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The Pass Rush: What Is Next Step?

Where art thou Eagles defense for 2014? A year ago at this time we wondered if the Eagles would play a 4-3 front or a 3-4 front and it turns out that it was some of both (it's the truth). We speculated on how all of the new faces added in free agency (linebacker Connor Barwin, cornerbacks Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, safety Patrick Chung, defensive lineman Isaac Sopoaga) would fit into the defense, and the end result was that Barwin, Williams and Fletcher were immediate contributors and huge upgrades.

There was a bunch of chatter about Trent Cole and how he might work into a stand-up pass rusher if put into that position, which he was. Same with Brandon Graham, the former first-round draft choice.

Now the scheme has some definition, although knowing Bill Davis and the way he thinks, tweaks are on the way. The Eagles want to do much, much more on defense than they did in 2013, and to that end they added some secondary help in free agency with safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback Nolan Carroll. The Eagles now have more coverage flexibility in the back end of the defense, if all goes according to plan, and that should help the front seven play more aggressively in a downhill manner, attacking the line of scrimmage.

To take the next step defensively, the Eagles need to get to the quarterback more consistently. Davis and the coaching staff did a wonderful job scheming last year and the players were responsive in their learning and they gave tremendous effort, enough to help the team win seven of its last eight games in the regular season to win the NFC East. Four times the defense was on the field to clinch wins -- against Washington, Arizona and Dallas and then in the playoffs against New Orleans -- and only in that final game did the defense falter.

It's that game, though, that gave the players a bitter taste that lasted well into the offseason.

"You don't want to end your season that way," said linebacker DeMeco Ryans. "We all got back together for the offseason program and we still tasted it. It was great to get to the playoffs and so we know what it takes to get there, but now we have to make a run. We have to win in the playoffs. We had our chance against New Orleans and didn't get it done."

What does the defense need to do to make it to the next level? The postseason game against the high-powered Saints offense was revealing. Davis' defense did some outstanding things in the game. Quarterback Drew Brees threw two interceptions and just one touchdown. The Eagles limited New Orleans to 6 points in the first half. All good.

But as the Eagles limited Brees, they gave up big yards on the ground, 185 in all. The pass rush produced two sacks -- both in the Saints' field-goal drive to end the first half -- for only a single yard lost.

The scheme was great -- star tight end Jimmy Graham caught just 3 passes and pass-catching threat Darren Sproles had only 4 receptions -- but the end result was a heart-wrenching loss and an end to a promising season.

What did the numbers from 2013 say? Here is a brief look ...

  • The Eagles were 20th in the NFL with 37 quarterback sacks
  • They tied for 19th in the league with 14 sacks on third down
  • With 10 sacks in the fourth quarter, the Eagles ranked tied for 21st in the NFL
  • 3 sacks in the red zone tied for fourth in the NFL
  • In the 10 Eagles wins, the Eagles registered 24 sacks. In the six losses, they had 13 sacks
  • According to, the Eagles ranked 17th in the NFL with an adjusted sack rate of 6.8 percent

A season's page is turned, and now the Eagles await 2014 with grand expectations. The defense, young up front and seasoned in the back end, has a solid foundation, which is a far different place from 12 months ago.

Now, from this perspective, the defense is a more consistent pass rush away from taking steps forward. How do the Eagles generate the downhill buzz? Cole recorded 7 of his 8 quarterback sacks in three games late in the year -- 2 against Washington on November 17, 2 against Arizona on December 1 and 3 in the big win against Chicago on December 22. Graham showed some burst off the edge late in the year as the stand-up position become more comfortable. Barwin rushed the passer well when he was asked to do so.

The Eagles want to take a look at some of the young talents on the roster, including Travis Long, on the practice squad last season, and Bryan Braman, who joined the team as an unrestricted free agent from Houston in March.

The draft? We shall see. There seems to be a wide range of opinions among the draft "experts" out there on the quality of the crop of prospects, so at this point there doesn't appear to be an immediate-impact fix whom the Eagles could draft at 22 in the first round, or in the rounds thereafter.

The solution is to improve what the team has now and to add some punch in some way, shape or form. The defense is going to improve over last year with more scheme understanding and the natural improvement of player who now get what Davis wants. Jenkins and Carroll are going to help, too.

Is it enough? Defense still wins in the playoffs in the NFL. Rushing the quarterback with more frequency and getting home can make a huge difference with a defense that has a strong foundation in place.

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