Jim Schwartz

Game-winning stand just another play for Eagles' defense

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Game-winning stand just another play for Eagles' defense

There were no special instructions. No extraordinary measures taken. Not much was said. Not much needed to be said.

The game was on the line. The season was on the line. For the Eagles' defense, it was just another play. The stakes were just incredibly high.

It was 4th-and-goal for the Falcons at the Eagles' 2-yard-line in the final seconds Saturday.

Give up a touchdown, and the season's over. Stop the Falcons and you're one game closer to the Super Bowl.

"Our guys, we don't do a whole lot," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "Our guys know what to do, and they have downloaded that software enough that it's a little bit automatic for them.

"We also didn't change. We don't surprise the players. What we practiced in our red-zone period is what we played."

The Falcons had already driven from their own 24-yard-line down to the 2-yard-line.

Their quarterback, Matt Ryan, has the fourth-highest passer rating in NFL postseason history, behind Jeff Hostetler and Hall of Famers Kurt Warner and Bart Starr.

That's what the Eagles' defense was up against.

"At that point, you sort of have to trust the players and the players have to trust the scheme," Schwartz said. "I think you saw a combination of both of those. We didn't feel the need to blitz. Played coverage, played good technique."

The clock showed 1:05.

Ryan’s two favorite receivers, Julio Jones and Mohamad Sanu, both lined up on the right side of the formation, Jones outside with Jalen Mills on him and Sanu in the slot with Malcolm Jenkins covering him in a battle of North Jersey natives.

Ryan took the shotgun snap from center Alex Mack at the 7-yard-line and immediately rolled to his right, retreating to the 10 as he neared the sideline.

Nigel Bradham, lined up as the left linebacker, trampled blocking tight end Levine Tollolo, who had his hands full with Brandon Graham, and ran around guard Wes Schweitzer, giving him an angle on Ryan. 

Meanwhile, Vinny Curry, after getting cut blocked to the ground by Falcons running back Tevin Coleman, quickly bounced back up and began pursuing from Ryan’s left. 

Ryan pumped once toward Sanu, who was covered by Jenkins. He quickly looked left but saw only Curry closing in. Thanks to the pressure, he had to quickly backpedal back to the 14-yard-line and finally was forced to unload that lob toward Jones at the right sideline in the end zone.

At that point, it was up to Mills, who had Jones blanketed, and the rest is history.

The ball went through Jones’ hands, his feet came down out of bounds anyway, and after an agonizing moment looking for flags, the play was over.

"A lot gets made of what Jalen did, rightfully so," Schwartz said. "You're talking about a Pro Bowl, All-Pro receiver, 1-on-1. But Malcolm playing the seven route to Sanu and Rodney (McLeod’s) ability to help him leverage that, that was because he's looking for Julio Jones first.

"Julio slips, he's looking for Sanu, nowhere to go and now he has to re-rack that thing and by then, Nigel is closing down on him and everything else.

"If Malcolm doesn't get that route that he covered, if he doesn't get that covered, nobody's talking about Jalen Mills right now."

Mills was physical with Jones but not physical enough to draw a flag. Schwartz said Mills has made huge strides this year with his technique, and on the biggest play of his life, his technique was perfect.

"It's one thing to have confidence, but that's just not the sole requirement for the position," Schwartz said.

"There's a lot of technique that goes along with playing, and I think if you look at that last play, he did a great job of staying square. Meaning his shoulders were perpendicular to the line of scrimmage.

"What the receiver there is trying to do is get you turned so he can come back for the ball. He could never get Jalen turned."

Mills is 23 years old, a second-year pro, a former seventh-round pick, a first-year starter.

To think that he made one of the most historic plays in Eagles postseason history is remarkable.

"I think every player makes a big jump from year one to year two, as far as knowledge of scheme and knowledge of opponents and things like that," Schwartz said.

"(Defensive backs coach Cory) Undlin and Jalen have worked really hard. He's haunted the hallways quite a bit, even on off days this year, just trying to improve his technique. It hasn't been by chance that his technique has gotten better. It's a lot of hard work that's gone into it from a coaching standpoint and from a player's standpoint."

The bottom line is that this defense has played tremendous football all year.

And with the season on the line, everybody simply went out and did their job. Nothing more, nothing less.

"I just think a part of our success is our guys just understand what's asked of them in the schemes," Schwartz said.

"They communicate well. We don't make a lot of mistakes, mental mistakes, and I think that makes it hard to drive the ball on us.

"When you get into those situations where is it's closed quarters and you don't have to defend deep balls, our guys have a good understanding of what opponents are going to do. I was proud of them on that play."

Time for Eagles' other half to show up

Time for Eagles' other half to show up

Doug Pederson preached about identity Tuesday. He said he wants the Eagles to do the things that got them to this point. 

Part of the Eagles' identity is gone. It shredded its ACL on a warm Los Angeles evening in December. Carson Wentz isn't coming back and they'll have to win without him. 

But the other part of the Eagles' identity is still there. Jim Schwartz's defense has the ability to be a shutdown unit, starting with the big guys up front. The high-priced defensive line has been a motor for this team all season. 

So with the season on the line, it's time for the line to show up. 

"We're the highest-paid group on this team," said Fletcher Cox, who signed a $100 million contract last June. "Everyone looks to us to set the tempo and that's what we want to do. That's what we need to do." 

The starting group of Cox, Tim Jernigan, Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry has been dynamic all year long. Then add Derek Barnett, Chris Long, Beau Allen and Destiny Vaeao, and there's the rotation that has helped the Eagles put together a 13-3 season. 

But after playing well for months, the Eagles' defensive line limped across the regular-season finish line. The Eagles piled up 38 sacks in the regular season but just two over the last two games. They also allowed their two highest rushing totals in back-to-back weeks to end the regular season. There were plenty of factors involved, including injury and unusual circumstances in a meaningless game. 

But the extra week of rest has gotten the group healthy. Graham (ankle) returned to practice Tuesday. Jernigan (ankle) and Barnett (groin) are good to go as well. It's a good thing the unit is healthy because it's going to be relied on in the playoffs. 

"We know it starts up front," Graham said. "That's every year. It starts up front. But that's our mindset. We just have to do us and everyone feeds off that energy. 

"We're feeling fast, we're moving. We can't wait to show what we can do on Saturday."

The Eagles' defensive line will have a test Saturday. While the Falcons' offensive line is somewhat suspect at certain positions, the team still has a former MVP at quarterback in Matt Ryan and also features a pretty solid running attack as well. 

The Eagles are going to need to get after Ryan and take down running backs on the way there. 

"It's very important because we've got to go out there and disrupt and not let them get comfortable out there," Graham said. "That's our goal every week. But I think it's more important we get it done this week for sure, because it's win or go home." 

While the Eagles' entire defense is predicated on getting pass rush without blitzing, the unit also ended up anchoring the best run defense in the NFL in 2017. The Eagles gave up an average of 79.2 yards. And that's after giving up 137 and 129 yards in consecutive weeks to end the season. The Eagles didn't allow a 100-yard rusher until Week 17. 

Meanwhile, Atlanta was a good rushing team all year, averaging 115.4 yards on the ground. It piled up 124 on the ground in its wild-card playoff game. So something has to give Saturday. 

"It's big," Pederson said about his defensive line. "The energy level obviously ramps up a little bit. I think what you're seeing, even in the wild-card weekend is the line of scrimmage, control the line of scrimmage, both offensively and defensively.

"Our defensive line is no different. We have to make sure that — this is a two-headed monster offensively with this running game that they have and we've got to be able to control that and sort of slow that down the best we can, and a lot of that falls on the defensive line."

Long, the most veteran of the group (a nice way to say he's the oldest), said the unit needs to ratchet up the intensity without trying to do too much. There's a balance to find. Because while the defensive line needs to show up Saturday, it can't have guys leaving gaps to try to make plays either. They're part of a fine-oiled machine. 

But there's no question the guys up front want to make their presence felt in the playoffs. They need to be the group to lead the team. 

"No doubt," Jernigan said. "I think every group on this team feels that way about themselves and that's the way that it should be. I think this week right here, we're going to treat it like any week and we're going to accept responsibility to set the tone up front. We believe if we can set the tone up front with our defensive line, it'll definitely pay off on the back end."

Eagles have been 'disrespected all year'

Eagles have been 'disrespected all year'

The Eagles couldn’t care less about the betting line for their upcoming playoff game against the Falcons. It doesn’t even qualify as bulletin-board material.

Oddsmakers installed the Eagles as an underdog, which is a first for a No. 1 seed facing a No. 6 seed in the playoffs, going all the way back to when the NFL expanded the tournament to 12 teams in 1990. But if you expected the team to take a point spread personally, maybe use it as added motivation for their divisional round matchup on Saturday, think again.

They don’t pay attention to that stuff.

“It really doesn't change the game,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Monday. “The game is going to be about preparing well. The game is going to be about executing on Saturday.

“The teams that do that, the best are going to win. Not the team that got picked by the most number of analysts or experts or what the simulation games say or any of that stuff. That has zero bearing on the game for us.

Schwartz dismissed any notion that the line was something the Eagles would discuss, this week or any other.

“That stuff makes for good talk and TV, and a lot of people have a lot of programming to fill, but I have no idea if we've been favorites or underdogs the whole year,” Schwartz said. “It's not going to change now.”

He isn’t alone.

“I don’t ever look at it,” Eagles cornerback Jalen Mills said of the point spread. “This is the NFL. It’s any given Sunday. You have to go in the game with a mindset that if you slip up, if you make one mistake, it can cost you the game.”

Even if some in the Eagles’ locker room were aware of the spread beforehand, they didn’t lend the news any relevance. In a sense, it’s merely a reflection of the tone in the media or the buzz among fans, which has been more negative in general since the season-ending injury to quarterback Carson Wentz.

Whether the Eagles hear it or not, it shouldn’t change the way they prepare for the Falcons.

“Whatever people are saying on the outside, it really doesn’t matter,” Eagles defensive end Chris Long said. “What would it sound like if I came in here and I was like, ‘Man, I wasn’t that motivated for this playoff game, but I just found out we’re underdogs and nobody picked us on ESPN.’ That’s just not the way we think.”

At this point, the Eagles are probably used to it.

“I don’t think it’s any more motivating than any of our last couple games,” Mills said. “We’ve been the underdog ever since [Wentz] went down, and we found a way to win.”

Several Eagles players expressed similar sentiments. Wide receiver Torrey Smith issued a reminder that spectators had their doubts about the team before the regular season began, and defensive tackle Fletcher Cox went so far as to say it has been “disrespected all year.”

As much as the Eagles have tried to ignore the noise, they also respectfully disagree with the narrative.

“I’m not one that gets all excited off of bulletin-board material, but I think we’re better than that,” Smith said. “But it doesn’t matter unless we show it, which is more important than talking about it.”

Underdog or not, the Eagles hold one major advantage over the Falcons — home field. No matter who oddsmakers or bettors, analysts or fans may favor, the game will still be played at Lincoln Financial Field, which is not an easy place for visitors to play.

The Eagles had a 7-1 record at home in 2017, their lone defeat coming in a meaningless Week 17 contest against the Cowboys. Take into account the Falcons’ travel — which includes flying back to Atlanta from a West Coast trip Los Angeles late last Saturday, then north to Philadelphia for the game — and the Eagles have reasons to feel confident, point spread be damned.

“We're significantly better at home,” Schwartz said (see story). “That's why it was important for us to get home-field advantage. You take the travel out of the equation, it's tough on opponents when the fans are loud. I know our fans will be loud.

“It's tough on the opponents in a hostile environment, and that's what Philly is. That's what the Linc is. It's been a great home-field advantage for us over the course of the season, and it's not just the players on the field. The fans in the stands are going to mean an awful lot to coming out with a victory on Saturday.”

We know the Eagles won’t feel like an underdog at kickoff. Will the Falcons feel like the favorite on the road?

“Our fans, that’s definitely an advantage for us to play at home in the Linc,” Smith said. “Folks are going to be fired up.”