The Eagles defensive line isn’t getting the credit it deserves this season

NFL: DEC 13 Saints at Eagles
PHILADELPHIA, PA – DECEMBER 13: New Orleans Saints Quarterback Taysom Hill (7) scrambles from Philadelphia Eagles Defensive End Josh Sweat (94) in the second half during the game between the New Orleans Saints and Philadelphia Eagles on December 13, 2020 at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, PA. (Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire)

As disappointing as this rollercoaster of a season has been for the Eagles, there has been overwhelming positive – the rise of the pass rush. Getting to the QB has always been the name of the game for Jim Schwartz and his defense, but in year five, we’re really beginning to see the fruits of his labor.

An interesting offseason

It feels weird to say, given that only a month or so before the start of the season, many regarded the DE spot as an area that was light on depth and DT as a wildcard. Malik Jackson was returning from a season-ending injury and Javon Hargrave was a new signing in a shortened offseason.

The Eagles did nothing to add to the DE group during the NFL Draft until the seventh round when they took a flyer on Casey Toohill, who is now on Washington’s roster. This left an aging Brandon Graham, volatile Derek Barnett, and hungry Josh Sweat to carry the load alongside the returning Vinny Curry.

Fast forward 13 games and the Eagles defense is on course to have the highest number of sacks it has ever recorded under Jim Schwartz. His era started out in 2016 with 34 sacks, before jumping 4 one year later. In 2018, his defense rallied to 44, and they were just one shy of that mark in 2019. This year, they’ve already got 43 to their name and have 3 games left to play.

What’s even more astounding is that this came after the confusing firing of Phillip Daniels, the team’s old defensive line coach. Matt Burke, a former assistant to Jim Schwartz and defensive coordinator, took over the role but had never coached the defensive line before. It’s safe to say he’s erased all doubts.

Eagles defensive ends

He’s not the only one, either. Brandon Graham’s pro-bowl level year continues and Derek Barnett’s flashes of brilliance are more consistent. Josh Sweat has 6 sacks to his name this season, already setting a new career-high and showing no signs of slowing down. His emphatic game against the Saints saw him bring down Taysom Hill on two occasions on crazy-athletic plays, while also forcing a fumble.

Sweat has been a wrecking ball this season and has made the most of his bump in defensive snaps (now playing 45% over the 36% last year.) His emergence has not only been a pleasant surprise in terms of production but also the fact that the future of the position appears to be in safe hands. BG won’t be around forever and Derek Barnett’s fifth-year option is very pricey. Having Sweat continuing to get better can only be seen as positive.

“We’ve always had confidence in him.” Jim Schwartz said on Tuesday. “He’s played a lot of football for us and we’ll continue to rotate those guys up front and try to keep those guys as fresh as we can and keep them fast and making plays. It’s going to be tough duty this week with a mobile quarterback because it uses up a lot of gasoline for those defensive linemen. It’s not just ten yards running. Some of those plays are going to have to run 25, 30 yards on a play. So our ability to stay fresh and keep guys energized and fast coming off the bench is going to be important in this game, also.”

Eagles Defensive tackles

That rotation on the interior has been absolutely huge for the Eagles. It took a while for Fletcher Cox to get going and Javon Hargrave can absolutely be mentioned in that same breath. But since week 10, the pair actually lead all defensive tackles in sacks!

Malik Jackson’s early explosion certainly bridged the gap and while it’s almost expected that the DT’s thrive due to the sheer amount of money being paid to them, being so dominant for so long, especially as the rest of the team seems to fall apart at the seams, is a testament to the caliber of player suiting up, and level of coaching being given.

The win over New Orleans saw a huge uptick in production from newly signed Javon Hargrave, who added a pair of sacks, a fumble recovery 2 TFL, and 4 tackles to go with that trio of QB hits. He’s registered at least 1 QB hit and 1 TFL in each of the last 3 games. It may have taken a while, but Hargrave is firing on all cylinders as the Eagles head into the most crucial part of the season.

Born to run

Five Eagles defensive linemen have 4.5+ sacks this season. It’s the first time this has happened in over 20 years. The last time this occurred was 1995.

The defensive line has been rampant this season and really isn’t getting the credit it deserves. With Kyler Murray on the horizon and two extremely important games with regards to claiming the NFC East crown, there’s no doubting that the pressure generated will be more valuable than ever. If the Eagles do make it all the way to the playoffs, the defensive line will be a huge reason behind that redemption mission.

Photo by Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire