In this case, the numbers lied.
Fletcher Cox didn't register a tackle or a quarterback hit or even a pressure in last week's win over the Atlanta Falcons. The truth was, though, that Cox had a tremendous impact on the game, attracting double-team blocks and causing the Falcons to rotate at the left guard position. Cox may not have had the numbers, but he was a huge part of a defensive line effort that helped limit Atlanta to 59 total net yards and six first downs in a dominating second half, a time when fellow tackles Javon Hargrave (two sacks, three quarterback hits) and Hassan Ridgeway (sack, three quarterback hits) made the "splash" plays.
And in the end for Cox, vying for his seventh consecutive Pro Bowl appearance at the end of this season, having his linemates load up was every bit as satisfying.
"It's great to see other guys make plays and fly around," Cox said. "I think on Sunday, I got a lot of attention and I expected that going into the game and that gives other guys one-on-ones (against a single offensive lineman). I missed two or three sacks out there and that can be frustrating, but you can't let it affect what you do. I'm happy for my teammates. It was a big team win. Everybody flew around and made plays and hopefully we're doing the same thing this week."
The way Cox looks at every week is that the onus of responsibility is on the defensive line. It is a mantra he has repeated for years and years: "It's on us. We're the engine that drives the defense."
So true. The Eagles have invested heavily in their defensive line for a very significant reason – when the Eagles win at the line of scrimmage, they win games. That's why Cox and Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett were first-round draft picks. That's why Hargrave was a premier free-agent signing in 2020. It's why depth has been bolstered through free agency by the signings of Ridgeway and Ryan Kerrigan. Additional draft capital has been used to select Josh Sweat (fourth round, 2018), Milton Williams (third round, 2021), Marlon Tuipulotu (sixth round, 2021), and Tarron Jackson (sixth round, 2021). It's why the Eagles have 10 defensive linemen on the 53-man roster and played all 10 of them against Atlanta, with snap counts ranging from 41 (Cox) to two (Jackson) from the defense's 72 total snaps.
"Every week I feel it's on us," Graham said. "We all feel that way. It starts with us up front."
That will be the case on Sunday against an experienced and talented San Francisco offensive line and an offensive scheme that is designed to deceive. The 49ers bring a lot of pre-snap motion that they use with the hope that defenses will be distracted and lose eye discipline. San Francisco will use wide receiver Deebo Samuel as a running back on jet sweeps and will push out the screen game to offset a pass rush.
The system employed by Head Coach Kyle Shanahan has been proven to work and the 49ers have the personnel to execute the X's and O's. They're going to try to establish the running game first – a wide zone-blocking scheme featuring an athletic line that opens breezy running lanes for one-cut running backs to get up the field – and then devastate with a play-action passing game.
"You don't see many offenses doing what they do," Hargrave said. "They've got a variety of things that they do and they do it pretty good. They're the best at what they do, especially zone scheming. I've never seen an offensive line run like they run."
So as always, the defensive line must set the tone. That's just fine for Cox and Co.
"The reasoning behind what they do, all the motions, adjustments, all these people moving around, looks are different, is to get your eyes in the wrong spot, then they take advantage of that," Defensive Coordinator Jonathan Gannon said. "We have to be in a phone booth of what we're looking at because this is my guy that is going to tell me what I have to do. From there you have to practice it the right way and keep reiterating to our guys, 'Shrink your world and lens. You don't have to see everything. You don't have to see the big picture.' Some guys do, but not a lot of them. If you're a guy that just needs to look right here, look right here. Don't worry about where 44 (49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk) is going, what the quarterback is doing, don't worry about Deebo running across the formation. You just look at this guy right there. That's how you're going to win your individual matchup.
"I think a lot of it's just shrinking it down for our guys, 'This is where you put your eyes, this is how you play.' From there it's football. There's no call that we're going to call that's, like, the perfect magic call versus Kyle Shanahan. It's our guys executing at a high level, destroying blocks, tackling, covering. That's what the game comes down to."
The broad shoulders of the defensive line loves to hear that kind of breakdown, because it means the game comes down to all 10 of them setting the tone, winning in the trenches, and, if the case calls for it, clearing the way to allow others to get to the football.
"We understand the challenge and I love it," Graham said. "It starts with us. We have to do our jobs. That's just the way it is in this game, every week really. That's what makes it so fun."