What Got into the Defensive Line?

What Got into the Defensive Line?
December 14, 2012, 8:32 am
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There wasn’t much of substance to take away from Thursday
night’s pitiful loss to the Bengals, besides the fact that the Eagles are an incredibly
undisciplined team. You couldn’t pick a single player out of a lineup and
charge him with the crime of setting off the bomb that leveled the crowd at
Lincoln Financial Field. Andy Reid remains a suspect, but I imagine even he
would have liked to throw his hands up in despair over that effort.

Despite the nature of that loss, there was one positive to
take away from this disaster, that being the play of the defensive line. Two
weeks after firing Jim Washburn, who was apparently insubordinate on top of
coaching in an ineffective unit, the front four suddenly exploded for six
sacks and a pair of forced fumbles of quarterback Andy Dalton.

With the presence of the wide-9 greatly diminished – the
alignment remains in use, but is not nearly as prevalent – suddenly the Eagles’
pass rush looks reenergized. Brandon Graham, the 2010 first-round pick whose
career many fans had left for dead, enjoyed a breakout performance, notching 2.5
sacks and a strip. He split one sack with the 12th overall pick in this year’s
draft, Fletcher Cox, who also got to Dalton once on his own.

Cox had been having a nice rookie season anyway, taking over
as the clubhouse leader with six sacks. On the other hand, Graham’s arrival
could be spectacular news for the defense. He’s now registered 4.0 sacks over
the last three games since replacing the departed Jason Babin – amazing what a
little playing time can do for a guy – giving him 5.5 for the season.

Some of the veterans appear to have been revitalized by the
change as well. One season removed from reaching double digits for the fourth
time in five years, Trent Cole recorded his first full sack since Week 1,
suggesting calls of his demise may have been premature. Even Cullen Jenkins got
in on the act, knocking the ball loose to earn his second sack in two weeks.

To be fair, Cincinnati had surrendered the eighth-most sacks
in the league entering this week, so maybe the numbers are a tad inflated. Of
course, there have been times this season when the Eagles couldn’t so much as pressure
an opposing team’s quarterback regardless of the quality of their offensive
line.

What happened?

The answer is both obvious, and not. It’s easy to chalk it
up entirely to Washburn’s wide-9, but that doesn’t entirely make sense.
Philadelphia led the NFL in sacks with 50 last season, 46 of those coming from
the front four alone, and Tennessee was perennially among the league leaders
during his 12 years there. Detroit is also notorious for its use of the scheme,
and while they aren’t number one or anything, they’ve posted a respectable 30
sacks this season, putting them right in the middle of the pack.

More likely it’s dialing it down that has done the trick for
the Birds. New defensive line coach Tommy Brasher has mixed it up with a
variety of rushes, attacking different gaps and using more stunts, which has
given the defense an element of surprise. We can only intimate that Washburn
had far too much power, which forced defensive coordinator Todd Bowles – and Juan
Castillo before him – to be inflexible with their play calls.

Whatever the reasons, the change has been evident. The Eagles
have racked up eight sacks over the past two games, compared to 20 in the 12
previous. That’s almost unbelievable when you think about it.

There is always the question of sample size, too, as has
been the case with many of the recent developments on the field. Then again, we
already knew a guy like Cole was one of the most talented defensive ends in the
NFL. We knew Jenkins still has some production left in the tank. At this point, it’s
probably even fair to say we knew Cox can play at this level. As for Graham, he
had been having a nice season with the snaps he was given to work with. Perhaps we
are witnessing him turning the corner with the help of some fresh guidance.


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