AS JIM SCHWARTZ has pointed out on numerous occasions, his defensive line is the engine that drives his defense.
The Eagles’ defensive coordinator isn’t a big fan of blitzing, preferring to rely on his front four to get pressure on the quarterback.
“Our lifeblood is always going to be putting pressure on the quarterback,” he said. “I think that’s the best way to succeed in this league. If you can find a way to do that, I think you’re going to be successful over the long term. If you struggle to do that, you’re going to be behind the eight ball the whole time.”
The Eagles’ pass rush was good for a while last season, until it wasn’t. They had 20 sacks and 62 hurries in their first six games, then seemed to misplace the directions to the quarterback and had just 14 sacks and 45 hurries in their final 10 games.
Their pass-rush problems were a big reason – though certainly not the only one – the Eagles won just three of those last 10 games and missed the playoffs for the third straight year.
“Everywhere I’ve ever been in my career, it starts up front,” said defensive-line coach Chris Wilson. “That never changes.
“It’s like paying the mortgage. It’s required. If you look around the league, if you’re not good up front, it makes it hard for everybody. And that’s on both sides of the football.”
Wilson spent 23 years as a college coach before joining Doug Pederson’s staff last season. He’d like to stick around for a while.
But as former wide receivers coach Greg Lewis discovered a few months ago, teachers are judged by the performance of their students in the NFL. When the students don’t get the job done, the teacher often can find himself on the next Acela train out of town.
The Eagles made some significant changes to their defensive line this offseason, signing veteran free agents Tim Jernigan and Chris Long and selecting defensive end Derek Barnett with the 14th overall pick in the draft.
Thirty-four sacks isn’t going to cut it this season, and Wilson knows it.
The Eagles’ second-half sack drought wasn’t just a matter of Wilson’s defensive line not playing as well as it did early on, though that certainly was a big part of it.
Opposing quarterbacks started countering the Eagles’ four-man rush by getting the ball out more quickly. The Eagles also found themselves playing from behind a lot more.
They were outscored 136-105 in the first half in their last 10 games. They led at the end of the third quarter in four of their first six games (won all four), but just four of the last 10 (won three of them).
“So much of rushing (the passer) is opportunity,” Wilson said. “A lot of those situations are dictated by the circumstances of the game and what the score is.
“A lot of people now are using the quick (passing) game as their run game. Winning takes care of a lot of that. When you’re in position to be up early in games and maintain and control the lead, it forces people to come out and throw the football. And not just real quick. They have to stretch the field.”
In four straight November-December losses to Seattle, Green Bay, Cincinnati and Washington, the Eagles had just three sacks, only one of them with a four-man rush. Opposing quarterbacks had a 131.2 passer rating and a 74.4 percent completion rate in those four games when the Eagles rushed four players.
With the additions of Barnett, Jernigan and Long, Wilson thinks the Eagles’ pass rush will be much better this season.
“We’re on pace to have a solid, good rush team in my opinion, looking at the OTAs,” he said Monday on the eve of the team’s mandatory three-day minicamp. “That’s my expectation. We feel we’re going in the right direction.”
NFL teams don’t wear pads during OTAs. That said, the few Eagles workouts that reporters have been allowed to watch have been considerably more physical and been played at a more real-time speed than any I can recall in recent memory.
It’s given Wilson an opportunity to get a good look at his new players, particularly the 6-3, 260-pound Barnett.
“He’s a thermostat, he’s not a thermometer,” Wilson said of the rookie, who broke Reggie White’s sack record at the University of Tennessee. “He’s not trying to go in and gauge the temperature of the room. He comes in. He has the right mindset. He doesn’t expect anything to come easy.
“The only way to learn at this level is to play. Getting used to the speed of the game is a big part of his DNA right now. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. He’s a rookie and he’s got a lot of things to learn. But what I’m pleased with is his overall ability.
“The things he showed in college he’s showing here. We haven’t put pads on yet, which changes things significantly. But you can see his ability to turn the edge, rush the passer, do all the things you can do in shorts.”
Barnett might not have the pure athleticism of No. 1 pick Myles Garrett. But his ability to convert speed to power and bend the edge drew leaguewide praise from scouts.
“He has an ability to bend the edge different than I’ve seen in my 25 years of coaching and teaching,” Wilson said. “He understands angles. And that’s a big part of rushing the passer. And he can finish. I’m excited to see how he is when we put the pads on.”
All-Pro defensive tackle Fletcher Cox disappeared in the second half of last season. He had just 21/2 sacks and nine hurries in the final 10 games. The constant double-teams he faced seemed to wear on him, both mentally and physically.
Wilson, who coached Cox at Mississippi State, expects him to rebound with a big year.
“He’s got a full toolbox,” he said. “The key thing is keeping him constantly revved up and keep his motor going. Because a guy like that demands a lot of attention. And it can take its toll on anyone at times.
“You have to game plan for him. As coaches, we have to find ways to move him around and create matchups for him so that we can dictate (to the offense) and not the other way around.
“The benefit of him demanding so much attention is that it allows other (defensive linemen) to have some one-on-one matchups. Those are the things that take you to the next level. But we have to take advantage of those (one-on-on matchups).”
Another player who needs to step up his play is defensive end Vinny Curry. The Eagles gave Curry a five-year, $46.5 million contract last year, but he had just 21/2 sacks and 10 hurries in a career-high 435 snaps and spent far too much time on the ground.
“Vinny has done a great job this offseason of really learning and understanding the whys of our defense,” Wilson said. “He knew our defense a year ago. But there’s a difference between knowing and understanding.
“The days of telling a guy, ‘Just do it because I told you so,’ those days are long gone. Guys need to understand what their role is, what the expectations (for them) are. After a year in the system, he understands that concept. He knows what to do now and when to do it and why to do it.
“I’m pleasantly optimistic about the offseason he’s had. But obviously it has to continue into camp.”