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Paul Domowitch: Eagles’ struggles v. blitz could cause a quick playoff exit


Photo Credit by Philadelphia Eagles

OCR Logo Color 300DPIThe most disconcerting part of the Eagles’ 27-10 loss to the Giants last week was the inability of Jalen Hurts and the offense to cope with the Giants’ relentless blitzing.

Wink Martindale’s defense sent extra rushers after Hurts on 14 of 19 dropbacks (73.7%) before Nick Sirianni pulled him late in the first half. Hurts completed just seven of 16 passes against the Giants and left the game with the third worst passer rating of his career (26.8). He was just 5-for-12 for 41 yards and an interception when the Giants blitzed him.

The Eagles expected the Giants to blitz a lot. It’s what Martindale does. The Giants had the second highest blitz percentage in the league this season (45.4).

Two weeks earlier, in a 33-25 Eagles win, the Giants blitzed Hurts on 34 of 41 dropbacks. Their 82.9 blitz percentage in that game was the highest of the season against Hurts and the Eagles. The Eagles dealt with the blitz much better in that game as Hurts completed 20 of 31 passes for 220 yards against extra rushers.

The Eagles didn’t have DeVonta Smith last week (knee), and they lost their other Pro Bowl wideout, A.J. Brown, to a knee injury late in the first quarter. That certainly was a factor in the Eagles’ struggles against the Giants blitz. But Hurts and the offense just seemed ill-prepared to deal with it. It was like they showed up at a formal wedding in Hawaiian luau gear.

The most troubling part of their poor performance against the Giants blitz is the fact that they’ll be going up against another blitz-heavy defense Monday night when they face the Tampa Bay Bucs in the first round of the playoffs.

The Bucs had the league’s third-highest blitz percentage this season, sending more than four rushers on 40.1 percent of opponent dropbacks. When the Eagles and Bucs met in Tampa in Week 3, head coach Todd Bowles, who is the team’s defensive play-caller, blitzed Hurts on 30 of 40 dropbacks (75.0%).

The Eagles won the game, 25-11, mainly because of a rushing attack that racked up 201 yards and allowed the Eagles to control the ball for nearly 39 minutes. Hurts was just 17-for-27 for 209 yards, with one touchdown and two interceptions when the Bucs blitzed.

How Hurts and the Eagles are able to cope with Bowles’ blitz schemes Monday is going to go a long way in determining whether the spiraling Birds, who have lost five of their last six games, live to fight another day.

The Eagles have not handled the blitz nearly as well lately as they did earlier in the season. In the last eight games, Hurts has a poor 66.3 passer rating against the blitz, including a 59.3 completion percentage, 6.0 yards per attempt, one touchdown, and three interceptions. In their first nine games, he had a 91.2 passer rating when teams blitzed him, including a 65.0 completion percentage, 7.9 yards per attempt, seven touchdowns, and five interceptions. Overall, Hurts has an 80.5 passer rating against the blitz, which is almost 10 points lower than his 2022 rating against the blitz (90.2).

Hurts’ 2023 passing numbers against the blitz pale in comparison to some of the league’s other top quarterbacks.  The 49ers’ Brock Purdy has a 123.3 passer rating (68.0%, 10.2 YPA, 15 TDs, 3 INT) against the blitz. The Cowboys’ Dak Prescott has a 110.2 blitz passer rating (68.9%, 8.4, 12/3). Texans rookie C.J. Stroud has a 106.9 blitz rating (65.0%, 8.5, 9/2).

Case of the vanishing pass rush

The Eagles head into the playoffs with one of the worst pass defenses in the league. They’ve given up 35 touchdown passes, which is the second most in the league (Washington allowed 39). They have just nine interceptions (tied for 25th), have given up a whopping 105 pass completions of 15 or more yards (tied for third-most), and finished the regular season tied for 19th in sacks with 43.

One of the most perplexing aspects of their defensive struggles this season has been the pass rush. A year ago, they had 70 sacks, the third most since sacks became an official NFL statistic in 1982.

This year, when they’ve needed to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks to offset their personnel deficiencies in the back seven, they haven’t been getting there. Last year, a league-high 32 of the Eagles’ 70 sacks came on third down and a league-high 26 were in the fourth quarter. This year, they have just 12 sacks on third down, which is the fewest in the NFL. And while they’re tied for seventh in fourth quarter/overtime sacks with 17, they have just three in their last eight games.

In their last six games, five of which the Eagles have lost, the Eagles have averaged just 16.3 quarterback pressures per game. That’s a significant drop from the 22.7 they averaged in their first 11 games. Defensive end Josh Sweat, who had 6 ½ sacks and averaged 5.3 quarterback pressures per game in the Eagles’ first 10 games, has no sacks and has averaged just 2.5 pressures in the last six games, not including last week’s Giants game when Sweat played just 12 snaps. Rookie first-round defensive tackle Jalen Carter, who had four sacks and averaged 3.4 pressures per game in the Eagles’ first 11 games, has just two sacks and has averaged just 1.7 pressures in the last six games.

Unlike the Giants and the Bucs, the Eagles primarily rely on a four-man pass rush. They finished 20th in the league in blitz percentage, sending more than four rushers on just 22.6 percent of opponent pass plays. That’s a slight increase over last year, when they had a 20.3 blitz percentage under then-defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon.

The difference, though, was Gannon’s defense was very successful when it blitzed. Opposing QBs had just a 70.8 passer rating v. Eagles blitzes, completing 58.8 percent of their passes and averaging 5.8 yards per attempt with six touchdowns and six interceptions.

This year, opposing QBs have a 118.5 passer rating (68.6%, 8.2 YPA, 11 TDs, no interceptions) v. the Eagles when they have blitzed.

The Eagles had a 24.0 blitz percentage in their first 13 games with Sean Desai as defensive play-caller.  Opposing QBs had a 116.1 passer rating (67.2%, 8.2, 9/0) against Desai’s blitzes.

In the four games since Sirianni replaced Desai with Matt Patricia, the Eagles’ blitz percentage has dropped to 16.9. When Patricia has blitzed, the Eagles have been god-awful. Opposing QBs have a 132.7 blitz passer rating (76.2%, 8.5, 2/0) in the last four games.

By the numbers

–Jalen Hurts has a 36.5 completion percentage on deep ball throws (passes that travel 20 or more yards in the air from the line of scrimmage) this season, completing 23 of 63 passes (9 TDs, 6 INTs). That’s down from last year, when he completed 40.3 percent of his deep ball throws (23 of 57, 12 TDs, 3 INTs). In the Eagles’ first 11 games this season, he completed 45.4 percent of his deep throws (9 TDs, 3 INTs). But he’s just 3-for-19 (0 TDs, 3 INTs) in the last six games.

–Eagles running backs have 74 receptions this season, which is 26 more than last year. That’s the good news. The bad news is they’re not doing much with all of those catches. D’Andre Swift has 39 receptions but is averaging just 5.5 yards per catch. That’s well below the 8.1 yards per catch he averaged last season with the Lions. Thirty NFL running backs with 25 or more receptions are averaging more yards per catch than Swift. The Bills’ James Cook, who has 44 receptions, is averaging 10.1 yards per catch, which is the best among NFL running backs. Kenny Gainwell, who has 30 catches, is averaging 6.1 yards per catch. Gainwell and Swift have combined for just 10 catches of 10 yards or more this season.

–In their last seven games, the Eagles have allowed 30.8 points per game. They finished 30th in points allowed in the regular season, giving up 25.2 points per game. Only the Cardinals (26.8) and Commanders (30.5) allowed more.

–The Eagles have a plus-5 point differential. That’s the second-worst point differential among the 14 playoff teams. Only the 10-7 Steelers, at minus-20, are worse. Baltimore has the best point differential among playoff teams, at plus-203. The Cowboys are second (+194) and the 49ers are third (+193). The Eagles had a plus-133 regular-season point differential last season when they made it to the Super Bowl.

–The Eagles enter the playoffs with the league’s second-worst turnover differential (minus-10). Only the Chiefs (minus-11) are worse. Last year, the Eagles had the league’s third-best turnover differential (plus-8) entering the playoffs.

–Bucs quarterback Baker Mayfield has 10 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in the Bucs’ last five games.

–The Eagles allowed just three touchdowns to opponents on their first possession this season. Didn’t give up any second-possession TDs in the last seven games.

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