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Eagle Eye: The Truth About Fletcher Cox

Posted Nov 30, 2016

After reviewing the tape against the Green Bay Packers, I offered my thoughts on quarterback Carson Wentz and the Eagles' offense focusing on the run-pass ratio. Now, it’s time to talk about the defense, but I want to take a little bit of a different spin on this piece. Typically, I try to cover the game from all three levels and show what happened that led to the outcome. But given the amount of attention by analysts to the play of star defensive tackle Fletcher Cox this week, I felt that I’d take this opportunity to give you a look at what the tape shows.

Fletcher Cox played 57 snaps on defense against the Packers. Now, I can’t really show you all 57 snaps because this would turn into the type of 6,000-word piece that maybe only I would care to read, but I pulled 23 plays from Monday night’s loss when Cox was on the field. This will give you an idea of what he has seen each week, and surely what he will continue to see.

First off, let’s get into his actual play and effort. For those who have any questions whatsoever about Cox’s play personality and his effort down in and down out, that is not an issue whatsoever. Over the last few seasons of his career, he’s been extremely tough and competitive inside against both the run and the pass. Last week, I showed you a play where he chased down a long run from the back side, running step for step with safeties in the secondary.

Eagles Game Plan analyst Ike Reese likes to say that there’s no one in the league who can block Fletcher one on one for an entire game. That’s absolutely the case. His combination of explosiveness and power makes him one of the toughest defenders, regardless of position, to go up against in the entire NFL. Teams can’t double team him on every play, that’s not practical, so when he does get single blocked he often is able to win that one-on-one matchup.

There’s eight examples from Monday night where Green Bay attempted to use just one blocker on Cox in the run game and failed miserably. In all eight of those plays, Cox either initiated first contact in the backfield, was credited with the tackle or severely impacted the play. This is a common occurrence, and it’s what we’ve expected from him over the course of his career. For that reason, and because of the nature of almost every run concept in football, Cox sees a lot of double teams against opposing rushing attacks.

When a defensive tackle takes on a double team, two things need to happen. First, he needs to not give up ground. The last thing you need is for an interior lineman to get displaced in the run game and create a gap for the back to run through. Very rarely does Cox allow that to happen, though it does from time to time, especially when he’s on the run. If a lineman gets doubled, he will often hold on to that double team to keep his linebackers free to flow to the football. In the three examples above, Cox does just that. Those double teams don’t just happen in the run game, because they’re very common in the pass game as well.

There are different ways that offenses provide help to the linemen. The easiest way to do it is to "slide" its protection in that direction. With that in mind, the Packers, like most teams, almost exclusively slid their protection in Cox’s direction.

Cox was on the field for 27 pure dropback passes (not including Run Pass Option plays) against the Packers. Want to know how many times Cox was "single" blocked, where the line slid away from him? Three. On 20 passes, the offense slid the protection toward Cox, and on three other occasions Green Bay used a running back to chip Cox at the line of scrimmage. On one play, the Packers actually did both, sliding the center toward Cox AND using a back to chip him in protection.

Here are a few examples from some of the Packers’ biggest pass plays on Monday night where Green Bay slid the protection in Cox’s direction. Cox often gets initial push, only to get blocked late in the down from a sliding center looking for work in protection. This isn’t anything new. He’s dealt with this kind of attention in the past and he will continue to deal with this kind of attention, but it helps to explain the kind of interference a dominant interior lineman has to deal with on a weekly basis.

Here’s that one shot of him essentially getting "triple teamed" in the passing game. It’s very, very rare to see an offense do this by design. Not only do they slide the protection in Cox’s direction, but they use a back to chip him as well. This means there are three blockers designated to neutralize Cox, leaving three one-on-one matchups across the rest of the defensive line. The Eagles don't win any of those matchups, and Aaron Rodgers connects on a big play downfield with time in the pocket.

Keep in mind as well, that as teams continue to chip Cox with backs, that has a bit of a lingering effect throughout the game. As head coach Doug Pederson mentioned on Eagles Game Plan a few weeks ago, the defender will start to have one eye off the quarterback, waiting for that next block to come from his side. I’m not saying that’s 100 percent the issue with Cox, but it’s certainly another factor to consider after watching how much extra attention he is being given on a weekly basis.

Next we get to the issue of how teams are schematically attacking the Eagles' entire defensive front. With how aggressive Jim Schwartz’s unit is up front, there are lots of ways to combat that as an offense. Teams will use the screen game to draw the defensive line in before hitting them with a screen pass. Rodgers certainly used the screen game to his advantage on Monday, but when the Packers weren’t calling a screen there was absolutely a level of importance placed on getting the ball out of Rodgers’ hands quickly.

On all of the plays above, Cox beats his man off the ball. If this was a typical five-step drop, he’d be home free for at least a pressure on the quarterback, if not a sack. But Rodgers gets the ball out so quickly that Cox and the rest of the defensive line are unable to even sniff him. Whether they were RPOs, screens or basic quick-game route concepts, Rodgers fired the ball out in a hurry. According to Pro Football Focus, Rodgers' average time from snap to throw was 2.46 seconds, his fastest of the season. This has been a consistent theme from Eagles opponents in recent weeks. Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan and Eli Manning are all widely viewed as passers who get the ball out quickly (though Wilson certainly makes his share of plays late in the down as a scrambler outside the pocket). The Eagles' secondary will have to continue disrupting routes at the line of scrimmage at a higher rate to prevent some of these quick throws.

The screens and quick throws are certainly effective against the Eagles’ pass rush, but in the run game we’ve seen a couple of different play concepts used on a weekly basis as well. The Eagles have seen trap plays from teams every single week, even against offenses that haven’t run trap at any other point in the year because of its propensity to work against aggressive fronts. The other play that works well in those scenarios is the draw play, and that’s been a recurring theme against the defense as well. On the two plays above, Cox beat his man one on one, but the offense ran a draw play in the other direction for a short gain. The idea is to draw the defensive linemen in, make them think "pass," before handing the ball off to the back for a delayed running play.

When teams can’t double team (or triple team) him and are forced to block him with one player, Cox lives in the backfield. He’s the same dominant force as he has always been. The sacks (which always come in bunches, remember last year in his 9.5-sack season he had three in one game against the Saints) aren’t there every single game, but his level of disruption remains the same. Josh Cohen, who works for CBS Sports during NFL Broadcasts, presented a great stat on Twitter.

You want Cox to stay aggressive. Those two roughing the passer penalties (one against Green Bay, the other against Washington in Week 6) are tough to swallow because they both happened on third down. But he is the same player who won the NFC Defensive Player of The Month to start the season. He’s the same player who went to the Pro Bowl last season, and should have gone the year before. Don’t just follow a stat sheet. The tape shows the impact he consistently has on the game from start to finish.

Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.

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