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Opinion: The Eagles defense is more concerning than Carson Wentz (who has been bad)

The storyline that will undoubtedly dominate the headlines this week following the Eagles’ ugly 37-19 loss to the Rams yesterday will be the struggles of Carson Wentz and head coach Doug Pederson’s offense. Teams win by putting points on the board in today’s NFL and there appear to be issues with Wentz’ accuracy, decision making and confidence after the season’s first two weeks.

There is reason to worry about Wentz. After a healthy, if disjointed, off-season and with new weapons at his disposal, most expected the Birds’ fifth-year quarterback to come out of the gate firing. Instead, he’s committed five turnovers (four interceptions and a fumble), blown a 17-0 lead to an awful Washington team and crushed his team’s comeback chances yesterday with a mind-blowingly terrible decision to throw into a closed window with JJ Arcega-Whiteside standing on the other side of the glass behind two Rams’ defenders.

Through the first two weeks, Wentz’ 64.4 passer rating is 2nd-worst in the NFL, with only Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins behind him (61.9). His 58.8% completion percentage is tied for 29th out of 34 signal-callers, and his four INTs are tied for the league lead. If you’re concerned about Wentz as the Eagles’ franchise quarterback, I won’t try to talk you out of that concern today.

And yet, Wentz will most likely figure things out. It might not happen for a couple weeks, but the offense will get its act together. What could really kill any hopes of a fourth straight postseason berth and hasten the end of this current Eagles Super Bowl nucleus is the Jim Schwartz-led defense.

Ugly Numbers

Against the Rams, the defense gave up 449 yards of offense. They allowed 6.7 yards per play. They sacked Jared Goff just one time for nine yards. They gave up 191 yards on the ground (4.9 yards per rush), and allowed the Rams to convert four of five trips into the red zone for touchdowns.

General manager Howie Roseman put together a high-priced defense that has had no answers for anything this season. In Week 1, their performance was understandable, given the short fields the offense thrust upon them against Washington due to turnovers. Yesterday, that wasn’t the issue. The Rams marched 75 yards down the field or more in four of their scoring drives, and head coach Sean McVay did whatever he wanted to against Schwartz’ defense.

The blame lies everywhere.

Where are Fletcher Cox and the Defensive Tackles?

The lack of impact plays from the high-priced defensive tackles have been glaring in the early going. Fletcher Cox, who has the highest cap hit on the team at $23.8 million this season (according to Spotrac), was credited with four tackles yesterday, three solo, and one for loss. His position-mate, Malik Jackson, also had four tackles, three solo, with no tackles for loss. Neither sacked the quarterback. Javon Hargrave is recovering from a pec injury and played just 36% of the snaps against the Rams and did not appear on the stat sheet. The salaries of Jackson and Hargrave have a combined $8.1 million cap hit this year. In 2021, the combined cap hits for Cox, Hargrave and Jackson are a staggering $51.2 million!

It’s more than fair to ask these players to take over some games moving forward. That’s what they’re paid to do.

Not Enough Rush From the Edge

Brandon Graham had the Eagles’ lone sack yesterday but has once again started the season slowly. Josh Sweat has played pretty well in the first two weeks, but former first round pick Derek Barnett has been non-existent. Nothing new there.

The Eagles have not generated the kind of pass rush from the edges one would expect from a Schwartz-led unit. The Eagles’ defensive ends were disappointing in 2019, too, and yet Roseman brought back much the same crew as last year. The only player of note they added was Vinny Curry, who was injured last week and is on IR.

The Eagles desperately need an impact edge rusher, but they don’t have one.

Can’t Ignore Linebackers

Perhaps the most egregious oversight is Roseman and Schwartz’ insistence that linebackers don’t matter. They clearly do. A defense cannot function without linebackers unless their defensive line dominates, the secondary has lockdown corners at all three prominent spots, and safeties like Malcolm Jenkins, who can act as a psuedo-linebacker on running downs. Nate Gerry played every single defensive snap yesterday, and that just shouldn’t be a reality in which we live. Duke Riley and T.J. Edwards are not playmakers and consistently provided no resistance to Rams’ running backs when they managed to break through the defensive line.

You cannot punt an entire position on the field. The only way it works is if every other position is elite, and that for sure isn’t the case with this Eagles defense. Not only that, they let a very good linebacker go last year for NO DISCERNIBLE REASON WHATSOEVER.

THIS IS WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE WHEN A LINEBACKER MAKES A FOOTBALL PLAY.

Secondary Concerns

Which brings us to the safeties. Man, do the Eagles miss Jenkins. His ability to stop the run and play physical defense in the middle of the field, direct traffic, and keep the secondary on track has been sorely lacking. It’s not Jalen Mills’ fault he’s being put in a position in which he cannot succeed. That falls squarely on the shoulders of Schwartz, who continues trying to pound a square peg into a round hole at multiple positions.

Avonte Maddox is too small to be an outside corner, and Nickell Roby-Coleman has been less than the Eagles advertised through two games. Sure, Darius Slay has done a great job thus far, and hopefully that will continue. But one man can’t do it all.

Where the Money Was Spent

Look, I get that we are wading in the land of small sample size here in 2020, but these are not new problems. The cornerbacks, safeties, linebackers, edge rushers, Cox and the rest of the defensive tackles were an issue last year. One expected Roseman would address some of these positions early in last April’s draft and yet, he spent a second round pick on a QB who will not impact the game in a meaningful way this year (Jalen Hurts) and a third round pick on a project linebacker (Davion Taylor) who also won’t be able to contribute much in 2020.

Had Roseman’s previous drafts been filled with “hits,” this wouldn’t be so concerning, but the team had to jettison former second round pick Sidney Jones and third rounder Rasul Douglas before the start of the season. Roseman spent all of this past off-season adding to the defense at the expense of the offense and yet, the defense is no closer to being championship-caliber than they were at the end of last year.

Yes, it’s still early and things could turn around, but the talent level of the players on the defense doesn’t indicate that’s going to happen. The 2020 Philadelphia Eagles will of course be guided by the performance of Wentz and the offense, and I believe they will turn things around relatively soon.

I’m far less convinced one can say the same about this defensive unit.

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