A season of record-setting points scoring ended on Sunday night with defensive dominance in New England’s 13-3 victory over Los Angeles in Super Bowl LIII. There are many takeaways from the game – mostly, how inept the Rams played offensively, particularly at the line of scrimmage, which led to a poor performance from quarterback Jared Goff – but in the end, this is the one that sticks as New England’s dynasty continues: Defense still matters in the NFL.
Not only that, defense wins championships. That’s just the way it is, ultimately.
That leads us back to an examination of where the Eagles are on that side of the football. At the end of the season, I asked head coach Doug Pederson what it would take to get the Eagles’ defense back to where it needs to be. His response: “Get our guys back out there.”
In large part, Pederson is correct.
Injuries decimated the defense and challenged coordinator Jim Schwartz like never before. Schwartz showed his brilliance adapting to new personnel in the secondary. He mixed and matched his personnel packages, had a great feel for in-game adjustments, and the Eagles rallied on defense down the stretch. In fact, the defense played a huge part in the 5-1 record in the final six weeks of the regular season and the two strong defensive outings in the postseason.
Schwartz is one of the best in the business. He did a fantastic job overcoming all kinds of injuries to cobble together a defense that had 10 takeaways in the final six regular-season games, that generated a pass rush with a depleted front four, and that was largely stellar in the red zone. But Schwartz needs more. The defense needs players.
Some of them are going to return from injuries. Defensive ends Derek Barnett and Josh Sweat are expected to be healthy when the team’s Organized Team Activities begin in the spring. Safety Rodney McLeod says he feels great coming back from a knee injury. Newly re-signed linebacker Paul Worrilow is going to compete for playing time after missing all of 2018 with a knee injury. Cornerback Jalen Mills is recovering from his foot injury.
The unofficial depth chart in August is going to look a lot different than it did at the end of the 2018 season, and that’s a good thing.
But there are going to be more changes – to the personnel, to the scheme, the way the Eagles do business on the defensive side of the ball. The largest priority is to make sure the front four – the front seven, really – is as deep and talented as the Eagles can possibly make it. Straight ahead, the Eagles have to navigate through some potentially difficult decisions in free agency – ends Brandon Graham and Haloti Ngata are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March. They have to decide how much Sweat can give them in Year 2. They need to make sure they have playmakers who are healthy and durable working alongside Fletcher Cox. Middle linebacker Jordan Hicks is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March.
Free agency begins on March 13 and at that time we’ll have a good sense of the direction the Eagles want to take. The NFL Draft is said to be loaded with defensive linemen. Schwartz has said from the moment he arrived that the key to his defense is a dominating front. It’s going to start there for the Eagles – the defensive line and out.
What Schwartz did with the defense, considering injuries at every level, was considerable. The defense kept the Eagles in games down the stretch and in some cases, the shutout at Washington in particular, was downright dominating. To build upon that next season, the Eagles' defense needs to challenge its roster, add layers to the scheme, and get healthy in the months to come.
The sense here is that the Eagles are going to look quite a bit different on defense in 2019. They’ve got a good foundation in place. There is much to build upon. Next step: How do the Eagles make the defense a Super Bowl-caliber unit for next season?