The Philadelphia Eagles starting defensive front seven has played around 70 snaps so far in the 2014 NFL preseason. In those 70 snaps, not one sack has been recorded. It's easy to see why there are concerns about the Eagles' pass rush.
At the same time, sacks aren't the only indication of pressure. Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis echoed as much during his Sunday pre-practice press conference. Davis downplayed concern about the lack of sacks.
"It's not a concern at all," Davis said. "We talk about it often, but are we moving the quarterback off the spot? The interception, for instance the other night, we had two guys move him off his spot. He was on the move. He tried to make a big throw, the ball went high, we had a turnover. It wasn't a sack, but it was a turnover. So when you study the tape over and over again and you see who is moving the quarterback off his spot, that is more important to us than the sacks are, because other things happen when you move them off the spot, the rhythm of the offense is broken down, incomplete passes, turnovers, all those things are tied to it."
It's a fair point. That being said, there's definitely still room for improvement when it comes to the Eagles pass rush. Despite the fact the Eagles did not add a proven pass rusher in the offseason, there's still optimism to be had. It seems like backup outside linebacker Brandon Graham, who has excelled as a pass rusher in the preseason, just might be pushing for a starting job. Graham has yet to take any first teams repetitions with the starters. According to Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis, however, Graham isn't that far off from the team's incumbent starting predator linebacker, Trent Cole.
"I think they're pretty close," Davis answered. "They're pretty close. But Trent is still in it, and that's why he's out there more. At the end of the day, we have to pick one or make a decision who is going to dominate, and that falls in our lap. Right now, that's where that is."
There's no denying that Graham has flashed a pass rusher. In 68 preseason snaps, per Pro Football Focus, Graham has recorded 2 sacks, 1 quarterback hit, and 4 quarterback hurries. Cole, meanwhile, has recorded 2 quarterback hurries in 65 snaps.
Let's not forget to adjust for context. Graham is often facing backups and, let's face it, he has a lot more to play for in the preseason then a 31-year old NFL veteran like Cole does. Cole is the proven starter and Graham is the hungry backup.
It seems possible Graham's role will expand in 2014. Graham seems to be playing too well to not be on the field and Cole, while still productive, is hardly lighting the world on fire. The only concern, as has been noted many times by now, is Graham's ability to drop into coverage. Davis says he sees improvement from Graham in this regard.
"Absolutely. And I said that after the game. The outside backer world, you're built to go forward and you have the great pass rushers that usually struggle to drop and you have to work hard to get the great pass rushers to learn how to drop," said Davis. "The flip end of that, you have the great athlete that can cover anybody in space, but maybe not the skilled pass rusher. So you're working with them on pass rush. I think our guys that were better pass rushers at moving forward, [LB] Trent Cole, Brandon, they are now dropping much better than they did a year ago. And Brandon particularly is.
Perhaps Graham has improved in coverage to an extent, but it hasn't been clearly visible on the field yet. Graham has noticeably struggled in coverage a few times in the preseason. Still, it seems to be clear that Graham gets pressure when he's on the field. There's value in that and the Eagles know they have to find a way to get him on the field.
For now, there doesn't seem to be a strong indication that Graham is seriously a threat to Cole's starting job. It does seem likely, however, that Graham could be stealing away some of Cole's total snaps. In the quest for an improved Eagles pass rush, an increased role for Graham is probably for the best.