For over two decades, one of the strongest positional groups on the Eagles has been the defensive line/front seven.
The players may have changed, but the level of dominance was maintained throughout the many coaching changes, QB upheavals and transition periods.
Whether it was Hugh Douglas, Trent Cole or Javon Kearse, or lesser known players like Darren Howard, Jason Babin or Connor Barwin, the Eagles have been able to win thanks to getting pressure on the QB.
That didn’t happen in 2021.
In a year which saw Javon Hargrave start the season off with a bang, the Eagles finished 31st in the league in sacks. Almost unheard of considering how much of the franchise’s recent history has been predicated on getting after the QB.
According to Spotrac, the Eagles use the second most salary cap to the defensive line. Now obviously a lot of that chunk is being spent towards Fletcher Cox and Hargrave, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that for a position group that has so much money poured in, the lack of production is worrying.
There’s many factors that played into the decline in sacks, and also a ton of potential solutions heading into the offseason, but it doesn’t take away from the team’s #1 problem.
Scheme vs. Reality
It’s fair to point out that Jonathan Gannon’s defensive scheme did not really emphasize the aggressive, downfield approach that Jim Schwartz or even Jim Johnson use to run. It’s been an easy target for a lot of Eagle fans anger over the course of the last six months.
Gannon’s scheme clearly predicated on front four pressure while the secondary plays more zone defense. The secondary wasn’t really the problem last year though. The front seven was.
And when a team doesn’t blitz, and doesn’t get pressure at the line of scrimmage, it opens up and exposes massive weaknesses all across the defense.
The Eagles lack any semblance of a competent linebacker. That’s been obvious since they let Jordan Hicks walk. But the defensive line’s struggles against the run AND generating pressure, put a ton of strain on Alex Singleton, TJ Edwards in coverage.
In the days of Jim Schwartz, the front four was designed to get after the passer without really blitzing. It worked pretty well all things considered. But the front four isn’t getting any pressure anymore. You could argue the loss of Brandon Graham was significant, but again, it underlies a massive miss by the organization.
The days of Jim Johnson blitzing every down are over, and have been for some time. Johnson’s defense didn’t necessarily need a top five pass rusher because the pressure was coming from everywhere. With Schwartz, you knew that if you held off the front four, you’d have a good chance of winning.
With Gannon, the entire defense is based on the front four getting pressure, and when they don’t, you get great QB’s shredding this defense like sliced cheese.
The Current Players aren’t good enough
If Fletcher Cox or Hargrave is double teamed, someone on the outside needs to win, and win quickly. That didn’t happen in 2021.
Josh Sweat had a nice year, as he led the team in pressures after a big contract extension during the year. But Ryan Kerrigan, Derek Barnett and others were no-shows throughout the year.
Derek Barnett being one of the biggest draft busts in Eagles history isn’t really talked about enough. He has more penalties called on him than career sacks, and even when he is healthy, the lack of production from a first round pick is startling. Even Nelson Agholor had a couple good years in Philly. Barnett really hasn’t even had a good game.
Barnett is obviously one of the bigger disappointments on this line, but even Fletcher Cox looked like he has entered the twilight of his career. Gone are the days where many considered him the second best defensive lineman behind Aaron Donald, he’s not even the best interior lineman on his own team.
The Eagles invest a ton of money into their DL, and the expectation is that they should be able to generate pressure with just four pass rushers. That isn’t happening anymore and it’s a big reason why the defensive line is priority #1 for Howie Roseman to fix.
The good news to this position group is that there are many solutions that can answer this problem over the next few months.
With three picks in the top 20 of the upcoming NFL Draft in a class full of talented pass rushers, the Eagles are prime to upgrade at a massive position of need. Everyone and their mother has mocked Michigan Defensive End, David Ojabo to Philadelphia and some have even predicted a fall for Purdue DE, George Karlaftis which could give Philly a chance to add some massive players to their scheme.
There’s also some intriguing players in free agency that could give the Eagles some much needed help along the DL. Would the Eagles take a flier out on some older vets who might have a year or two left in the tank like Calais Campbell, Von Miller or Jerry Hughes?
Or how about some young, unproven talent like Kemoko Turay?
Regardless, as bad as the Eagles front four was in 2021, there are plenty of assets for the team to use to bolster an incredibly important part of the roster.
Questions will surround the Eagles offseason with Fletcher Cox potentially being on the outs, and half this franchise wanting a new QB, but make no mistake:
If the Eagles truly want to be back and competing for Super Bowls, the closest way to get there is to get the DL back to the level of dominance the fanbase is accustomed to seeing.
Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire