The rollercoaster ride that was the 2018 Philadelphia Eagles season came to an end on Sunday in a disappointing 20-14 loss to the New Orleans Saints. And what a ride it was.
From an opening night win in which the raising of the team’s first Super Bowl banner was delayed by a thunderstorm, to confounding losses to the Bucs, Titans, and Panthers and a 48-7 embarrassment against the Saints, to an improbable run to the playoffs highlighted by wins over the Rams and Texans that was punctuated by the double doink in Chicago, the emotions of Eagles fans were put through the spin cycle on a weekly basis.
As the pain from the loss subsides, this Eagles team will be remembered for how proud they made the city. Battling through injuries and rallying from a 4-6 record to reach the divisional round and getting within 27 yards of upsetting the top-seeded Saints, the team truly displayed the heart of a champion.
But behind that pride will always linger the thought of “what if.” From slow starts to inconsistent offense, to of course the injuries, the times where the Eagles were able to put together a complete game were few and far between. But amid all the things mentioned above, there is one area that will haunt Eagles fans the most when thinking about the 2018 season and what could have been: 3rd and 4th down defense.
The team’s inability to get off the field on 3rd and 4th down played a direct role in the losses to the Titans and the Panthers. That inability showed up again in New Orleans during the Saints’ 3rd quarter mega-drive that ultimately decided the game.
There’s perhaps nothing in football more frustrating to fans or deflating to a team then watching an opponent covert a long third or fourth down, and the Eagles made a habit of that in 2018.
All of this leads us to Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, and to his fondness for the “sticks” or “picket fence” defense in those third-down situations, the formation that Eagles fans see in their nightmares.
.@eagles defense plays a “picket line” defense in 3-15. They concede +14 yards of field position w/o making them earn it. This is extremely popular in the @NFL on 3-long but I don’t like it. #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/3jhIjT0cpo
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) November 14, 2018
We’ve discussed our feelings on this formation before and will mention again our dislike of it for the simple fact that even if you don’t give up a conversion, you’re still conceding unnecessary field position and at times giving opponents the option to go for it on fourth-down instead of forcing a punt. In addition, it sets the wrong tone for the defense, creating a reactionary mindset rather than an aggressive one.
All of this is to say that Schwartz and the defense have drawn a lot of (deserved) ire from Eagles fans. But is calling for Schwartz’s job going too far? For the answer, we turn to the constant beacon of reason and logic that is Reuben Frank.
20 points in a playoff game in New Orleans vs a team averaging 35 with Fletcher Cox missing 35 snaps
35 points in two playoff games.
17.0 points per game in five playoff games.
Post as many laughing faces as you want.
Guy can coach a little bit. https://t.co/rDarqb7h5k
— Reuben Frank (@RoobNBCS) January 15, 2019
As Frank points out, all things considered, it’s not a stretch to call the job that Schwartz has done masterful. Over the past two postseasons, his defense has limited Matt Ryan and Julio Jones to 10 points, shut out the Vikings after an opening possession touchdown, and held one of the most dynamic offenses in the league to 20 points with his defensive anchor missing a large stretch of the game and playing with guys who started the season on the street in the secondary. The Eagles Super Bowl victory doesn’t happen without the contributions of Schwartz and his defense.
The frustration over the failures on third and fourth down is fair. If the Eagles get the stops they’re supposed to get against the Titans and Panthers, maybe they would have been playing the Rams instead of the Saints. If they get the stop during the Saints long drive in the third quarter, maybe that game plays out differently and we’re talking about the Eagles in the NFC Championship game right now.
But when you consider that the team was on its 10th (!) cornerback, that All-Pro Fletcher Cox missed a chunk of the Saints game, and that the offense shares plenty of blame for the season not playing out the way we all had hoped, perhaps calling for Schwartz to be fired is premature.