Fletcher Cox has steadily progressed throughout the first half of the season as he adjusts to his new position as a 3-4 defensive end. He ranks first on the team in quarterback hurries (six) and is tied for second in sacks (two) and tackles for loss (three). Over the past few games it seems the proverbial light has come on, and Cox has shown the type of play – with his devastating blend of quickness, power and hustle – that engendered such promise as a rookie. He may have turned the corner for good against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a standout performance after which head coach Chip Kelly praised the second-year pro for having his best game of 2013.
"I just think his production and the energy that he played with (really stood out)," Kelly said. "We had him for five hurries. (He) really created a lot of havoc in there, just starting to – little bounce in his step, a little bit more juice out there, and I really – I talked to him a little bit about it, and he seemed like he was having fun playing football, and that's what we want out of Fletch because he can really cause some problems inside there. He's starting, again, like everybody, we're all kind of new to each other and we're getting a better feel for him and he's getting a better feel for us."
"I think I played pretty good (against the Buccaneers)," Cox said in a tone that suggested he is not satisfied. "I think I started badly versus the Giants. I'm just really focusing in because the first two games I knew I probably made a few plays and showed up here and there – a little inconsistent, I was just being an average player. The thing was, I go back and as I watch film, I know there were a lot of things I could've done differently."
Cox faced somewhat of a tough task in switching from his natural position of 4-3 defensive tackle to 3-4 defensive end in Bill Davis' scheme. As a 4-3 defensive tackle, Cox was able to use his quickness and explosiveness off the snap to shoot the "A" or "B" gap and penetrate into the backfield. Right before Training Camp started, Davis spoke of transitioning to a traditional two-gap 3-4, a scheme in which the defensive end's primary job is to take on the blocker in front of him and be responsible for the "B" and "C" gaps on either side.
The thought, therefore, was that Cox would have to rely on his strength first instead of the rare quickness that made him such an intriguing, highly rated prospect. As there is with any new scheme, Cox experienced a learning curve and it took time to get comfortable to the point where he could just react to the play-call instead of think about it. He also revealed that there is not as much two-gapping as expected, perhaps an indication that Davis is molding the defensive line more around the talents of the personnel than the traditional principles of the scheme.
"I think (getting comfortable in the defense) has a little to do with (my success) because now I'm really, really, really understanding the defense and what Coach (Davis) wants," Cox said. "At the end of the day, and I talked about it (Monday) with (defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro), we don't two-gap. We may two-gap 20 percent of the time. It's more of, what's Coach (Davis) calling?"
Opposite Cox at the other defensive end position is Cedric Thornton, who is making a name for himself this season and emerging as an impact player. He too has seen Cox's rise week by week and knows the best is yet to come for his uniquely talented teammate.
"Fletcher's just a smart guy," Thornton said. "He wasn't drafted in the first round for no reason. He definitely can convert from run to pass (rush) real fast. You can see that from last week. He's coming along in the run game, too. It's just learning a new system and being able to progress, so he's coming along."
Both Thornton and Cox are progressing nicely in Bill Davis' system and, as they continue to get comfortable in the new scheme, show more and more flashes each week. The defense as a whole is following that cue and making strides, as well.
"We're still making adjustments now right now," Thornton said. "We haven't been playing this defense forever, so (Cox) is definitely learning on the go like we (all) are. We're coming together as a defense and trying to put four quarters together. As you can see, (the Buccaneers) scored 17 in the first half last week and only scored three in the second half. We're just trying to put a complete, dominant game together."
With the defensive line, led by Cox and Thornton, improving and playing stronger with each passing game, the Eagles and their fans hope that complete, dominant game will come against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
"It means a lot," Thornton said. "It's a division game. We're undefeated in the division. We definitely want to keep it that way, and we definitely approach it to be the best game we play to this point in the season."
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