Eagles defense still has third-down blues

Linebacker Connor Barwin runs through a drill involving a weighted ball at practice. Barwin had five of the team's 37 sacks last season.
Linebacker Connor Barwin runs through a drill involving a weighted ball at practice. Barwin had five of the team's 37 sacks last season. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 20, 2014

The Eagles defense stayed on the field longer than any team in the NFL last season, and that's not just because of Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense and his indifference toward time of possession.

It was also because the Eagles could not find a way off the field on third downs. Only eight teams in the NFL were worse on third downs than the Eagles, who allowed opponents to convert 40 percent of their attempts.

The first two preseason games showed no sign of improvement. The Eagles are allowing opponents to convert on 62.5 percent of their third downs. The Bears went 10 of 17 in the preseason opener, and the Patriots went 10 of 15 on Friday.

"I think it was a problem last year. It's a problem this year," cornerback Cary Williams said. "We have to find a way to get off the field."

Defensive coordinator Bill Davis explained that the Eagles are not scheming for third downs during the preseason. In the regular season, there will be personnel groupings and blitz packages that are designed for third downs. During the preseason, Davis has rushed four players and stuck to basic coverage on third downs.

"This is an evaluation phase," Davis said. "Sometimes evaluation looks painful, but sometimes it looks promising. . . . [We're] trying to tighten our coverage up and evaluate who can cover, who can't - evaluate who can rush, who can't."

Linebacker DeMeco Ryans said one of the issues this preseason has been penalties that keep the Eagles on the field. On the Patriots' second drive, the Eagles forced what would have been a three-and-out, but Curtis Marsh was whistled for defensive holding after an incompletion on third and 4. The Patriots later scored a touchdown, which was aided by another third-down penalty.

"We're off the field on third down, and [Tom Brady's] two series are pick six and three-and-out," Davis said. "But we get flagged for grabbing cloth, and we had [five] penalties on that drive. So we're hurting ourselves. It's nobody but us that has to fix that."

When Kelly was asked why third downs remain an issue for the defense, he said it's because the Eagles are struggling to pressure the quarterback.

The Eagles ranked next to last in the NFL in sacks per defensive snap in 2013, yet they did little to upgrade the pass rush during the offseason. The only notable newcomer is first-round pick Marcus Smith, who needs to develop.

"I think the guys' comfort zone in the defense and in familiarity with it will help them cut it loose more," Davis said. "I know we have good pass rushers, and some of the techniques - we've kind of dummied it down for them."

When former Pro Bowl pass rusher Kevin Greene visited two weeks ago, one of his observations was that the pass rushers were "trying too many different random moves." The lesson was to simplify their approach.

Outside linebackers Trent Cole and Connor Barwin have had seasons with double-digit sacks in their careers. Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry both have the skills to rush the quarterback from the defensive line.

Williams said that being more physical would help. Speaking mostly about the defensive backs, Williams said the principles that are effective on third down remain consistent whether the Eagles are scheming for opponents in the regular season or evaluating their coverage skills in the preseason.

"I think we have to get up there and challenge the receivers. We have to be able to use our hands in the press technique and not to use our hands after 5 yards," Williams said. "Those are the things really concerning from my eyes."

Only six teams played more third downs than the Eagles last season, and the best way to reduce that number is by stopping opponents on third down.

"If teams complete third downs the way these last two weeks have gone," Ryans said, "we can't expect to be a good defense."


zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm

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