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December 19, 2017

Jim Schwartz has a few theories about why his Eagles defense has been struggling

Eagles NFL

By now, you're likely well aware the Philadelphia Eagles' recent struggles on the defensive side of the ball. In case you're not – or have been intentionally ignoring this fact – let's take a quick look back at what they've done this season defensively, broken down by month. 

MONTH
(W-L)
PPGPASS
YDS/G
RUSH
YDS/G
TO/G 
SEPT
(2-1)
22.7266752
OCT
(5-0)
17.6251681.6
NOV
(3-0)
11.7146512.7 
DEC
(2-1)
29.3279951


What makes more concerning is that the Eagles aren't only trending in the wrong direction, they're having their worst statistical month of the season on defense. 

There are a few uncontrollable reasons for this, ones that aren't necessarily the fault of any Eagles players or coaches. They aren't excuses, just explanations as to why this sudden and surprising turnaround may have taken place. 

First, just look at where the games have taken place. 

This month, all three games have come on the road, including two in a row out west. In September, their second-worst month, they played two of their three games on the road. Compare that to October, when the Eagles played three of their five games at home. And then there's November when the Eagles were playing like one of the greatest defenses in football history. Not only did they have their bye that month, but two of their three games were at home – and their lone road game (at Dallas) came immediately following the bye week.

Then there's the quality of the opponents the faced during each of these stretches. Just take a look at the average ranking of opposing offenses:

MONTH
OPP. AVG
PPG RANK
OPP. AVG
YPG RANK
SEPT
1815.7
OCT19.615.4
NOV2121.7
DEC14.715.3


As you can see, October and November were not only friendly in terms of where they were playing, but also in terms of who they were playing. The more you look at it, the more it begins to appear as though the Eagles have simply been feasting on the weakest opponents, while merely treading water against any serious competition. 

But once the schedule turns to January, they won't be seeing many teams ranked in the bottom half of the league of anything. And treading water, well, that's likely not going to cut it. 

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz doesn't quite see it that way.

"I'll go back to what I've said before: our goal was to win the game," he told reporters on Tuesday. "It's not to hold them to a certain amount of yards rushing or a certain percentage on third down or certain thing on red zone. 

"We're 2-1 in the last three games. I think that's the bottom line."

That's not to say he doesn't see what's clearly right in front of him: a defensive unit that hasn't been the same since breaking out "The Electric Slide" late in their win over Chicago. 

He just thinks the problems are being caused by his own team, not better competition.

"One thing that has hurt us, particularly in this last game, were penalties and third down," Schwartz said. "The first three series of the game, I think we started 0-for-6 on third downs. You talk about a good formula for giving up points, there's one right there. When I say 0-for-6, that might not be the stat count because the penalties don't count in those official stats, but they count on defense...

"When we're playing our best, we don't give teams a second chance. I've said that a few weeks in a row now. I'm getting a little bit tired of saying it, but we have to get back to that. We have to get back to playing clean football, not giving people stuff for free. 

"There's a lot of things the opponents do to us. They can run and pass and play-action and everything else. I think what's more important in this is what we're doing. When we play our best, we don't give up touchdowns."

And recently, giving up touchdowns is exactly what the Eagles have been doing.

In their last three games (at SEA, at LAR, at NYG), opponents have scored 11 offensive touchdowns. That's the same number the Eagles allowed from Week 4 through Week 12 (eight games). 

That's not what you want to see from your defense with the playoffs right around the corner, especially when you're already missing your franchise quarterback on the other side of the ball. 

"In a long season, you have to deal with a lot of things," Schwartz said. "There's 16 games. You're on the road, you're home, there’s long road trips, and long home stands. There's injuries. It's a 16-week challenge of having to fight through those things.

"The whole point is to find a way to get the win. Style points, Fantasy Football points, and everything else, that's secondary to it. Yeah, we want to play better. We want to give up fewer points. We want to take less defensive penalties. Every step along the way... 

"Every week is something different. The challenge is being able to survive it to win."

And to Schwartz's point, the Eagles have done a nice job of that. They've weathered the storm, so to speak.

Even in these last three games, when the Birds have allowed nearly 30 points per game, there have been flashes of the defense fans got to know and love throughout the middle portion of the season. There have been big stops and timely turnovers, sure, but what was once the rule for Schwartz's defense is quickly becoming the exception.

Schwartz said one potential cause could be a lack of "urgency." 

Against the Rams, the Eagles allowed back-to-back touchdown drives to open the second half before the defense was able to make a stop. Against the Giants, Eli Manning marched his team up and down the field multiple times before the Birds suddenly found themselves down big. Only then did they wake up and start making plays.

That being said, Schwartz believes there could be a silver lining.

"I think when you have success as a team, sometimes you, I don't want to say take it for granted, but you become accustomed to winning," he said. "You become accustomed to games not being close."

"When it's all said and done, maybe these last couple weeks – I know a coach a long time ago who went straight along and lost the Super Bowl game. He said afterward that he regretted not being in more close games over the course of the season because things were rolling, and then when it came time for it to be a close game, they really didn't have experience in that game."

Well, the Eagles now have some experience in close games – and more often than not, they've lived to tell about it. If they wind up winning a close game in January or February, maybe we'll look back at this stretch not as the time when they lost Carson Wentz, but as the time when the team learned how to win. 

With the way they're trending, however, that's a very big IF. 


Follow Matt on Twitter: @matt_mullin

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