When they last exited the field together, the Eagles’ young starting three defensive linemen had just suffered their worst game at the worst time.
Anchors of a top-10 run defense, top-five in yards per carry against, had allowed the Saints to control the ground game and rack up 185 rushing yards in a 26-24 first-round playoff loss at the Linc.
Saints running back Mark Ingram, largely considered a first-round bust, had steamrolled his way to 97 rushing yards on just 18 carries in his playoff debut, the second-most rushing yards of his career.
“I still watch the game,” defensive end Cedric Thornton said. “It wasn’t that they ran all on us. We were definitely in position to make plays. It was just that finishing thing. I promise you, if we had that game back 10 times we would win nine out of 10.”
But you don’t get do-overs in the NFL, and you don’t get bulldozed in your own house by a finesse team without suffering the consequences from a fan base that hasn’t seen the Eagles win a home playoff game since the 2006 season.
Despite their pleasantly productive first year in coach Chip Kelly’s scheme, the starting trio of Thornton, Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan heard echoes in the aftermath that they were too small, too easily pushed around and not the right fit for the 3-4 scheme introduced by Kelly and defensive coordinator Billy Davis.
Never mind that the Eagles ranked 10th against the run in 2014 and fourth in yards-per-carry against after an abysmal preseason in which they finished with the league’s most rushing yards allowed and the highest yards-per-carry against average.
Never mind that seven times they faced a running back who finished in the top 10 in rushing last year and didn’t allow a single one to reach 100 yards.
When the season ended, the cries for the Eagles to add Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston or B.J. Raji, the 340-pound lineman from Green Bay, in free agency grew louder.
With tons of cap space and several picks, the Eagles instead did nothing to upgrade their starting defensive line. They signed a 6-foot-9 former soldier who spent three tours in Afghanistan to a rookie free agent deal and used fifth- and seventh-round picks on defensive linemen who are expected to add depth.
When the season starts Sept. 7 against Jacksonville, the starting trio of Cox, Thornton and Logan should be out there again, trying to rid the sour taste from the New Orleans loss.
“It says a lot,” Cox said. “They believe in the guys that were in their rooms last year and they know we’re headed in the right direction.”
Despite the playoff letdown, the Eagles’ defensive line emerged as arguably the most promising group on the entire defense.
Cox, after a slow start, played at near Pro Bowl level. His 21 pressures led the team and he ranked as Pro Football Focus’ second-best 3-4 defensive end at generating pressure.
Thornton, a first-time starter, emerged into arguably the league’s best run defending 3-4 lineman. Logan, a rookie who started the season on the bench, showed enough promise to overtake Isaac Sopoaga for the starting nose tackle spot eight games into the year.
Logan bulked up from 305 to 315 this offseason to get his body ready for 16 or more starts this season. All three have worked this spring and summer on fine-tuning their pass rush.
“We understand our potential,” Logan said. “We haven’t reached our peak, not just us three but the whole defensive line as a unit. We haven’t reached nearly the potential we have.”
As for the undersized label? It’s just a convenient fallback excuse for the one time when they didn’t get the job done.
“A lot of people say he’s undersized and this and that,” Logan said. “Go look at film and see a team that’s more traditional downhill and then see what undersized is. We dominated those guys -- the center, the tackles, the guards, all that. People are gonna talk about undersized. I can get down back to 305, 307, 309. No matter what, it’s all about leverage and attacking the guy in front of you.”
Thornton heard the same criticisms in the days after the New Orleans loss, along with the lobbying for guys like Houston and Raji.
“I did catch onto that, but it’s kind of hard to be great when you have no expectations,” he said. “They didn’t have high expectations for us. We just went out there like we’re gonna set the tone. We want to be the best young group of defensive linemen. Who cares what some of the people say outside of football?
“We know what we have in here. They’re always going to want somebody better and they’re always going to think, ‘If we had this person and that we would have won.’ But me personally, I watch film and I don’t see nobody as athletic as Bennie Logan inside and I don’t see nobody as athletic as Fletcher Cox. Who cares what somebody else says? We know what we’ve got.”