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Spadaro: Pass rush evokes memories of Gang Green era

Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro
Eagles Insider Dave Spadaro

This group, they know the names of that group, the 1989 Philadelphia Eagles that set a franchise record with 62 quarterback sacks. That was the Gang Green defense, Buddy Ryan style, and it was led by defensive ends Reggie White and Clyde Simmons, and defensive tackle Jerome Brown. It may have been the best of the Ryan teams, one that won 11 games and finished second in the NFC East before losing in the first round of the NFC playoffs to the Los Angeles Rams.

As Randall Cunningham emerged as The Ultimate Weapon that season, the defense was spectacular, that incredible front four led by Simmons and his 15.5 quarterback sacks, White's 11 sacks amid constant double- and triple-team blocking, a 10.5-sack output by the explosive Brown, 7 from unheralded tackle Mike Pitts, 5 from outside linebacker Seth Joyner, and a sneaky 3.5 from safety Wes Hopkins.

They amassed 62 quarterback sacks, a franchise record until this very day.

This group, the 2022 Eagles, has heard the stories about that group. Every day they walk into the team meeting room, the auditorium of the NovaCare Complex, and they see the larger-than-life print of White on the wall, arguably the greatest Eagle (and maybe greatest defensive player in the history of the NFL) on the wall, presented by Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Lurie when the building opened in 2001 as "one of the pillars of the franchise."

"Reggie White? Of course I've heard of him," defensive tackle Javon Hargrave said on Thursday at his locker. "Jerome Brown, yeah. Those are names in this league! They mean something."

They sure did and they sure do, because to forget the past in the NFL is to forget the foundation of everything the league is today. The Eagles are what they are as a franchise because players like White and Brown and Simmons and Joyner and everyone on that team's defense laid the groundwork for what the NFC East has always embodied: Tough, hard-nosed defense.

And this 2022 version is following suit. As spectacular as the Eagles have been on offense – the Eagles lead the league with 29.7 points per game and their 445 points scored is closing in on the franchise record of 474 points scored in 2014 – the defense has more than kept pace. Philadelphia leads the NFL in pass defense and ranks second in interceptions. And the sacks ... those league-best 61 quarterback sacks have been the fuel for the defense's fire.

"We're aware of it, but it's not like we get all the credit and we don't deserve all the credit," said defensive end Josh Sweat, who has a career-best 11 quarterback sacks. "We have a lot of guys getting after it on every play. It's hard to know where it's coming from, but you better believe it's coming. That's what we do. We want to put pressure on the quarterback, get to him, and take the ball away."

Sweat did just that in Dallas, intercepting a Dak Prescott pass and returning it 42 yards for a touchdown. It was his first NFL score and he admits that he didn't know how to celebrate.

"I actually couldn't quite believe it happened that way. I mean, I know I have the best hands on the team (he's laughing when he says this) and I put my arms up and the ball was right there," he said. "I tried to get to Dak's facemask but ended up just pushing him away and I was gone. I reached the end zone and didn't know what to do. So, I just did my normal 'Sweaty' celebration and that was it. I acted like I had been there before, even though it had been since I was a receiver in high school.

"But that's what we want to do. We want to impact games. It's up to us to start it all for the defense."

The key to success is that the Eagles come from everywhere with their pass rush. Linebacker Haason Reddick made his first Pro Bowl and has been a game-changing player with 14 sacks. Sweat has 11. Hargrave has 10. End Brandon Graham is sitting at 9, and tackle Fletcher Cox has 6. How do you account for so many pass rushers?

"It's hard to do, man, because we are coming after you. We want to play downhill and get to the quarterback. We're all racing to get there," Graham said. "Setting a franchise record would be sweet and we're aware of it, but our focus is on winning this game. We know what it means."

The NFL record is 72 sacks, set by the 1984 Chicago Bears. It isn't out of reach ...

"Who played on that team? They passed the ball that much? I thought they ran it a lot back in those days," Hargrave said, laughing. "That must have been quite a defense."

It was, led by end Richard Dent and his 17.5 sacks, but this defense has been every bit as impactful getting after the quarterback and making plays on the back end.

"I think that's the thing," Hargrave said, "we have had a lot of help with our coverage. Those guys have been great. It goes hand in hand."

No doubt it's a team effort, and that's why the collective thought this weekend is not on the franchise sack record, but on winning the football game and clinching the No. 1 seed in the NFC postseason. Everybody knows what is at stake.

"We're going to be fired up," Graham said. "If we get some sacks along the way, that's great, but they have a veteran quarterback (Andy Dalton) who knows we're coming and he's going to have the ball out of his hands fast. We just have to play our defense. Be sound. Tackle well. Play hard and get up on them.

"We're going out there to win. If we set a record along the way, that's great. But we just want to get the win."

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