Why Eagles’ pass-rush is one of NFL’s best

With the duo of Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox, the Eagles' defensive line has anchored the team through Week 7.

| 8 months ago
(Photo by Rob Leiter via Getty Images)

(Photo by Rob Leiter via Getty Images)

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.

Eagles base 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.

Brandon Graham

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.

| Senior Analyst

Mike is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has also been featured on The Washington Post, ESPN Insider, and 120 Sports.

  • ReagansReanimatedCorpse

    The talent has been there for a long time. Chip Kelly was just determined not to use it. We’re lucky he didn’t trade Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham for Dion Jordan and a juice box, respectively.

    • OverseasRedskinsFan

      TBH I don’t get the Chip Kelly hate. As a Redskins fan, I loved him :)

    • Crimzin

      He did the team a serious disservice by forcing the switch to a 3-4, even more frustrating since he apparently had no day to day involvement with the D, just hired a shitty coach to handle it. So I always wondered why he had such insistence on a particular system when he’s not even gonna be involved.

      The personnel with Cox, Logan, Curry, and Graham in particular was obviously ideal for a 4-3. I thought Curry and Graham both did an admirable job attempting to play LB but asking them to do it was dumb as hell. I sort of think the 3-4 is becoming an artifact in general but it was an especially bad fit for the Eagles.

      • ReagansReanimatedCorpse

        I didn’t know this at a time but pretty much the sole reason he insisted on the 3-4 is because that’s the type of D that was toughest for his offense to beat so he wanted them to practice against it… So basically the worst possible justification for completely switching defensive schemes.

  • OverseasRedskinsFan

    But still got shut down by my Skins’ o-line! Nah, but fr this Defense is great. I was so pissed when they signed Jim Schwartz. I loved the D he built in Buffalo and was emotionally hurt by his move to Philly. I really wish my Redskins would’ve gotten him as Schwartz is a great DC and I believe the Redskins are better suited to run a 4-3. Congrats and fuck you, Philly :)

  • Zach

    This is why the key will be to jump out to a lead and control the line of scrimmage with the run game. No matter how good your pass rush is, if you’re in 2nd and 4 or 5 or 3rd and 1 or 2 all game it’s gonna be a lot tougher than when you know with 100% certainty that the offense is passing on the play. Also if you want to run 2 safety high against zeke and the great wall of Dallas good luck with that