It’s an old Jim Johnson term from the Andy Reid days that has been given new life in the NovaCare Complex for the last couple of years with Jim Schwartz’s defense.
As in pass-rushers who can relentlessly get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Eagles have a ton of ‘em. If Schwartz is the pitcher — an admitted stretch for this metaphor — his arm isn’t tiring any time soon. That’s how deep the Eagles are in this area.
In the first preseason game, when the Steelers got into third down against the Eagles’ top defense, the Eagles’ defensive line featured Chris Long, Michael Bennett, Fletcher Cox and Derek Barnett.
Opposing offenses better be on notice: Don’t get into third-down passing situations against these Eagles.
They’ll make you pay.
“It’s fun,” defensive line coach Chris Wilson said last week as his eyes lit up. “It’s a fun thing to have in your arsenal.”
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the third-down defensive line against the Steelers is that it didn’t even feature Super Bowl hero Brandon Graham, who is still out as he recovers from an ankle surgery. The versatility of players like Bennett and Graham, who can play inside, and Cox, who can play outside, makes the Eagles increasingly dangerous.
The Steelers, sans stars like Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown, got themselves into a few 3rd-and-long situations against the Eagles’ first defense and they simply had no chance.
The first play was a 3rd-and-15. The Steelers tried to offset the pass rush by throwing a screen pass, but Cox was too smart for that and diagnosed it easily.
On this 3rd-and-18 play, the Steelers were wise to give the guard help on Cox. And they were smart to chip on Barnett. But they can’t help everywhere. Long and Bennett are making their way through the left side and Barnett was barely slowed down by that chip. A quick throw isn’t going to move the chains on 3rd-and-super-long.
This is a 3rd-and-7 when all Malcolm Jenkins has to do is threaten to blitz before taking the running back and it creates a 1-on-1 for Cox, the one guy that is going to demand the most help inside. From there, it’s a race to the quarterback between Cox and Bennett. They don’t get there, but the DB is more than happy to let a pass get caught well short of the sticks.
There’s no way to say this that won’t sound overly simplistic. But in order for the Eagles to let their fastballs fly on third downs, they need to get their opponents into uncomfortable third-down situations. That starts with stopping the run on first and second down.
The Eagles were the third-best team in opponent third-down conversion percentage last year. They allowed their opponents to move the sticks just 32.2 percent of the time. That’s great.
Here’s the pretty obvious reason: Of the 205 third downs they were on the field, 149 of them (72 percent) were 3rd-and-5 or longer. Teams ran the ball just eight of those 149 times. All the rest were opportunities for fastballs to do what fastballs do.
“It’s hard to become a great rush team on 3rd-and-2 and 3rd-and-3,” Wilson said. “It’s always been our staple with Jim and Doug (Pederson) to be able to get guys in there who can hammer the run game, and it gives us the ability and earn the right to go pass rush on third-down situations.”
Winning on first and second downs is easier said than done. The Eagles did that last year though, in large part because of their stout rushing defense. The Birds gave up fewer than 80 yards per game on the ground in 2017, tops in the NFL. Of course, Tim Jernigan was a big part of that and with him on the NFI, it looks like the Eagles won’t be able to rely on him for a while. So Destiny Vaeao or Haloti Ngata will need to fill in on early downs just to get the Eagles into those prized 3rd-and-long situations.
If they get there, watch out.
Because the Eagles have a ton of weapons in that defensive line group. Plenty of fastballs.
“You gotta find ways to get them all on the field,” Wilson said. “It’s a good problem to have.”
It certainly is a good problem to have for the Eagles. It’s not a good problem for the rest of the league.