Eagles Defense Rising as it Gets Healthier

Ed Kracz

The Eagles’ defense is suddenly, and quietly, climbing higher in the NFL rankings.

Their improving pass defense and typically stout run defense has them sitting as the eighth-ranked unit heading into Sunday’s home game against the New England Patriots (4:25 p.m.).

Maybe defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s seat isn’t very hot, after all.

It always seems to be this way for Schwartz. His defense struggles and fans want him gone. Yet, every year, his defense gets better as the season progresses, except for maybe the Super Bowl season of 2017 when the defense was stout from start to finish.

None other than New England coach Bill Belichick is in Schwartz’s corner. On a conference call with Eagles media on Tuesday morning, Belichick even endorsed Schwartz to be a head coach again someday.

“Jim did a great job in bringing the Detroit (Lions) program back (when Schwartz was the head coach from 2009-13),” said Belichick. “They were very competitive. Then he went to Buffalo (as the defensive coordinator) and did a very good job there. Won a Super Bowl in Philadelphia. I don’t know what more he would need to do (to be a head coach).”

Some may be slow to believe that this recent rise of the defense will last, especially with two defense-killing quarterbacks coming to town the next two weeks in Tom Brady and Seattle’s Russell Wilson.

The secondary will most certainly be tested.

It cannot be argued that the improvement in the defense has coincided with the improvement in the team’s health on that side of the ball.

“It does make it a little bit more difficult when it's a different cast every single week, which we seemed to be in that early in the season, but I think we've settled that down a little bit, said defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. “Part of the silver lining to having some of those struggles early in the season is you start to get guys back later in the season, and also, you sort of find out what your formula can be. I think we're trending in the right way.”

Cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Ronald Darby are healthy again. Cre’Von LeBlanc will also soon be healthy, maybe as early as this week.

Up front on the defensive line, the Eagles got tackle Timmy Jernigan back from a Week Two injury in the pre-bye win over the Chicago Bears. That helps, though the team is still without two key members of that defensive line in tackles Malik Jackson, who was lost for the season in the first game of the year, and Hassan Ridgeway, who was put on IR after the blowout loss in Dallas.

Anthony Rush and Albert Huggins were signed from other teams’ practice squads two game ago and have provided a bit of a lift.

“We were a little bit star-crossed at the defensive tackle position,” said Schwartz. “Going into the season, really felt good about Malik and Timmy and Ridge (Ridgeway) and all of a sudden we're looking at none of those three. Took a little while to get some new guys in there and solidify things.

“A little bit like some of those other guys, getting those guys back on the field, there's nothing like having those contributors back on the field. (Jernigan) didn't play a ton, and it was probably unrealistic to think he was going to play more than that, but it was a good start for him and we'll just see where that goes week-to-week.”

The Eagles got better defensively last year as the season wound into November and December and the team was able to win their final three games, including back-to-back tests at the Los Angeles Rams and at home against the Houston Texans to make the playoffs.

“We went through it last year – just finding what your successful formula is going to be and it might be different at the beginning of the year, the middle and might change over the course of the year,” said Schwartz. “With some of our players, they are works in progress and defensive scheme can be a work-in-progress just based on what pieces you have, what pieces you don't, trying to find out what your formula is.

“Obviously the way we started last year was different than the way we finished, not just in personnel but the schemes that we played. But you know, at the end of the year, we were able to find our personality and made a nice little run having that.”