The Super Bowl chatter this week has focused on Tom Brady. And Bill Belichick. Even Nick Foles.
Maybe we ought to start paying more attention to Jim Schwartz. He’s the defensive coordinator of the NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles – and he holds the key to a Super Bowl upset.
“Defense wins championships” is more than a football adage. It’s truth.
There have been 51 Super Bowl champions. Forty of them ranked in the Top 10 in the NFL in defense. Forty-four of them ranked in the Top 10 in scoring defense. The Eagles ranked fourth in the NFL this season in both defense and scoring defense. They have the better defense in this Super Bowl.
The Patriots also ranked in the Top 5 in scoring defense but 29th in defense – the second lowest-ranked defense any conference champion has ever brought to a Super Bowl. The lowest? The 2011 Patriots, who ranked 31st. Those Pats brought the mind of Belichick, the arm of Brady, a 513-point offense and all the hype of their dynasty into that Super Bowl -- but the wild-card New York Giants shocked them, 21-17.
Quarterback Carson Wentz was having an MVP-type season for the Eagles before suffering a knee injury in the 14th game of the season. But the Eagles didn’t fold without him. Their defense wouldn’t let them -- which is why the Eagles advanced to the third Super Bowl in franchise history and first since 2005.
The Eagles have played four games without Wentz and have not allowed more than 10 points in any of them. Philadelphia finished the regular season with a 19-10 victory over the Oakland Raiders and a 6-0 loss to the Dallas Cowboys with a backup-laden lineup. The Eagles dismantled the Atlanta Falcons 15-10 in the NFC semifinals, then crushed the Minnesota Vikings 38-7 in the NFC title game.
An April trade for Timmy Jernigan gave the Eagles the top defensive-tackle tandem in the NFL along with Fletcher Cox. They provided the backbone of the NFL’s top-ranked run defense in 2017. And the Eagles have been drafting a pass rush for years, using a pair of first rounders on Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett and a second-rounder on Vinny Curry. Signing Chris Long in free agency away from the Patriots last offseason rounded out their edge-rushing corps. Long was the second overall selection of his draft.
The Eagles bolstered their coverage unit in 2017 by drafting cornerback Sidney Jones in the second round, signing Patrick Robinson in free agency and trading for Ronald Darby. Philadelphia already had Pro Bowl safety Malcolm Jenkins directing traffic at the back end.
Schwartz was the right man at the right time for the Eagles. A past head coach of the Detroit Lions, Schwartz was hired in 2016 to coordinate the Philadelphia defense. He learned his coaching craft on NFL staffs that have included Belichick, Nick Saban, Marvin Lewis and Jeff Fisher.
When you bring Schwartz into your building, you are bringing in a commitment to the front four. A commitment to pressuring the quarterback. A commitment to winning games up front.
When you pressure the quarterback, turnovers follow. The Eagles finished fourth in the NFL this season with 31 takeaways, intercepting 19 passes and recovering a dozen fumbles. Cornerback Jalen Mills returned an interception for a touchdown and Cox, Graham and linebacker Nigel Bradham all ran fumbles back for scores. Robinson added a fifth defensive TD with an interception in the NFC title game against the Vikings.
Since the injury to Wentz, the Eagles have asked their defense to win games. Schwartz and his troops have responded. They will be asked to respond one final time. A Lombardi Trophy rests in the balance.