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Up Front, The D-Line Is Just Getting Started

Posted Feb 4, 2015

Veteran linebacker DeMeco Ryans has been a big help to defensive end Fletcher Cox as the young lineman has seen his three-year career fill with success and laudation.

After Cox's first year in the league, he moved from defensive tackle in a 4-3 alignment to 3-4 defensive end. Ryans told Cox to embrace the change in position; Cox did, and he said it helped him immensely. He started all 16 games in his second year.

In the offseason leading up to this past campaign, Ryans imparted more advice on the promising young defensive end. He told Cox to tell himself, and make it clear to opponents, than nobody could block him. That mindset would allow him to become an unblockable force on the line.

This year Cox had a career year, dominating opposing offensive lines with seeming ease. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus's sixth-highest-graded defensive end, piling up four sacks and three fumble recoveries.

In fact, the Eagles' entire starting defensive line - Cox, nose tackle Bennie Logan and defensive end Cedric Thornton - had a collective breakout year in 2014.

Entering the offseason, while they would've rather continued playing into the postseason, the defensive line is feeling pretty good about the year it put together as a unit.

"I think we are maybe the youngest group defensive line-wise in the league," Cox said. "It's fun playing with those guys. We all respect each other and we feed off each other.

"Those guys in the defensive line room and the guys behind us, they pushed us a whole lot."

The team's defensive statistics are slightly misleading in reflecting just how valuable the defensive line was. The job of the defensive line in a 3-4 defense is plugging up the opposing offensive line and opening lanes for linebackers to rack up sacks.

So while the starting defensive linemen themselves weren't prolific in the sack department, finishing with a combined five sacks, four of which belonged to Cox, they opened lanes for the Eagles' other 44.5 sacks. The Eagles finished tied for second in the league with 49 sacks, thanks in large part to the defensive line's dominance.

Of course, you won't hear the linemen trumpeting their own performances this year. They know 2014 was a huge building block for the future of the team's defense, but there's a lot of growth left to be done.

"We're never satisfied with our progress or the things we've made," Logan explained. "We always look for room to improve. That's one of the things that has established us as a team."

Logan overcame a nagging hamstring injury he had to battle with during Training Camp. The bearded defensive tackle said watching the rest of his teammates practice made him want to get back on the field and get healthy so he could "make a statement" this season, which he and the Eagles' front three certainly did.

Yet, for all of this progress and all of this dominance, the Eagles didn't make the playoffs this season. Not one of the three made the Pro Bowl, although Cox was named second-team All-Pro.

So Logan's assertion that this unit is still looking to improve, never content to rest on its laurels, rings extremely true as the team looks for places to improve as it moves forward this offseason.

"Each year, we've got to continue to work and push each other, just go further than where we are," Logan reiterated. "We can't be satisfied with the progress we made last season."

Because last season, while there were a ton of positives for the line to build on, there were also losses, as a team, that can be improved upon.

"I learned that things can go good and things can go bad," Cox said. "Losing three in a row was a real bad feeling for me and this team. But we won 10 games this season, finished on a good note."

Things can go good, and things can go bad. The most important part, in either case, is learning what you want to replicate and what you need to do better.

It sounds like Cox and the defensive line understand just that.

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