As our Midseason Report series has shifted to look at the defensive side of the ball, let's look at the defensive tackle position which has been fortified by the addition of a first-round draft pick ...
1. Can Fletcher Cox continue to play at a high level?
It seemed too good to be true when the Eagles traded up three spots in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft to get defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. Defensive line coach Jim Washburn declared that Cox was born to play in his system.
The best part of the pick was that with the depth along the defensive line it didn't seem like Cox would need to make an instant impact. However, Mike Patterson has not played this season after undergoing offseason brain surgery, but Cox has picked up the slack.
Cox has 23 tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack, nine quarterback hurries and a pass knockdown. Cox is fourth in snaps among defensive linemen and second among defensive tackles. With Cox's strength and speed, he has been evenly used across all three downs and run and pass situations. He was dominant against the New York Giants in Week 4. Last Sunday, Cox's absence was missed when he was ejected for throwing a punch. Cox admitted that the mistake likely cost the Eagles the game as Washburn had to rotate three defensive linemen for the rest of the contest which went into overtime.
With the way that the Eagles have depended on the first-round pick, they certainly can't afford for Cox to hit the proverbial "rookie wall."
2. How can the defensive tackles help with the sack production?
When the Eagles finished tied for the league lead in sacks last season, the defensive tackles played a significant role in that. Cullen Jenkins paced the defensive tackles with 5.5 sacks, which was good for third-best on the team. Patterson had 2.5 sacks.
Cox is the lone defensive tackle to register a sack in 2012. It's not just sacks where the defensive tackles can help, but in pushing the pocket. Jenkins is third on the team and tops among defensive tackles with 14 quarterback hurries. Cox and Derek Landri are tied for second among the defensive tackles with nine hurries apiece.
New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles and Washburn are going to have to come up with creative ways to try and free the Eagles' athletic pass rushers.
3. How are the defensive tackles doing in the run game?
It's not just about the pass rush when it comes to the interior of the defensive line.
The Eagles rank 15th in the league in rushing defense, allowing an average of 104.5 yards per game. Looking closer at the numbers, the run defense up the middle has been much improved. Of course, the play of middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans has a lot to do with that. But in run plays up the middle, the Eagles still allow an average of 5.91 yards per carry which ranks 29th in the league. That number is still better than last season. In plays behind the right guard, the Eagles rank fifth in the league against the run allowing just 2.78 yards per carry. In run plays behind the left guard, the Eagles allow 3.25 yards per carry good for 12th in the NFL.
Last year, the Eagles were tops in negative plays on defense. The sacks were a huge part of that, but with 63 negative rushing plays the Eagles ranked sixth in the league. This season, the Eagles have a total of 30 negative plays and 21 of them are runs which are tied for 11th in the league.
Ryans is the team leader in tackles for loss this year when last season Landri (eight) and Jenkins (seven) led the Eagles in 2011. So far this season, the defensive tackles have combined for six tackles for loss paced by Landri (three) and Jenkins (two).
A player to watch for the Eagles is second-year defensive tackle Cedric Thornton. In the past two games, Thornton has played 66 snaps as his role is increasing as the season progresses. Thornton has earned praise from general manager Howie Roseman for his performance.
It will be key for the Eagles to continue to do well against the run to force teams into predictable long down-and-distance situations so they can simply focus on attacking the quarterback.
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