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Paul Domowitch: Will the defense’s third-down ineptness keep Eagles from getting to the Super Bowl?

Eagles pass rush

Photo Credit by John McMullen/JAKIB Sports

OCR Logo Color 300DPI 1History has shown that no negative statistic is insurmountable.

At just 5-foot-9, Sam Mills was supposed to be too short to play professional football, yet persevered and became one of the best linebackers of his generation and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame two years ago.

The 2019 Chiefs had the fourth worst opponent rush average in the league (4.9), yet managed to win 12 of 16 regular-season games and record three straight double-digit KOs on the way to Andy Reid’s first Super Bowl title.

Peyton Manning had the lowest touchdown percentage of his career in 2015 with the Broncos, throwing just nine TD passes in 331 attempts at the age of 40. Yet, he rode off into the sunset following a win over Carolina in Super Bowl 50.

The Giants were 9-7 and averaged a puny 3.5 yards per carry in 2011. They didn’t have a running back with more than 659 rushing yards. Yet they beat Tom Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.

Four years earlier, the Giants had the seventh most giveaways (34) and the seventh-worst turnover differential (minus-9) in the league. And beat Brady and the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.

Which brings us to the Eagles and their third-down problems. Through 11 games, they’re 30th in the league in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 45.5 percent of their third-down opportunities. Only the 4-8 Bears (46.1) and the 2-10 Cardinals (47.0) have had more difficulty getting off the field than the Eagles.

Sean Desai’s defense allowed the Bills to convert 13 of 22 third-down opportunities Sunday. The week before, the Chiefs converted 8 of 17 third-down tries. In their last four games, opponents have converted 34 of 66 (51.5%) third-down opportunities.

Yes, the Eagles won all four of those games, by seven, five, four, and three points. Yes, at 10-1, they own the best record in the NFL.

And that’s great. That’s terrific. But can a team with a defense this inept on third down actually win the Super Bowl?

The average third-down rate of the defenses of the 20 teams that made it to the last 10 Super Bowls has been 38.03. Not one of those 20 defenses had a third-down rate higher than 41.8. Again, the Eagles currently are at 45.5.

Since 2000, just one team has managed to win a Super Bowl with a defense that had a third-down rate above 41.3. That was the 2006 Colts (47.1).

The best approach to minimizing problems on third down typically is to play better on first and second downs and try to keep opponents out of third-and-manageable situations. Force them into a lot of third-and-longs.

The problem is, opposing offenses have been shredding Sean Desai’s defense on third-and-long. On Sunday, the Bills converted five of 10 third downs of nine yards or more. Five of 10!! Through 10 games, the Eagles have the league’s third-worst opponent success rate on third-and-nine or more (27.1%). Only the Broncos (27.9) and Cardinals (28.6) are worse.

Opposing quarterbacks have a 110.1 passer rating against the Eagles on third down this season. Last year, it was 69.3. They have a 62.1 completion percentage. Last year, it was 54.7.

The Eagles already have given up 11 touchdown passes on third down. That’s the most in the league. Last year, they gave up seven all season. Their seven third-down sacks are tied with the Jets, Bears, and Lions for the fewest in the league. Their two third-down interceptions are tied for the seventh-fewest.

Blitz Report

Desai cranked up the blitz Sunday against Josh Allen. Sent extra rushers after the Bills quarterback on 17 of 52 pass plays (32.7%). That’s the Eagles’ second-highest blitz percentage of the season. They had blitzed Jets quarterback Zach Wilson on 13 of 38 pass plays (34.2%) in their only loss of the season.

Desai has been relatively conservative with his blitzes this season. In the first nine games, 83 of the Eagles’ 91 blitzes on pass plays were with five rushers. But in the last two games, he’s been much more aggressive.

Two weeks ago, six of his 10 blitzes against the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes featured six (5) or seven (1) rushers. Against Allen and the Bills, six of their 17 blitzes were with six rushers.

The Eagles still are only 22nd in the league in blitz percentage this season (24.2). But they’ve had a blitz percentage of 26.4 or higher in five of their last eight games.

Where Are The Sacks?

The Eagles got pressure on Josh Allen on 38.5 percent of his dropbacks (20 of 52) Sunday, but walked away with just one sack. The week before, they had an impressive 50.0 pressure percentage on the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes (22 of 44 dropbacks), but also just one sack.

The Eagles have notched more than one sack in just one of their last four games. That was in their 28-23 Week 9 win over the Cowboys when they sacked Dak Prescott five times. A defense that recorded the third most sacks in NFL history last year (70), currently is 12th in sacks through 11 games with 29.

Desai likes to talk about sending guys “in waves.’’ Jim Schwartz used to use the same term when he was the Eagles’ defensive coordinator. It means regularly rotating your front four so that you always have fresh bodies in there rushing the passer.

Yet, if you look at the Eagles’ current situation at the edge-rush position, “waves’’ is not what you’re seeing. Josh Sweat has played 77 percent of the defensive snaps. Haason Reddick has played 76 percent.

Brandon Graham has played just 29 percent of the snaps. Rookie first-round pick Nolan Smith has played just 10 percent (72 snaps). Their fifth edge-rusher, Derek Barnett, was released last week after failing to record a single quarterback pressure this season.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Eagles have 123 quarterback pressures from the edge-rush position this season. Sweat and Reddick have 104 of them.

Graham is 35 going on 36. But last season, just a year removed from a torn Achilles, he recorded the first double-digit sack season of his career. He played 43 percent of the defensive snaps in 2022. But he’s not seeing the field much this season. In the last five games, he’s played just 25.7 percent of the snaps. Hasn’t played more than 32 percent of the snaps in any of the last six games.

Last year, he averaged 17.3 pass-rush snaps per game. So far this year, he’s averaging just 12.9. Graham has three sacks, including a big one in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Bills on a third-and-long. But he’s got just 15 total pressures this season. Smith has four.

Hurts Report

–Jalen Hurts had 14 rush attempts for 65 yards and two touchdowns in the Eagles’ overtime win over the Bills. He has 114 rush attempts in the first 11 games, which is the most in the league by a quarterback. The Ravens’ Lamar Jackson has 112.

Hurts is on pace for 176 carries, which would be 11 more than he had last year. But of those 114 rushing attempts, 10 have been kneeldowns and another 26 have been Tush Push sneaks.

–Hurts has 49 rushing first downs. That’s the second most in the league, behind only 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, who has 56. The Ravens’ Jackson has 36. Hurts is tied for second with McCaffrey in rushing touchdowns (11), two behind Dolphins running back Raheem Mostert.

–One of Hurts’ two rushing TDs Sunday came on a Tush Push. The Eagles have converted 25 of 27 Tush Push sneaks this year. Eight of Hurts’ 11 rushing touchdowns have been on Tush Pushes.

–Hurts completed just four of 11 passes for 33 yards and an interception in the first half Sunday. Take out their second possession, when they drove 73 yards on 10 plays for their only first-half score, and the Eagles had just two first downs on their other five first-half possessions. But Hurts and the rest of the Eagles offense found their groove in the second half. He was 11-for-15 for 135 yards and three touchdowns in the second half.

–Hurts was 5-for-9 for 59 yards and a TD on third down against the Bills. His 29-yard touchdown pass to Olamide Zaccheaus came on a third-and-15 play. Hurts has a 101.6 passer rating and a 70.5 completion percentage on third down. He is second in third-down completion percentage to Dak Prescott (72.3).  Last year, he had a 93.0 passer rating and a 62.6 completion percentage on third down.

–Hurts completed two of three deep balls (throws that travel 20 or more yards in the air) against the Bills. In the last eight games, he’s 17-for-32 for 566 yards, seven touchdowns, and just one interception on deep balls.

–He was 4-for-4 on throws between 11 and 19 yards against the Bills. In the last eight games, he’s completed 29 of 42 passes between 11 and 19 yards.

–Hurts’ first three pass attempts Sunday all were throwaways. He had four against the Bills. His 24 throwaways this season are the third most in the league, behind only Washington’s Sam Howell (26) and Panthers rookie Bryce Young (37).

Personnel Strategy

With tight ends Dallas Goedert and Grant Calcaterra both out with injuries, the Eagles continued to have success with four wide receiver sets Sunday.

Julio Jones played a season-high 47 snaps against the Bills. Jones only had one catch (a screen for zero yards). But his on-field presence had the desired effect on the Bills defense. Hurts completed 11 of 12 passes for 99 yards and one touchdown (the 29-yarder to Zaccheaus) with 10 personnel (1RB, 0TE, 4WR).

The week before against Kansas City, Hurts completed 6 of 7 passes for 85 yards, including the critical 41-yarder to DeVonta Smith that set up the Eagles’ go-ahead touchdown, with 10P.

The Eagles also have had success with two running back personnel groupings the last two weeks. They used 20 (2RB, 0TE, 3 WR) and 21 personnel (2RB, 1TE, 2WR) four times against the Bills. Hurts completed a 14-yard pass to tight end Jack Stoll with 21P that set up the Eagles’ second touchdown early in the third quarter.

Boston Scott also had 14 yards on two carries with 21P. The week before, D’Andre Swift had a 35-yard jet sweep run with 21P that set up an Eagles touchdown when they were trailing 17-7.

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