Why Eagles' pass-rush is one of NFL's best
You’ve probably heard it time and again: to win this game, [insert team here] will have to be able to generate pressure with their front four. It’s repeated ad nauseum, but why is it so important? To find out, one needs to look no further than the Eagles’ defense so far this season. They have the third-highest team pass-rushing grade in the NFL, yet they’ve only needed to blitz at the 30th-highest rate (19.6 percent of opponents dropbacks) to get there. Let’s take a look at just how they’ve become the league’s third-stingiest scoring defense.
Philadelphia’s pass-rush revolves around the two-headed monster of Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox. Graham owns the third-highest pass-rushing productivity of any edge defender (13.8), while Cox is fourth among interior players (10.5). They are then complemented with Vinny Curry (12.1) and Connor Barwin (7.8) in third-down packages, who are both above-average pass-rushers in their own right. With four guys that talented, defensive coordinators don’t need to worry about scheming pressure. They’ve pressured quarterbacks on 36 percent of their dropbacks when only bringing four or fewer, the sixth-best rate in the NFL.
What that does is affect the coverages on the back end. Instead of having six guys to cover on third downs, now you have seven. Man coverages get a robber to help out underneath, and zone coverages are far less susceptible to coverage busts in matchup rules. It has also allowed the Eagles to take advantage of linebacker Jordan Hicks’ coverage prowess. Hicks is currently PFF’s second-highest graded coverage linebacker, with three pass breakups on the season. When blitzing, linebackers are usually the first guys you turn to, but the front four has allowed Hicks to blitz only 11 times all season long; 46 other NFL inside linebackers have already blitzed more than that.
On the back end, we expected the Eagles to have one of the best safety duos in the league after signing Rodney McLeod from the Rams, and that’s certainly been the case. Both McCleod and mainstay Malcolm Jenkins are grading out in the top-15 at the position. What the strong safety tandem and group of linebackers have done is allow Jim Schwartz to protect the Eagles’ weakest unit on defense: their cornerbacks.
No one is going to confuse Nolan Carroll, Ron Brooks, Jalen Mills, and Leodis McKelvin for the Denver secondary, but for some reason, it hasn’t ruined Philadelphia’s pass defense. That reason is scheming. The Eagles have run split-safety looks (covers 2, 4, and 6) on 47.7 percent of their snaps this season, the sixth-highest rate of any team in the league. What those looks usually do is provide help over the top of a cornerback and leave him with less ground he’s responsible for. That means that a No. 1 wide receiver isn’t necessarily going to get a favorable matchup play after play just because he’s lined up across from a weak cornerback.
So, how has the Philadelphia defense been so good? It’s a domino effect that starts with Jim Schwartz and his confidence in the Eagles’ dominant defensive line. As long as they have that, this will continue be a top-tier unit.