Jim Schwartz, Third Down Woes, And Defensive Identity

The Eagles were exposed against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night, and among the myriad of issues the team needs to address, a big one is the inability of the defense to get off the field on third and fourth down, especially in long yardage situations.

Getting off the field was a glaring issue in the losses to Tennessee and Carolina and showed up again on Sunday night. And it falls on defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and his insistence on using the “line up the entire defense at the marker” approach.

We see it time and again – the opponent faces a third and 15, and there are five, six, seven, even eight Eagles lined up in a row right at the first down marker.

Here’s one example from Sunday night.

In theory, it’s easy to understand the upside. You force the opponent to throw short of the marker and swarm the ballcarrier before he can gain the necessary yardage. The problem is that it’s proven to be wildly ineffective, and even when it is successful at presenting a first, it often creates another set of problems for fourth down or for the ensuing Eagles drive, problems that can have a ripple effect on the rest of the game.

On one Cowboys third and 15 on Sunday night, the Birds lined up in this familiar formation. They proceeded to basically gift Dallas 14 yards, setting up a fourth and one. The Cowboys promptly lined up to go for it, and if it wasn’t for a false start penalty that forced them to punt, they would have had a golden opportunity to extend the drive. Particularly in today’s NFL, with an emphasis on offense and with analytics showing the value of going for it on fourth down, it’s ridiculous to be comfortable allowing a team to turn a third and long into a manageable fourth down.

But the problems don’t end there. Even if the Eagles don’t allow the opponent to get into a go for it situation, giving away eight, 10, 12 yards can make a world of difference in the offense’s starting field position. Not only does this effect your offense, but those yards can add up over the course of the game. Again, it’s ridiculous to hand your opponent an opportunity to flip the field. Even when this passive approach yields the desired result, a punt, you’re putting your offense in a worse situation and setting the table for field position to come into play.

In addition, it sends the wrong message to your defense, to the opposition, to everyone. It says that you’re willing to be dictated to. That you’re willing to react to what the offense does rather than force the action. Great defenses are active. They are aggressive. They attack and make the offense react to them. They force the opposition to make decisions, leading to mistakes. Schwartz’s passive approach makes it impossible for the players to get into that mindset. It’s no surprise that the Eagles have forced just seven turnovers in nine games.

For Eagles fans that remember the defense under the late, great Jim Johnson and the havoc that those units unleashed on third downs, the current approach is especially tough to swallow. Those defenses were a weapon. They were feared. They moved the needle in the Eagles’ favor.

With the current unit there is no tone. There’s no identity. And it starts with the coordinator.

That Schwartz insists on sticking with a scheme that hasn’t worked and that has little upside even when it does “work” is frustrating. That he has failed to instill the right mentality in his unit is unacceptable. Now, it might be too late.

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