July 25, 2017
A lot of the focus this offseason has been about what the Eagles added on the offensive side of the ball. And given what that means for the development of quarterback Carson Wentz, it shouldn’t be a surprise they’re getting the bulk of the headlines.
But let’s not forget that it was the Eagles’ defense that was the biggest reason for their early-season success, ranking near the top of the league for the first half of the season. There were some struggles down the stretch, sure, but Jim Schwartz’s unit still managed to finish 12th in points against and 13th in yards allowed. That’s quite the improvement over Billy Davis’ defense from a year earlier, when the Eagles finished 28th and 30th, respectively, in Chip Kelly’s final season at the helm.
That improvement came despite the issues everyone watching could so clearly see, like the cornerback problem they still haven’t solved or how at times they appeared incapable of getting to opposing quarterbacks.
While the former remains a potential disaster, the latter hopefully won’t be a concern in 2017, thanks to a variety of new additions and belief that Fletcher Cox will have a bounce-back season. After a six-sack performance against Sam Bradford and the Vikings, the Eagles defense managed a grand total of six sacks over their next six games.
New additions like first-round pick Derek Barnett, as well as veterans Tim Jernigan and Chris Long, will hopefully go a long way toward preventing similar slumps this time around. See, they need that pass rush to help mask their deficiencies at cornerback. Because there isn’t much they can do to upgrade that unit before the start of the season, Schwartz’s defense is likely going to live or die by its ability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
On Tuesday, Schwartz met with the media at training camp for the first time this summer. And he was asked about just that – improving the pass rush to take pressure off the corners:
“I mean, everything looks good on paper,” Schwartz said. “Mike Tyson, right? Everybody's got a plan until they get punched in the mouth. That's sort of the same thing. I mean, it's one thing to rush without pads. It's one thing to rush when it's controlled situations. When you've got to rush when there are running backs chipping you, when the quarterback's on the move, when you've got to respect the run also, it can look a lot different.
“I do like the guys we have up front. It's not just drafting a guy like Derek [Barnett] or bringing a guy like Chris [Long] in. I think Tim Jernigan is really going to be a big addition for us. He was hard to handle inside. Last year when Fletch [Fletcher Cox] had such a good start, that first month, teams adjusted. They started taking him away, and we didn't win enough one on ones away from him because that other tackle got the one on ones. Well, that happened in OTAs, and Timmy's able to get good pressure.
“There are a lot of times in college you can live off of one move. You get to the NFL, and guys are going to take that one move away, and you're going to have to have a counter to it. So whether it's an inside power move, whether it's an inside spin move, he's been working really hard on an inside spin.”
“So I think that was – I don't know if it flew under the radar, but it was an important acquisition for us. I think that will affect our pass-rush as much as bringing a first-round draft pick or veteran player into the mix.”
Jernigan won’t be the only new Eagle trying to help the defense absorb that punch to the mouth. But given his veteran status, just like Chris Long, he’s much less of an unknown than say, Barnett. All three will be playing in a new system with new teammates, but of the three, only Barnett will also be adjusting to life in the NFL for the first time.
And there will be an adjustment period.
Barnett, who broke Reggie White’s sack record at Tennessee, thrived by beating offensive tackles to the outside. At this level, that won’t be enough.
“Well, it all works off of his edge rush, and you have to keep guys honest,” Schwartz said. “There are a lot of times in college you can live off of one move. You get to the NFL, and guys are going to take that one move away, and you're going to have to have a counter to it. So whether it's an inside power move, whether it's an inside spin move, he's been working really hard on an inside spin.”
Between now and the start of the season, the 21-year-old is going to need to add a few of those moves to his repertoire if he hopes to survive his rookie season.
“It's not there yet, but he's working on it,” Schwartz added. “He's got really good hands and he can get some speed to power, where he's getting ready to duck, and then go stick those guys and collapse the pocket. But you've got to have that whole arsenal, and that's going to be his thing in training camp to complete that arsenal.”
Still a work in progress, Barnett is penciled in behind Long as the backup right defensive end according to Jimmy Kempski’s latest depth chart. So what does he have to do between now and Week 1 to be NFL-ready and solidify that position – or, perhaps, overtake Long as the team’s starter?
“It's just like any young defensive lineman, use of hands, hand placement, particularly [in the] run game, consistency, and technique,” Schwartz said. “You have to be really consistent in technique from play to play. No different than anybody else. But he's at a good starting point. He's got some definite – he's got a definite toolbox to use. But there are other things that we talked about that he can add to his arsenal, so to speak.”
Barnett’s first real test will come on Thursday when the veterans arrive and he has to line up opposite nine-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro tackle Jason Peters.
Talk about a punch to the mouth.
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