Jim Schwartz got what he wanted from his Eagles defense on Sunday night – three takeaways with one that went for a touchdown, strong play against the run, great pressure from the front four, and competitiveness from a reconfigured secondary – that helped the Eagles notch their first win of the season and landed them in first place in the NFC East at the quarter point of this 2020 regular season.
To make it happen, the Eagles reached deep into the roster and called on players who had seen little time through the first three weeks. Those players – among them defensive end Genard Avery, linebacker Alex Singleton, and Jalen Mills, who switched from safety back to cornerback, where he had been a starter the previous three seasons – aided the cause mightily, along with many other players.
Schwartz was quick to point out those players in his weekly teleconference on Tuesday.
On Avery, who had a quarterback sack and five quarterback hits, Schwartz said, "That was sort of the breakout game we've been waiting for from him. He's always been a skilled pass rusher. It's just fitting him in with all the other stuff. I think he's really done a good job of refining his technique and limiting his – sticking with what works best for him. I think he had too big of a pass rush repertoire earlier in his career, and Coach Burke (Defensive Line Coach/Run Game Coordinator Matt Burke) and Coach Wash (Director of Player Personnel/Senior Defensive Assistant Jeremiah Washburn) have done a really good job of just sort of honing in on what works for him and he's starting to embrace that.
"He's certainly made a difference in this game. He was fresh when he came off the bench, which is a big thing for our guys that are coming off the bench, and he gave us that changeup and made some big plays for us in the game. His pressure led to the first interception (by safety Rodney McLeod), which I think was a huge play in that game, sort of maybe flies below the radar when the game is all said and done. They were driving. They were in the red zone. We got that pressure, got that interception, and I think that that was a key turning point in that game."
On Singleton, who had a lead-expanding interception and return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, Schwartz said, "He's a young player for us, but he's got a little bit of experience coming from Canada. I think he was Player of the Year in Canada on defense. He does have some experience. He has good instincts, has sort of done a little bit more, was on our practice squad. Got promoted. Played special teams. Had a chance to play a little defense.
"I don't think his interception was his best play on defense. He sort of was there. J-Mill (Jalen Mills) had really good coverage on that. I think J-Mill had an opportunity to make that interception. I was sort of standing right there and saw that ball and was like, man, the corner is going to pick this and all of a sudden it was right to Alex. So, I don't necessarily view that – It was great play. It was a great thing for our team, and a great thing for him, but he made a couple plays in the run game I thought that were probably better plays for him, and he does have some flexibility as a player. He can play outside. Can also play inside. Took advantage of the time that he had."
Mills had no problem moving from safety to cornerback with the Eagles hurting at cornerback – Avonte Maddox, Craig James, and Trevor Williams were injured and unable to play – and Schwartz appreciated Mills' unselfishness to aid the team effort. Schwartz said, "I thought that was a really unselfish thing for him to do. He was still a developing player at safety, and making some plays there and also having some learning on the job, growing pains at the position. But when the team was in need and our corners were, you know, our corner position was way down and we ask him to do it, it was never even a hesitation. It was like, 'Hey, whatever you need.'
"He worked really hard during the week. Because he had been working on different things. It's a different set of eyes playing safety and corner, but we'll see going forward. We just got to Tuesday and we really don't know where our guys will be on Sunday, so we'll just take it day by day and do what we think is best, what gives us the best opportunity to win on Sunday."
Another player Schwartz singled out was defensive tackle Malik Jackson, who has rounded into form after missing 15 games in 2019 with a foot injury. Jackson and the entire line are playing dominating football with excellent work against the run and 13 quarterback sacks in the last two games.
"Malik is playing outstanding football for us, as are a lot of guys. Once we got healthy on the D-Line and got Derek Barnett back and got (Javon) Hargrave back, I think you really saw a big jump from those guys, just production-wise. We talked about (Josh) Sweat's contribution and being a much-improved player," Schwartz said. "Malik has – we missed him last year, he only played one game for us, or three quarters of one game. Came back. He's not only played well on the field. He's been an outstanding leader for us. He's got a great tempo on gamedays. He's a really smart player. He's a veteran player and he's a hard matchup. He's a different kind of matchup for the guards.
"I think we have some different kind of guys. We got some, you know, we got Fletch (Fletcher Cox) in there, Hargrave, a little bit more of a bull rusher. We saw (Hassan) Ridgeway have good pass rush and using his power, and Malik can do a lot of different things. He's got one of the best set of D-line hands that I have been able to be around or coach. He's really good, and it's a tough matchup for some of those guards. He's also played with just great tempo. You see him chasing plays down. I think we've seen that from all our D-linemen, but Malik, Fletch, and Barnett really stand out that way, making tackles on run plays down the field. Barnett made a couple plays on passes down the field. That's the kind of effort we expect from our guys, too, and Malik has led the way that way."