Can the Eagles run the table?
Trent Cole strips Carson Palmer in the first quarter to setup the Eagles' first touchdown of their 24-21 win over the Cardinals. (AP)
Trent Cole and Brandon Graham were supposed to compose an imposing defensive end combo that would deliver the Eagles a Super Bowl-caliber pass rush.
Things haven’t exactly gone by design since the team drafted Graham with the 13th pick in 2010 and paired him with Cole, a two-time Pro Bowler.
But on Sunday, in the Eagles' 24-21 win over the Cards at the Linc (see Instant Replay), Graham and Cole delivered the kind of tag-team pass rush that fans have waited almost four years to see.
Each sacked Carson Palmer twice as the Eagles hurried and harassed the red-hot Cards quarterback into three three turnovers (see 10 observations). Palmer, who had played two straight games without a turnover until coming to the Linc, was picked off twice and lost a fumble.
Cole and Graham combined for four of the team’s five sacks, which tied for the Eagles’ most this season.
“We were both feeding off each other,” Graham said. “Trent got that first one and I was like, 'Man, I can’t wait. I gotta go out and get one.’ Every game we always say we’re gonna start it off, and Trent definitely did.”
Cole’s first sack, on the third play of the game, caused Palmer to fumble deep in his own territory and set up Nick Foles’ 6-yard touchdown pass to Zach Ertz.
Graham’s first sack came in the third, a nine-yard loss that staked the Cards to 2nd-and-19 at their own 8-yard line. Four plays later, Palmer threw the second of his two picks.
“I think obviously they generated a pass rush, which was huge for us today,” Chip Kelly said. “I think Brandon had two, and did Trent have two? I think we're starting to get a consistent pass rush and not letting the pocket collapse around guys like that and then forcing the ball to maybe be thrown a little bit quicker.”
Cole and Graham aren’t atop the NFL’s sack leaderboards, but they’re helping an Eagles defense regain its identity after some dark years, especially the 2011 and '12 seasons.
The Eagles haven’t consistently dropped quarterbacks all season, but they’ve piled up nine sacks in the past two games. Their turnover margin improved to plus-7, a stark contrast to last year’s minus-24, which tied for the NFL’s worst.
“This is Eagles football,” Cole said. “This is the way I know Eagles football is. Being here for nine years, this is how we always did it.”
Cole has two sacks in each of his past two games after going the first eight without one, the longest stretch of his career. He picked up his 75th and 76th career sacks, moving him into a tie with franchise legend Clyde Simmons for second-most in team history.
He’s got a long way to go to catch Reggie White’s record of 124.
“They come in a bunch, man,” he said. “You never know. It could be great from here on out, and it could stop.”
Graham’s career has endured one obstacle after another, starting with a knee injury near the end of his rookie season that required microfracture surgery and rendered him ineffective for most of his second season.
Last year, Graham was easily the team’s most effective pass rusher but came off the bench until Week 10, when the Eagles cut Jason Babin in the midst of turmoil. Graham had four sacks in his final five games, but his role changed again this offseason when the Eagles implemented a 3-4 scheme under first-year coach Kelly.
The coaches moved Cole and Graham to outside linebacker, with Graham once again serving as a backup. Graham hasn’t complained, but he’s waited for his opportunities.
“Just playing pissed off, man,” he said. “Every day, grinding, from the bottom. I’m gonna always have that chip on my shoulder, and today was one of them days, man.”
Graham’s two sacks against the Cards marked the second multi-sack game of his career. Last year, he had 2½ against the Bengals along with 10 tackles in a Dec. 13 game at the Linc.
He has 8½ sacks since the start of the 2012 season.
Know who also has 8½ sacks over the same span?
Yep, Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who went two spots behind Graham in the 2010 draft.
“I’m excited for the rest of the season,” Graham said. “We have to take it one game at a time and next week we have the Lions. I am very excited, got a lot of family coming to the game.”