The grand plan for the Philadelphia Eagles looked great on paper: Stack up the talent at defensive tackle and win, big, inside against offensive lines. Bring waves of players and wear down blocking schemes. Crush pockets from the inside out and take away the quarterback's comfort of stepping up and throwing down the field.
On the paper, back in the summer, it was a winner. A storm of injuries has destroyed the plan.
Malik Jackson, a player who for seven seasons had been a model of durability, suffered a foot injury in the opening game against Washington and is on Injured Reserve. Tim Jernigan, who re-signed with the Eagles in a surprising move just a day before the 2019 NFL Draft and figured to be a great third tackle to play with energy and a necessary nastiness to the defense, suffered a foot injury the following week and hasn't played since. And on Wednesday, the Eagles placed on IR another defensive tackle, Hassan Ridgeway, who was acquired in a draft-weekend trade with Indianapolis, and who had given the Eagles some good snaps in the first seven weeks of the season.
Earlier in the week, of course, the Eagles released veteran Akeem Spence, who was added to the roster after Jackson's injury and who just never caught on to the up-the-field technique employed by the defensive line.
Jackson. Jernigan. Ridgeway. Spence. Jernigan is expected to return, but the timetable has not been set. The other three won't be able to help turn things around in the second half of the season.
So, only Fletcher Cox remains from the original plan. The Eagles have added Anthony Rush and Albert Huggins from the practice squads of Oakland and Houston, respectively. They're going to play on Sunday in Buffalo against a team that has a complex series of runs in its arsenal and a big, strong-armed quarterback in Josh Allen leading the Bills to a 5-1 record.
"Man, I tell you, you just grab them by the hand," Cox said on Wednesday. "Huggy got here, I met him and I said, 'I'm Fletch. Nice to meet you. Glad to have you here. Come here and sit beside me and let's get to work.'"
There is no room for feeling sorry for yourself in the NFL and the Bills certainly aren't going to have a pity party for the Eagles on Sunday. They're going to try to exploit the lack of time the new defensive tackles have spent here. Rush, signed by the Eagles out of Alabama-Birmingham in the spring following the 2019 NFL Draft, was cut in July and was told at that time by Howie Roseman that someday, somehow, Roseman would find a way to get him back to the Eagles. Here he is, with the expectation of starting on Sunday alongside Cox.
"It's moving pretty fast," said Rush, who flew from Oakland to Philadelphia on Tuesday after the Eagles agreed to sign him from the Raiders' practice squad on Monday night. "I'm on the West Coast sleeping schedule still. Now, I'm getting to play. In Oakland, I was just practicing. The team would leave and I would stay back. Now, I get to play, travel, do the whole thing."
Rush is familiar with what the Eagles do up front defensively, having been with the team through the spring practices and Organized Team Activities. He won't be lost mentally on Sunday. With Rush, it's a matter of conditioning and knocking the rust off; he hasn't played in a game since the preseason with the Raiders.
Huggins is a different story. He's new to the system – the terminology, the checks, his teammates' names, everything. This is a cram session in a big way. The hours move quickly between now and Sunday at 1 p.m.
"I think we've got a good group of guys here. They welcomed me with open arms," Huggins said. "Our D-line coach (Phillip Daniels), he came to the hotel last night to help me out with the plays, make sure I get them down pat. They're depending on me and I'm depending on them to help me out, so we're helping each other out."
The Eagles have the option of moving Vinny Curry inside for some reps at tackle and Brandon Graham slides inside in pass-rush situations, so the defense isn't entirely dependent on two players living together at a hotel with a suitcase each full of belongings to hold down the fort and beat the Bills in a critical game on Sunday. Still …
"It's crazy how everything has changed at tackle," Cox said. "You just have to roll with it. Every player we have here in this room is capable in this defense. We just have to work together and play better. We know how important this game is for us."
Those spring and summer visions, the way the defensive tackle picture looked on paper, gone. Poof. Teams adjust. Sometimes they find gold in the strangest places. Two young players get their shot. In the NFL, you have to be ready all the time.
"That's what they tell you on the practice squad, to always be ready," Rush said. "You gotta practice like you're playing. Your number could be called anytime. You gotta be ready for that."
You gotta be ready for anything and everything. That's rule No. 1 in the NFL. The Eagles, seeing the defensive tackle plans change so dramatically, will find out on Sunday how the emergency additions help a defense that needs to step up and set a tone on the road.