Jim Schwartz aims to keep Eagles' DE rotation more balanced in 2017

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Jim Schwartz aims to keep Eagles' DE rotation more balanced in 2017

Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is a big baseball fan. It's why he often uses baseball analogies — pass-rushers as fastballs, players working on pitches, etc. — when trying to make a point. 

On Tuesday, as the Eagles prepare for the 2017 opener, Schwartz was taken a little out of his comfort zone. The press conference went from the baseball diamond to the ice rink when he was asked if he viewed his top four defensive ends as two lines. 

"Oh, now we're going to hockey?" Schwartz said. "I don't have as much hockey. You had the Skipjacks, EHL. We used to go just to just drink beer and watch the fights. I think that's all anybody goes to the EHL for." 

The Skipjacks (now the Springfield Thunderbirds) were the Baltimore Skipjacks from 1982-1993, so it makes sense that a Maryland native like Schwartz spent some time watching them play. But the Skipjacks actually played in the ACHL and then the AHL, never the EHL. Forgive Schwartz, though, he's not much of a hockey guy and there was apparently beer involved. 

Anyway, he at least saw a lesson to apply from hockey to his current defensive end situation. 

"I think there is some shift change in there," Schwartz said. "Hockey is that sport. Nobody can play ... Wayne Gretzky couldn't be out there every single time. It's just impossible to play that way. So they do have to shift. And you do need to rely on other guys."

The Eagles used a rotation at defensive end last season, but it was a little lopsided. Starters Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin played 75 and 70 percent of the Eagles' defensive snaps, respectively, while Vinny Curry played just 42.6 percent. And Marcus Smith, the fourth DE, played just 21.4 percent. 

With Chris Long and Derek Barnett backing up the two starters (Graham and Curry) this season, though, it's possible the rotation will be more balanced in 2017. At least that's what Schwartz says he wants. 

"I would hope so," Schwartz said. "Over the course of my career, whether it was in Tennessee or Detroit, we've always been a rotational group. And I think we've always been at our best when we've been close to 50-50. Keep guys fresh and I know you guys get tired of it but keep throwing fastballs out of the bullpen. But that being said, over the course of the season, you also have to reward production. 

"Here's the way I sort of approach it: Particularly early in the season, rotation can help you get to later in the season. And hopefully, where we are late in the season is meaningful games in December and January and maybe even February. And there's a lot of different layers to rotation. One of those is that it can keep guys durable and keep guys available for a long period of time."

The way Schwartz looks at it is by position. So when looking at the left defensive end position, he's found throughout his career that two players rotating and staying fresh — as long as there's not a major drop-off — will have more production than one. 

Keeping Barnett fresh during his rookie season is a goal too, Schwartz said. But the Eagles aren't going to limit him just because he's a rookie. They're not worried about him, especially after Barnett faced off against Jason Peters and Lane Johnson consistently throughout training camp. 

"I don't worry about his confidence," Schwartz said. "I mean, he's a first-round draft pick. When you get up on that stage and hold a No. 1 jersey, if you're lacking for confidence, you're probably the wrong guy."

While there's been some clamoring from the fanbase for Barnett to start, Graham and Curry are still the first-team ends. And on Tuesday, Schwartz praised Curry, who had a down season in 2016 after signing a $46 million extension. Schwartz said Curry had an "outstanding" training camp and wasn't on the ground nearly as much, which was a problem for him last season. 

With Curry, Graham, Barnett and Long, the Eagles might have four starting caliber defensive ends. But Schwartz made sure he didn't omit the fifth guy. 

"You mentioned four defensive ends," he said. "I'll take that further with five. I think Steven Means is a quality player, whether he's active or not on a weekly basis. I know this much, he'll be ready for when his opportunity comes. Maybe it'll be because of an injury, maybe it'll be because somebody isn't producing as much as they should, but I think Steven Means is also a quality guy. I like a five-man up there."

Where Schwartz's rotation differs from hockey line changes is that it won't always be kept uniform. So it's not like when Graham and Curry come out of the game, Barnett and Long will always replace them together. That might happen sometimes in the middle of a series, but it's too hard to keep it that way. 

So the Eagles will play with a lot of different combinations and the rotation will likely evolve throughout the season. 

Because the fresher the Eagles stay, the more fastballs — or slapshots — will keep coming. 

Eagles-Giants predictions

Eagles-Giants predictions

The Eagles will have to press on without MVP candidate Carson Wentz and turn to Nick Foles.

Foles will get the chance to keep things going against a lowly Giants team in Week 15.

We’ll get our first glance of the offense without Wentz as the Eagles (11-2) visit the New York Giants (2-11) Sunday afternoon (1 p.m./FOX).

Can Foles get a win on the road and inch the Eagles closer to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs?

Our experts provide their predictions:

Reuben Frank (12-1)
Let’s be honest, the Eagles could run Matt McGloin, Matt Barkley or Aaron Murray out there Sunday afternoon and get out of East Rutherford with a win. This is the perfect first opponent for Nick Foles to make his first start of the year. Foles, 15-9 as the Eagles’ starter, has thrown just 69 passes over the last two years and is sure to have some rust as he begins the task of replacing Carson Wentz. Who better to knock the rust off than the lowly Giants? They’re 29th in the NFL in offense, 32nd in defense and playing out the string under a lame-duck interim coach. The Giants are 2-11, they’ve scored 10 offensive TDs in their last eight games and they’ve lost games this year by 10, 10, 14, 16, 17, 20 and 34 points. The Eagles won’t need a 61-yard Jake Elliott field goal this time. If Barkley were starting, I’d pick Eagles 20-7. If Murray were starting, I’d pick Eagles 17-7. If McGloin were starting I’d go 9-7 Birds. But with Foles? This one won’t be close. 

Eagles 30, Giants 7

Dave Zangaro (10-3)
The Giants are a complete mess. So no matter what you think of Foles or the Eagles' chances of winning it all after losing Wentz, they won't drop this game. 

Foles should be more than good enough to beat the NFL's second-worst defense. And there's a real chance for the Eagles to rally around their backup quarterback. I listened to a radio interview with Jeff Hostetler earlier this week and the one thing he said stood out about his magical Super Bowl run in 1990 was the support of his teammates. He said his fellow Giants really rallied around him. That's what Foles needs to happen. 

The Eagles have overcome injuries all season, but losing Wentz is by far the biggest obstacle to overcome. In many ways, he was the reason they were able to overcome all those other blows. Can they make a run without him? Well, a lot of it depends on Foles, but the rest of the team will really need to play mistake-free football because Wentz won't be there to hide those blemishes anymore. 

Oh yeah, back to this game. The Eagles are gonna win. 

Eagles 30, Giants 13

Derrick Gunn (10-3)
What a mess the Giants are right now. GM Jerry Reese fired! Head coach Ben McAdoo fired! Future Hall of Fame QB Eli Manning sits for a game and then resumes his starting role. Their offense can't score (15.3 points per game — which is 31st in the league), and their defense, which was the heart of this team in 2016, is nothing more than a distant memory. The Giants' D is 32nd overall in yards allowed, 31st in passing yards allowed, 31st in run defense and 27th in points allowed. 

The Eagles are quickly getting over the loss of Wentz, who was having an MVP season. This should be a walk in the park for the Birds even without Wentz, but you won't hear the players say that. They have a lot of respect for their wounded division foe, and as that old saying goes, "On any given Sunday." If Dallas was able to put up 30 points on the G-men, then surely the Birds can do that. You should be able to go holiday shopping by halftime.

Eagles 34, Giants 13

Ray Didinger (11-2)
The Eagles face a steeper challenge now with Wentz gone. Yes, Foles can move the offense, but he can't do all the things Wentz can do. It will be up to the coaches to draw up a game plan that is a fit for Foles. It will start with a heavy dose of the run, which is fine since the Giants are allowing 130 yards per game on the ground (31st in the league).

Jay Ajayi is becoming a bigger part of the offense — he had 15 carries for 78 yards against the Rams — so look for him to get a lot of work Sunday. For Foles to be effective, the offensive line has to play better than it did the last two weeks. The best way to protect Foles is to control the ball on the ground and let him work the passing game off play action. It's a simple formula, really.

At 2-11, the Giants are playing out the string under interim head coach Steve Spagnuolo. I expect the Eagles defense to come out inspired and swarm all over Eli Manning and the undermanned New York offense. The Eagles may not score their customary 30-plus points but they will score enough to get the win and secure that playoff bye.

Eagles 24, Giants 13

Corey Seidman (8-4)
This week’s prediction isn’t as easy it should’ve been, for obvious reasons. 

Gotta remember, however, that the Giants are a depleted team down their top two receivers and best cornerback. I think Nick Foles does enough to win and the Eagles play ball control. The defense should force many a three-and-out against Eli Manning, who gets the ball out rapidly but often for gains of three yards. 

Eagles 20, Giants 9

Nick Foles' impressive mark as Eagles starter at home

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Nick Foles' impressive mark as Eagles starter at home

Eagles Milestone Watch just isn't quite as much fun without Carson Wentz, is it?

But you know what? There are still some pretty cool statistical plateaus to look for Sunday when the Eagles face the Giants at MetLife Stadium and through the rest of the season.

Let's take a look!

• Nick Foles has won eight straight starts at home, which is two shy of the longest home winning streak by an Eagles quarterback since 1950. Donovan McNabb won 10 starts over the 2004 and 2005 seasons, Randall Cunningham won nine straight from 1991 through 1993 and Foles (2013-14) and Carson Wentz (2016-17) won eight straight. Rodney Peete (1995-96) and Bobby Thomason (1953-54) had seven-game home-winning streaks.

• Even though he's played only five games in an Eagles uniform, Jay Ajayi has already had three games with both 75 or more rushing yards and a yards-per-carry average of at least 5.0. With one more game with 75 yards and a 5.0 average, Ajayi would join Brian Westbrook, Wilbert Montgomery and LeSean McCoy as only the fourth running back in Eagles history with four such games in a season.

• The Eagles have scored 30 or more points in eight of their first 13 games. One more 30-point game ties the franchise record of nine set in 2014.

• The Eagles are averaging 176 rushing yards per game and allowing 88 rushing yards. They're on pace to become only the third team in NFL history to gain 2,250 rushing yards while allowing fewer than 1,150 rushing yards. The others are the 1941 Bears and 1969 Cowboys.

• Finally, this: Brent Celek, who could be approaching his final three games with the Eagles, has 4,973 career receiving yards, all in an Eagles uniform. With 27 more yards, he will become the eighth player in Eagles history with 5,000 receiving yards and only the 12th tight end in NFL history with at least 5,000 receiving yards all with the same team. The only other players with at least 5,000 yards all in an Eagles uniform are Pete Retzlaff (7,412), Mike Quick (6,464), Hall of Famer Pete Pihos (5,619) and Bobby Walston (5,363).