forward to coaching him, and I really look forward to him being on the field for us. I also like his temperament. He's got a football player's temperament."

On Vinny Curry: "You know, when we watched film a lot of times with Vinny, and I think you guys probably saw the same thing, his pressure numbers were high, but his sack numbers were low. I've had this conversation with Vinny, so I don't feel like I'm talking out of school with this. He didn't do as good a job finishing the rush as he did starting the rush. A lot of times he would create pressure, and somebody else would come in, Brandon, or Fletch or somebody else, and they'd sort of get the sack or the quarterback would throw the ball away.

"He was on the ground a little bit too much around the quarterback. He needed to be able to take that one extra step and be able to finish. How much that knee injury, particularly early in the season, I'm sure that knee injury affected him. But as the year went on, it's really hard to say. But we need to take his sack numbers and make them a little more in line with his pressure numbers, because he was very disruptive last year. He did some good things, but it didn't show. 

"In 2001, I was with the Titans and I had Kevin Carter. I think Kevin Carter had two sacks and it was a lot of the same things. He had missed opportunities for sacks and he had times where he slipped and fell or the quarterback ducked underneath him. When the season was over, we were sitting there saying, ‘Geez, he had eight or 10 sacks that he had a good opportunity to make that he didn't make them.’ Good players can make that transition, Kevin Carter did, had a good career. It was sort of a one-year blip and that is the challenge for Vinny – proving last year was a one-year blip. 

"He's been working really good. He's been working on some of the things that we identified over the offseason. And again, I say this, I could probably say it for just about everybody, but just like Jalen Mills, Vinny comes to work, and Vinny is very, very prideful, and he's very competitive. You know, I said before, our defensive line is the engine that runs our defense, and Vinny is a big part of that."

Yes, the corners can help pass rushers by giving them more time to get to the quarterback, but it's no guarantee that they'll be any better in 2017 than they were in 2016. If the Eagles' defense is going to make a jump this season, it's going to be on the pass rush to turn it up.


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