By Ryan Waterman
Four weeks into their championship defense, the Philadelphia Eagles find themselves in a much different predicament than they did in 2017. Sitting at a .500 record of 2-2, the Birds have found themselves doubted, questioned, and everything in between. Initially, I was one of the first to defend them. Yet, after today's crushing loss against the Tennessee Titans, I now find myself among what I assume to be many Philadelphia fans and experts, wondering -- have the Eagles begun to buy their own hype?
"Every week is their opponent's Super Bowl, and the target's firmly on Philly's back."
That line was fine to use against Atlanta, a revenge game in which they were able to hang on. It was still applicable, albeit a tougher sell, in a bad loss against Tampa Bay the next week. However, it started wearing thin last week against an Indianapolis team that struggled in nearly every facet of the game. Today, was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. So, that now begs the question -- what's going on with the defending Super Bowl Champs?
Entering the season, everyone's question regarding Philadelphia was their offensive makeup. Carson Wentz was recovering from a torn ACL suffered nine short months ago, Alshon Jeffery was recovering from a torn rotator cuff that he played all of last season through, and there was uncertainty surrounding the ability of returning veterans Darren Sproles and Jason Peters, who much like Wentz, were recovering from their own ACL tears. Those questions became seemingly validated doubts after an 18-12 victory on opening night, in which Nick Foles looked completely lost, and the offense struggled to put together any form of momentum.
The following week against the Buccaneers, the offense looked to begin hitting a rhythm, compiling 412 yards and 21 points. Yet, they still lost. Last week, it was an "take the good with the bad" type of game, having compiled 379 yards, but struggling to find the end-zone in a messy outing against the Colts. For the third straight week, the offense has reached the 375+ yard mark. Although, they find themselves with a second loss over that span. How can an offense putting up near elite numbers find themselves in such uneasy contests? Need look no further than this man...
The once seemingly vaunted defense of Jim Schwartz has been anything but, this season. Sure, the numbers may look like they're a stellar unit, but statistics don't tell the entire story. The "bend, but don't break" mentality has proven at times to be an incredibly costly strategy for Schwartz's unit. Ultimately, when you win, allowing yards don't hurt as much. However, when losing, allowing the fourth-worst offensive unit in football (284.0 YPG on average) to accumulate over 380 yards of total offense becomes a bit of a concern to fans. Yes, the Birds have allowed over 300 yards per game, but those totals are fairly skewed in part due to the 436 yards allowed to the now 2-2 Buccaneers back in Week 2.
Tackling has played a massive part in the amount of yards the Birds have allowed this season. My, how it plagued them today. Whether it's a lack of follow-through on tackles, missed tackles, or just a blown opportunity to bring down the ball-carrier, it's been an issue. It's turned what would've been fourth-downs into first-downs, five-yard gains into 25-yard gains, and would've been third-and-goals into touchdowns. It's fundamentals, and this team suddenly appears to lack it.
Another major issue that's been discussed, dating back to last season, has been the stark contrast between the defense that plays at home, and the one that plays on the road. The first issue to be tackled is the amount of points given up. Schwartz's defense has allowed nearly two touchdowns more on the road to their opponents (26.5 PPG on the road), than they've allowed at home (14.5 PPG at home). It's like night-and-day between the two defenses. Opponents are two-for-ten in the red-zone when playing at Lincoln Financial Field, but are a mind-boggling five-for-six when playing at home. Third-down conversions have been a major problem as well. Entering today's game, opponents were just 22% on third-downs when playing in Philly. At home, their a whopping 40%. This is just one of many issues that needs to be tackled before it snowballs out of control.
Schematically, this defense isn't built for sustained success. Leaving your cornerbacks out on an island, playing between 10-12 yards off the line of scrimmage will never work, and it's been put under a microscope this season. Jalen Mills has been beat short, deep, and moderately. Ronald Darby's yet to be truly beat deep, but has repeatedly been beaten in the short game, and even moderately. They're playing scared, and they're getting beaten because of it. The lack of safety help that Schwartz has dialed up is also a concern, as 95 percent of the time that Mills has be beaten, it's been solo. There's been zero help over the middle of the field, a far cry from the majority of last season.
Perhaps the issue that really stood out in this outing, but has been masked throughout the rest of the season, is the lack of discipline from this defensive unit. Prior to today's outing, the Eagles were second in the NFL in Defensive Pass Interference calls with a total of four. Two more today puts them at six on the year, while they had a total of seven last season. They were one of the most disciplined teams with only five unnecessary roughness calls in 2017, but have three already in 2018. Simply put, the lack of discipline is deeply concerning, as the team's already on pace to surpass the majority of their penalty totals from a year ago.
Offensively, the lack of discipline is equally as concerning, already being on pace to match, and/or surpass all of our penalty totals from last season. However, what's most concerning to me is actually the offensive line. Their lack of protection has led to nine sacks on Carson Wentz in two weeks. Nine fuc*ing sacks. I don't care what the hell else you do, but, there's absolutely zero reason for the franchise quarterback, fresh off of a torn ACL, to be eating turf nine times in his first two games back.
Perhaps some of the blame offensively can fall on the play-calling, as the Eagles have thrown the ball 87 times since Wentz returned under center. 87 pass plays compared to 57 rushing plays. Where's the balance? You're asking the offensive line to hold off a pass-rush for an average of 45 plays per game. That's a near impossible ask for any team, even if they do have a Hall of Fame signal-caller such as Drew Brees or Tom Brady. To fix some of the offenses flaws, Doug Pederson needs to step-up, and find more of a balance without Frank Reich and John DeFillipo as his right-hand.
There are a number of issues for the defending champions to iron out if they have postseason aspirations, let alone dreams of a repeat. Right now though, it appears that they've bought into their own hype coming off a Super Bowl victory, and the on-field production is suffering because of it.