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What's The Next Step For Jim Schwartz's Defense?

Jim Schwartz is in his third season running the Eagles’ defense, one that emphasizes chaos in the offensive backfield and versatility in the secondary. He has pieces he likes to interchange, X’s and O’s he likes to tweak, and a general philosophy of “Beat us if you can.” Most teams don’t. The Eagles have put together a strong defense with versatile pieces and now, in Year 3, are in the process of taking the next step.

And that next step is what, exactly?

“It’s way too early. The D-line always looks really, really good when there are no pads, but we know we’ve got some guys up front who can hunt and that makes everybody better on the back end. We understand our offense is really good and we have a lot of talent,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “If we match up well against them (in practice), then we’re probably in a good space. Right now, we’re just competing in the situations that we’re in – competing against the offense, competing against ourselves. We’ll see how that shakes out.”

Jenkins is the go-to source who can provide a sense of the defense – the in’s and out’s of the scheme, the emerging players, the concerns – and he knows how far it is, in football speak, to September. Don’t mistake his lack of making a proclamation for a lack of confidence. The Eagles are good on defense. They know that.

The goal, as you know, is to become great.

So how do the Eagles do that? They added veterans Michael Bennett and Haloti Ngata to the defensive line. They drafted Avonte Maddox to challenge for playing time at the nickel cornerback position. They signed linebacker Corey Nelson in free agency. They are banking on a young player like end Derek Barnett to take the next step in the second season of his career. Cornerback Sidney Jones has a chance, in his first full season of action, to make an impact on the defense.

And Schwartz’s scheme, while firmly established over the years, is going to expand, if only a little bit.

“I don’t think it changes a whole lot, but like anything else you’re not complacent with it. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. There are a ton of small things that we can fine tune, that we learned about ourselves last year, different looks and challenges week to week that we had,” Jenkins said. “As we evaluate last year’s season and how teams affected us and what worked and what didn’t, we know that’s what other teams are looking at as well. They want to find ways to poke holes in our defense.

“We want to find new ways to beat the scheme, as we know the league is looking for new ways to beat the scheme. And we’ve also got new additions that we’re trying to catch up, we’re trying to figure out what our best sets of 11 are, so guys are competing for spots. There’s a lot that we’re still trying to improve, but at the same time we understand what we’re good at and what we are, so it’s just about becoming experts in our defense.”

A few games in the Schwartz years here come to mind where the defense struggled to get off the field – Green Bay and quarterback Aaron Rodgers at Lincoln Financial Field in 2016, at the Giants late in 2017, and in the Super Bowl against Tom Brady and New England. Is that quick-release passing game something the Eagles can squelch?

“That’s one thing that, to us, is a good thing to have,” Jenkins said. “I honestly don’t think there are that many quarterbacks that can dink and dunk their way down the field. Aaron Rodgers is one of them, Eli (Manning) has done it, but there aren’t many coordinators or teams who are patient enough to do that. You really don’t see it in any other games, so for us, it’s just about, in those types of games, how do you close windows early and make the quarterback hold so that our pass rush has time to eat. That’s how you beat that. If you want the ball to stay in the quarterback’s hand, you have to take away his first and second read. We can do that in various ways.”

It's early, as Jenkins says. The Eagles are working through the spring "who-are-we?" process. It’s a period of discovery and competition right now.

“We’re getting to know each other,” Jenkins said. “That’s what the spring is all about.”

Soon, we’ll have a better handle on the defense. Where does the Jim Schwartz D go in Year 3? It’s one of many questions a Super Bowl-winning team has to answer in the months to come.

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