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Defensive Line Lining Up For Impact

If it is all to work according to the blueprint, and the history of Jim Schwartz says the blueprint works very well, thank you, the Eagles are going to have to dominate the line of scrimmage defensively in 2016. They've got some pieces -- Brandon Graham, Connor Barwin and Vinny Curry off the edge lined up in the Wide 9, with All-Pro Fletcher Cox and emerging Bennie Logan inside.

They've got some depth and they've got some young promise.

It's a new scheme, and now that Cox is in for the final week of the offseason and said he will be present for Training Camp, there is a sense of wholeness here. Cox makes the front complete, and he makes it very, very dangerous.

"Obviously we love to have Fletch back this week. We love to see his big, smiling face here," Barwin said. "I think the guys who stepped in did a good job while he was gone, but Fletcher brings a lot to our defense. He's a great player. It's exciting to think what he can do in this defense."

We know what this defense is all about, right? Attack the football. Play downhill. Be a fast, aggressive, nasty, physical defense. Create havoc, get to the quarterback, force turnovers and get off the field on third downs.

"It's like attack and react, and that's my game," Graham said. "All out, sell out, go get whoever got the ball. That's what Jim is like. Jim likes guys who are going to be aggressive and not be scared to go into dark places."

That's the blueprint that Schwartz has followed in his very successful NFL coaching career. But a lot of coaches have a great game plan and few make the kind of impact Schwartz has made. He's also had players to help carry out the vision -- in Tennessee, in Detroit and in 2014 in Buffalo.

How about the Eagles in 2016? How do they stack up along the line of scrimmage?

"I think we have the right pieces, but it's still early in the offseason and we know we have a long way to go," Barwin said. "We're going to have a rotation and we've got depth, so, yeah, I think we have a good mix."

Barwin's play is a huge key as he transitions from a stand-up linebacker coming off the edge and dropping back into coverage into a hard-charging, hand-in-the-dirt (although you could see Barwin standing up from time to time) end.

How Barwin transitions to the new role is important to the defensive front's performance.

"It's been a good transition. Every day I'm trying to get better. There's not as much of a transition as some people think, but there is some," Barwin said. "Most of my life I've been playing blocked, so to speak - 'You've got to set the edge,' or 'You've got to be in the B gap,' where in this defense we're getting to spots. It doesn't matter where the block is, you just go. That's been an adjustment that I've been focused on."

Curry is perhaps the most natural pass rusher off the edge that the Eagles have, and he can also slide inside when the defense aligns in obvious passing situations. Curry's production and playing time were hampered by the 3-man front the Eagles ran the last three seasons when they asked defensive linemen to control two gaps and occupy blockers, allowing the linebackers to come in clean and find the football.

Here, Schwartz is very demanding that while he doesn't want his linemen to think a lot, he wants them to be extremely disciplined with their responsibilities.

"Do not mess up a mental assignment with Jim," Barwin said. "That does not go over well with him."

Cox dominated the last couple of seasons in the 3-4 and he's expected to do the same in this scheme. Offensive lines are going to have to account for him and slide protection his way and make sure that Cox doesn't have many one-on-one situations. 

Having worked with line coach Chris Wilson for two seasons at Mississippi State, Cox understands the technique and the line calls. Now it's just a matter of getting into game condition.

"I like everything we do," Cox said on Wednesday at his locker in the NovaCare Complex. "I think I'm made for it."

To really get it going, Schwartz is going to keep players fresh and rotate liberally and give his guys the green light to attack early and often. Schwartz's defenses are usually among the league leaders in quarterback sacks and turnovers forced, two key metrics to measure this season. That said, the pressure is on the line of scrimmage to bring the heat, to play the run on the way to the quarterback and to take the pressure off the back end with a ferocious pass rush.

"We're going to get after it and have us some fun," Graham said. "We've all bought in. The 3-4 react thing is in the past. We know it's on us to win up front. And we know that if we do that, when we do that, the rest of the defense is gonna clean up."

"The way this defense works is in theory the same as every defense," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "When you win up front, you're going to win. And with this defense and all of the pressure it has historically applied, you can see how that would have such a huge ripple effect."

The work continues, without the pads and minus the tackling. Training Camp will tell the next chapter in the defense's development, one that relies heavily on the speed, tenacity and get-into-the-backfield approach for the defensive line, one the Eagles think can be pretty darned special.

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