What has happened to the Eagles' defensive line, with all of the problems it has had reaching the quarterback and creating negative plays, I just don't know. Frankly, based on the sack totals and the accumulated quarterback hurries and lack of defensive takeaways, it is clear that there are no easy answers.
Back when the Eagles were 3-1 and the defense's sack totals were not where they were a season ago – the defensive line led the league with 46 sacks (out of the team's total of 50) – the drop-off was easier to explain. OK, so the sack totals were down, but the Eagles were not giving up big plays, were moving quarterbacks with a four-man pass rush and were winning games.
On the heels of three consecutive losses, well, the concern levels have gone way, way up. How to get the pass rush back, whether it is with a four-man pass rush, whether it is done by creating pressure with the blitz, whether the Eagles use the Wide 9 formation or don't, the defense needs havoc at the line of scrimmage.
Every defense does.
One season ago, as defensive line coach had his players firing off the ball and attacking up the field, the sack totals piled up. Jason Babin racked up 18 of 'em and earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl nod (his first came as a member of the Tennessee Titans). On the opposite end of the line, Trent Cole recorded 11 sacks, his third straight season and fourth in the previous five campaigns with at least 10 sacks.
As the Eagles entered the offseason, they figured defensive line was a strength. Former first-round draft pick Brandon Graham was on his way back from an injury suffered in 2010. Phillip Hunt was bound to improve on a promising rookie season. Darryl Tapp was a solid, sound reserve. The tackles, led by veterans Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson, were physical and technically sound and productive.
The Eagles added to the mix in the months leading into the 2012 season, bringing on board tackle Fletcher Cox in the first round and end Vinny Curry in the third round of April's draft. Coupled with the development of youngster Cedric Thornton and the re-signing of Derek Landri, the defensive line starred in training camp, wowing in those practices. And in the preseason games? Forget about it. The line was dynamic. Sacks came in bunches. The pressure was everywhere, even as Patterson was sidelined recovering from brain surgery in the offseason.
In those early September days, then, everyone pointed to the defensive line as a strength, as one of the very best in the league. How could anyone disagree?
So it makes it all the more mysterious that the Eagles, through seven games, have only nine quarterback sacks and just eight by linemen (DeMeco Ryans chased down Baltimore's Joe Flacco back in Week 2). Babin has 2 ½. Cole has 1 ½. After recording seven in the first three games, the Eagles went three straight games without a sack before Thornton reached Matt Ryan on Sunday. Jenkins touched a fallen Ryan later in the game, a sack that meant nothing in the context of the game.
It is bizarre, very difficult to explain and an absolute necessity to improve if this defense is to reach the level that Bowles and the Eagles desire.
The attempt here is not to point fingers, nor to implicate the scheme or individual players because the reality is that there are a lot of factors that account for the decreased number of sacks and nobody seems to have the immediate cure. Sure, teams are setting up quickly for the quickness off the ball and yes there have been times when running backs have "chipped" pass rushers to slow them down and of course quarterbacks know to drop back and get rid of the ball fast because the Eagles are a comin' with the pass rush.
But that stuff happens with every team. You don't think that offenses that line up against the Giants, for example, have the same set of directions? Of course they do. The Giants still live defensively off of pressure in the backfield and takeaways from the back seven.
So what does Bowles do? Be assured that he and Washburn are reaching deep into their vast reservoirs of knowledge trying to figure out the answer. Drew Brees and the Saints are the challenge on Monday night, and Brees is the master of avoiding pressure, of stepping away from a blitz and of sticking a dagger of a throw 25 yards down the field. If the Eagles can't pressure Brees and can't move him out of his comfort zone, it's going to be tough to contain a potent Saints offense.
Sacks aren't the only measurable here. The Eagles showed some front-four fury late in the Baltimore game, pressuring Flacco with a straight pass rush and hurrying him into some bad throws. Sometimes, defenses have to play "coverage" and hope the front four can do enough to take a quarterback out of his rhythm.
You saw the frustration late in Sunday's loss when Cole and Atlanta tight end Tony Gonzalez got into a shoving match and Cole mouthed some nasty words and his eyes flamed and his nostrils flared. He needs to hit a quarterback to be happy. He needs to be a force off the edge.
How the Eagles make the foursome fearsome again, hey, that's going to hold the key to the defense's success. Maybe it's just a matter of continuing to work hard on the basics and understand that sacks come in bunches and sometimes there are droughts. Maybe there is a change in philosophy coming, a tweak that Washburn wants to make to give his pass rushers a sliver of separation that will provide the edge needed to reach the quarterback. Maybe there is a personnel move on the horizon that we don't yet know about.
All I know is that the game begins at the line of scrimmage and the Eagles need to win more battles. Once they do that and get back to the success that they are used to enjoying, the defense will settle into place as Bowles wants.