Philadelphia Eagles News

Defensive challenge: Slow the big-play passing game

Numbers don't lie. Isn't that the old saying in football? That and, "the eye in the sky doesn't lie," or something like that. Anyway, the Eagles gave up too many big plays in the passing game last year. Like, 50 plays of 20 or more yards. And in two games against Washington and its rookie wide receiver Terry McLaurin, it wasn't pretty.

The Eagles twice beat Washington in 2019, but neither game was easy. In the opener at Lincoln Financial Field, the Carson Wentz-to-DeSean Jackson love line obscured a struggle for the Eagles' defense, which gave up a whopping 186 yards after the catch that included touchdown grabs-and-runs of 69 yards (McLaurin, more on him later) and 48 yards (by tight end Vernon Davis) in the 32-27 Philadelphia victory. Later in the season, the Eagles squeezed out a 27-17 victory, but the defense allowed 8.7 yards per pass attempt from rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins, with another five catches, 130 yards, and a 75-yard touchdown catch-and-run by McLaurin.

Taking stock of the hits and misses after the 2019 season, the Eagles wanted to turn the roster over and get younger and faster and, by extension, tighten things up on the back end defensively. They traded for cornerback Darius "Big Play" Slay and signed Nickell Robey-Coleman, moved Jalen Mills from cornerback to safety to replace Malcolm Jenkins (free agency to New Orleans), and brought in safeties Will Parks (free agency) and K'Von Wallace (NFL Draft). Versatility everywhere!

The Eagles know that Slay matched up against McLaurin when Slay played with Detroit, and in that game McLaurin was targeted 12 times, with five receptions for 72 yards. Not much harm on a lot of opportunities. It may not mean much for Sunday, but it means something, doesn't it? Right Jim Schwartz?

"I really didn't spend a lot of time on that because Detroit plays a different scheme than we play, and we're going to employ Slay a little bit different and stuff like that," Schwartz said on Tuesday at his regularly scheduled teleconference with reporters. "There is some carryover to our games last year and then also individual matchups, but we're in a new year this year. We're going to be ready for however they deploy their guys, and I'm excited about all our guys. I think we have some good matchups in this game."

It's going to be fascinating to watch how Schwartz plays it this season, beginning on Sunday. With the added versatility on the back end – and don't be surprised to see a lot of "dime" personnel, with six defensive backs, one linebacker, and four linemen are on the field at the same time – does Schwartz bring more blitzes? How many different looks can he give quarterbacks, starting with Washington's Dwayne Haskins?

This is Game 1 and the Eagles haven't had a ton of on-field time, of course, so maybe Schwartz plays it relatively vanilla and just looks to win one-on-one battles. Then again, he does have Slay, who has been invited to the last three Pro Bowls, and he has more depth in the secondary and he's got a defensive front that, even with some injuries to consider (will end Derek Barnett and tackle Javon Hargrave play?) has dominating talent to win in the trenches.

"We just have to prepare ourselves the best we can. We have to know ourselves well. We have to know our schemes and adjustments and things like that. I don't think any offense is simplifying right now. There is so much complexity to the offensive game in the NFL right now with all the different kind of motions and different ways they're using personnel as hybrid players," Schwartz said. "I don't think anybody is backing off of that when it comes to early in the season stuff. I think it's up to us to be us, as good as we can be, as opposed to just going too much, particularly early in the season, off what we think might happen."

What's going to happen is that Haskins, another year older, is going to try to get the ball to McLaurin, one of the best young receivers in the league. Washington is also expected to employ rookie running back Antonio Gibson, who's a 6-2, 220-pound load of versatility. He's the unknown, the X-factor. Washington released veteran running back Adrian Pederson and is expected to use a lot of Gibson in a variety of ways – he was as much of a slot receiver in college at Memphis as he was a running back – and for a rookie to impress to that degree without any benefit of preseason games is mighty impressive.

The lesson: Don't take Haskins lightly. And certainly don't sleep on Gibson, even if you've never heard of him.

"He's a little bit different than some of these other guys that have been that running back/wide receiver, because generally they might be a little bit on the lighter side and things like that.

"This guy is 6-foot, 230-pound type guy with explosive straight-line speed," Schwartz said. "We have to respect him whether he's lined up at the running back position or lined up at a wide receiver position. And when he is in the open field, you know, we're going to have to do a good job tackling and maybe even gang tackling, because we're not talking about a 180-pound or 190-pound guy. We're talking about a guy that's probably around 230 pounds on Sunday and has the speed, if he can make you miss, to go the distance, but also could use his power and try to run guys over. So he's a little bit different. But we would expect him to certainly have a big role, and we're sort of just speculating on how they would use him. But we'll figure it out on Sunday."

We'll start to, anyway. There are unknowns in just about every corner of the NFL universe as the regular season begins. Even with a defense that returns relatively intact – Slay and Robey-Coleman are the only projected starters (not counting Hargrave) who weren't here last season. The Eagles are familiar with the system. They're going to try to be ready for anything.

How much of a difference does having a "shutdown" cornerback like Slay in the defense? We'll have a big sampling size to digest on Sunday. The mission is to slow down the vertical passing game. Washington represents a strong first challenge.

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