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The Eagles’ front four has been a buzzsaw

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The numbers are good and context is king...

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The Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles’ front four pass rush is the life blood of the defense. It’s success relies heavily on being able to get pressure at will against even the best offensive lines. But through three games, and despite amassing 8 sacks, some are still questioning if the fellas we pay to eat quarterbacks are leaving some meat on the bone.

As with any discussion like this, context is king. Opposing coordinators understand they’re outmatched against the Eagles defensive line and adjust their game-plans accordingly. They’ve also had a run of opposing quarterbacks that dish the ball quick. That’s not just being braggadocios, there’s solid data from Pro Football Focus to back up that claim.

Data via Pro Football Focus

As you can see above, despite not facing a quarterback with an average over 2.40 seconds from snap to throw, the Eagles are still getting near or above 40% pressure rates. That’s right where they were last year.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was especially quick-triggered against the Eagles. By my own charting he released the ball by the final step in his natural drop or within the first hitch on 71% of his dropbacks. That didn’t deter the rush from getting penetration but it did neutralize it by exposing a defense playing with significant cushion.

The Indianapolis Colts hit with similar speed. Quarterback Andrew Luck is still building strength back in his throwing shoulder and with a lack of weapons outside of TY Hilton, the offense adopted a quick-hitting, high percentage west coast style.

FLETCHER COX

Going through the different members of the front four against the Colts, Fletcher Cox had his lowest output of the year. Per Pro Football Focus, he contributed 3 pressures and a half sack, but plays like this one don’t register despite the clean win at the snap.

Can’t sack the quarterback if the ball is gone in one step, everybody knows that.

Cox had a solid day and was his usual disruptive self both in the pass game and in the run game. Plus, he’s had a crazy productive season, playing 54 snaps a game and contributing 16 pressures and 2.5 sacks. He wants to add hardware on his mantle, but teams just aren’t willing to take five step drops and wait for death against this unit, so it will be an uphill climb.

CHRIS LONG

One of the most underrated players on this unit, Long has been a steady veteran presence with a knack for getting to the quarterback and forcing fumbles. On just 31 passing plays he provided a big boost, totaling the second most pressures (9) of all defenders in Week 3.

Long’s been running the arc for a long time and understands how to get himself free. Notice the long arm stab with his inside pole to soften the edge, followed by attacking the hands of the lineman to free himself. This, coupled with Michael Bennett’s effective bull rush, turns the pocket into a blender that Luck is barely able to escape. The heat caused a stop on third down even though it doesn’t go in the books as a sack.

He’s been the best edge rusher all season and ties Cox in total pressures (16) at the top of the team.

MICHAEL BENNETT

Jim Schwartz loves to move Bennett around. From inside to outside, left to right, straight up rushes and clever stunts, he does it all at a high level. That type of versatility can wreak havoc, even when the offenses scheme in extra protection.

In the clip below, Bennett’s lined up over the right tackle next to Long. There’s a chip on Long that neutralizes him, tight end Eric Ebron chips Derek Barnett to impact his arc, and a slide on Cox grabs the attention of two blockers at the snap.

Chip, chip, slide and you still get Bennett one-on-one in a plus match-up agianst Matt Slauson. Luck is able to climb the pocket to space but Bennett hits his arm and disrupts his throwing motion which leads to a harmless duck fluttering in the wind.

It’s a good reminder that even when the front four doesn’t get home, the attention they receive limits what an offense can do schematically. Ebron’s chip dictates not only his alignment, but the timing in which he can get into his route. Same for Jordan Wilkins, who gets caught up in the traffic before releasing late. That takes two potential targets out of the play. That’s two potential targets that the Colts can’t include on downfield route combinations that attack the sticks and stress defenders with multi-level concepts.

BRANDON GRAHAM

Assuming Graham is still fighting his way back to 100% health, his lack of splashy box score stats shouldn’t be too worrisome. He’s still fourth on the team in pressures (10), a demon against the run, and a mismatch when kicked inside against guards. Four of those pressures came Sunday, including this one.

This is the play that resulted in Jalen Mills’ 33-yard defensive pass interference, but the main focus here is Graham moving Luck off the spot at the top of his drop. Offenses are timing based, if you can disrupt that timing as quickly as Graham does here, you’ll come out with a successful result more often than not.

DEREK BARNETT

After a quiet start to his season, amassing only 3 pressures in the first two weeks, Barnett showed up when he needed to in a plus match-up. With Colts’ tackle Anthony Castonzo out of action, Barnett worked over Le’Raven Clark throughout the game.

Beyond his 5 pressures, second most for the Eagles on the day, he also added a 1.5 sacks. His half sack, shared with Cox, was a team effort.

Much deserved props to Cox who plows his way through a double team, but we knew he had that in him. What’s encouraging from this rep is Barnett’s speed-to-power rush. Often reliant on his patented dip-and-rip, Barnett flashes a shiny new tool and it pays off. As we track his development signs like this are what’s needed, even if it’s against a backup.

In the 3rd quarter with the score tied up at 10-10 and the Colts at the Eagles 17-yard line, Barnett’s snap anticipation jumping got him a big win that won’t show up in the stat sheet.

Having studied Barnett throughout the years, 3rd quarter and at home seems par for the course regarding when Barnett gets keyed into to snap cadences. If he’s going to have the frustrating offsides penalties like he did in the first two weeks, plays like this need to hit with more frequency for it to not be a problem. It’s great that this one does come off though, because it pushed the Colts out of the red zone and they eventually settled for a field goal.

One thing that can’t be questioned about Barnett is his ability to make splash plays in big moments. He did it with a strip sack in the NFC Championship Game and in the Super Bowl with a fumble recovery. Against the Colts, he pretty much secures the win on a fantastic individual effort.

IN SUMMARY...

This is all a long way of saying that if you’re concerned about the pass rush, gentle reader, it’s been there. In fact it’s never left us. Furthermore, it’s going to get better as Graham hits his stride and Barnett continues to (hopefully) develop. The addition of Bennett has masked the loss of Timmy Jernigan and the unit as whole is still carrying it’s weight.

Now imagine this pass rush playing opposite an offense that is piece-by-piece and ever so slowly getting back to looking like the unit from 2017. Playing with a consistent lead can be a real boon for a front four that transforms into a wood-chipper in desperate passing situations.