Ben Roethlisberger probably knew he was in for a long game against the Eagles defense on Sunday from the opening snap. Why? Because on the very first play, Fletcher Cox had already driven Pro Bowl right guard David DeCastro right into the Steelers quarterback's lap.
After registering 9.5 sacks in 2015, Cox's dominance is not in dispute. That was in an entirely different scheme though. Now that the fifth-year veteran is freed from his responsibilities as a five-technique defensive end in a 3-4 defense, he's allowed to go on the attack more as a wide-nine defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment. What does that mean for opposing offenses?
The better question might be what does it mean for Cox's teammates?
As the film shows, the Steelers were faced with an impossible dilemma: try to block Cox one-on-one knowing his potential to take over a game, or double-team the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for September and force the rest of the defensive line to beat them. It turns out, there was no right answer, because the Eagles' front four is more than capable of winning up front too.
Let's go back to the opening play from scrimmage though. The Steelers probably went in hoping DeCastro could hold his own at least a little bit against Cox — they did just award the guard a five-year contract extension worth $50 million. Take notice of where he begins the play, at about the Pittsburgh 23-yard line.
It looks like DeCastro is on roller skates, as Cox just pushes him straight into the backfield and right on top of Roethlisberger, impacting the quarterback's vision and ability to throw the football. He does manage to get rid of it, completing a pass to Antonio Brown for no gain.
That was only the beginning for DeCastro, who according to Football Outsiders Almanac had not allowed a sack since 2013 coming into this season. Cox would later fix that for him.
Here we are at 2nd-and-18 from the Eagles' 46-yard line in the third quarter, an obvious passing situation with the score 27-3 and the game quickly slipping away from the Steelers. DeCastro has already taken his share of lumps by this point, and Cox is coming again.
No. 66 is six yards deep in the backfield this time, and Cox has help. Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham are collapsing the pocket off the edges this time as well, leaving Roethlisberger nowhere to go.
Cox gets to the quarterback and knocks the ball loose for his second sack of the game, the recovery on the play going to Graham. The Eagles score again off of the turnover, and the rout is officially on.
Of course, Cox's ability to single-handedly take over a game is nothing new. Excluding nine plays labeled as screen or quick throws, he was on the field for 26 pass-rush opportunities on Sunday. 12 times, the Steelers tried to block him up one-on-one. The result of those snaps: Roethlisberger was 6 for 11 for 66 yards — a 6.0 average — with the sack fumble.
The problem is the Steelers didn't fare much better when Cox was double-teamed. It works to perfection in the frame above, giving Roethlisberger a huge pocket and all the time in the world on 3rd-and-6 to complete a 32-yard pass to Eli Rogers during the game's opening possession.
This was the exception though, not the rule. In fact, the Steelers hit on more big plays through the air, otherwise the passing attack was even worse when Cox was doubled. In those instances, Roethlisberger was 3 for 9 for 56 yards — a 6.2 average — with a seven-yard scramble and a 19-yard pass interference call, but also three sacks and an interception.
Because even if two bodies manage to take Cox out of the play, then the other three rushers are left in one-on-one. This is the play before the Roethlisberger fumble. On 1st-and-10, guard B.J. Finney and four-time Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey have the double team.
The tight end and running back are both there to chip, but Barwin, Graham and Bennie Logan at the other tackle spot are essentially all working one-on-one matchups.
Cox is taken completely out of the play. He's probably been moved a good six or seven yards away from where he started and is a total non-factor — well, except for the part where he took the attention away from Barwin, Logan and Graham. All three win their assignment and are collapsing the pocket, leaving no room to step and throw and no room to escape. Logan utlimately gets there first, beating DeCastro.
That type of attention on Cox can create all kinds of favorable situations for the Eagles defense.
This time, DeCastro and Pouncey have the double on Cox, but note that Vinny Curry has slid inside from his normal spot at end and is tucked in front of No. 58 Jordan Hicks on 3rd-and-6 from the Eagles' 22-yard line in the first quarter.
At 6-foot-3, 279 pounds, Curry is an excellent fastball to use situationally on the interior, especially when Cox draws all of the focus from the two best offensive lineman on the field. Veteran guard Foster escorts the pass-rusher to Roethlisberger, who somehow winds up getting out of this jam, scrambling for seven yards and a first down.
Despite the end result, Cox changed the entire outlook of a play, and he barely had to move. Escapes such as these are going to be rare against the wide-nine as well, just as long as there's pressure like this coming up the middle. Getting to the outside when Barwin and Graham are collapsing the pocket from those extreme angles off the edge is not easy.
Of course, a double team isn't necessarily going to stop Cox, even if it is a couple of Pro Bowlers in DeCastro and Pouncey. It's 3rd-and-7 at the Eagles' 13-yard line in the second quarter, and it's still a tight ball game at 10-0, so the defense needs a stop.
It looks like they have Cox contained, but he's not going to be denied.
Pouncey senses Graham breaking inside and leaves DeCastro to make the save there, which isn't going to have the desired result. The guard loses his leverage, and Cox has one of his two sacks for the game, holding the Steelers to three points in the process.
Again, we're not exactly breaking the news that Cox is a disruptive force or anything. That being said, there was some question whether he would live up to the six-year, $103 million contract extension he signed over the summer, or if he was ever worth that in the first place.
The reality is in this wide-nine, Cox can make this defense go. His very presence gives offenses impossible options — block him one-one-one and let him collapse the pocket by himself, or double team him and leave the rest of the offensive linemen on an island with the likes of Barwin, Graham, Logan and Curry.
The Steelers found out the hard way that there is no easy solution, or perhaps even no solution at all.
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