The afternoon matchup in Hollywood on Sunday between the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Rams has no shortage of story lines. Two highly efficient offenses with top-five defenses. The numbers one and two overall picks of the 2016 NFL Draft, both having breakout seasons. Two young head coaches with the playoffs all but locked up just looking to better their team’s seeding.
However, the biggest matchup, both in size and importance, could come along the trenches. The 12th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Fletcher Cox, and the 13th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Aaron Donald, are arguably the top two players at their position. Both have game-changing ability and will be paramount to the outcome of Sunday’s NFC matchup.
The two will not see the field at the same time or be lined up against one another but there is no doubt that both of these players have kept the opponents’ offensive line awake at night.
Cox struggled against the Seattle Seahawks in a loss a week ago, failing to register a single solo tackle. Donald is coming off of his fourth multi-sack game of his career after his two-sack outing in a victory in which the Rams doubled-up the Arizona Cardinals.
Cox will need to have a bounce-back game and get pressure not only on Rams quarterback Jared Goff but also be disruptive in the run game. Rams running back Todd Gurley is third in the league in rushing yards while averaging 4.2 yards per carry, the best by any running back with at least 200 carries on the season.
Gurley is also dangerous in the pass game as the Rams second-leading receiver on the season with 563 receiving yards. The Eagles front seven will have to be disciplined in getting to Goff but also keeping an eye open for Gurley in the screen game or sneaking out of the backfield.
Cox is a large reason that the Eagles are on a historical pace against the run, allowing an average of just 68.1 rushing yards per game and a paltry 3.5 yards per carry. Cox will be assisted in the run game by a defensive line that has four players (Brandon Graham, Vinny Curry, Derek Barnett, Tim Jernigan) with eight or more tackles for loss on the season.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Eagles offensive line will have its hands full with three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro Aaron Donald. Donald is on pace for his highest sack total of his four-year career and is the leader of a defense that has 38 sacks on the year. That’s 3.2 sacks per game, third-most in the league.
Donald typically lines up more outside than Cox, lining up between the left tackle and left guard. Eagles left tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai struggled mightily against the Seahawks, allowing two sacks, one QB hit and seven QB hurries, per PFF. Left guard Stefen Wisniewski didn’t pick up any of the slack for his partner, allowing five QB hits and six QB hurries, himself.
Let’s just hope offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland had a few choice words for the duo this week in meetings and practice.
While the Eagles are dominant defending the run, they are also dominant running the ball on the offensive side. The trio of Jay Ajayi, LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement (mix in Kenjon Barner here and there) lead the Eagles rushing attack that averages 143.3 rush yards per game. That’s good for second-best in the league.
Despite the dominant defensive line the Rams have up front, they are near the bottom of the league in rush yards allowed with 122.8 per game. Unlike the Eagles, who have four, the Rams only have one player in the top-50 in the league in tackles for loss. That is Donald, tied with Brandon Graham with 12.
While Donald may have the edge over Cox, also assisted by the matchup against a LT-LG combo that gave up 21 pressures a week ago, Cox has the better supporting cast around him.
Cox and Donald are arguably the two best defensive tackles in the game, though their positions do differ. Both will have their say in determining the outcome of the matchup of two of the NFC’s best on Sunday afternoon. Games are won and lost in the trenches and Cox and Donald have been known to destroy those trenches as well as opponents’ gameplans.
The week 14 matchup will go a long way in determining the way the NFC plays out. Don’t be surprised to see some jersey swaps after the game and Donald and Cox being one of those.
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Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports