Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham have been together for seven years, which is a lifetime in professional sports. Along with safety Malcolm Jenkins, they are the heart and soul of Jim Schwartz’s defense.
On Sunday, in the visitors locker room at New Era Field, as the Eagles prepared for a critical stop-the-bleeding game against the Buffalo Bills, Cox went over to Graham’s locker and they had a chat.
“It starts up front with our defense,’’ four-time Pro Bowler Cox said. “Me and Brandon, we have talks. We had one before the game on Sunday. I went to his locker and said, ‘Hey, man. We have to start fast. Me and you. We can’t wait on anybody else to make a play.’ We had to start fast and we had to be the ones to lead. I got his back and he’s got my back.’’
The Eagles defenders has been anything but fast starters this season. In their first seven games, they had given up first-possession points six times and second-possession points five times.
The 51 first-quarter points they had allowed were the third most in the league, ahead of only the Dolphins (54) and the Jets (63) and the same number as the Falcons. That is company you definitely don’t want to keep if you have any thoughts about making the playoffs.
But on Sunday, that changed. On the first play of the game after a Jake Elliott touchback, Graham pushed Bills tight end Tyler Croft into the backfield, then shed the block and tackled running back Frank Gore for no gain.
Two plays later, on third-and-6, Cox overpowered Bills right guard Jon Feliciano and sacked quarterback Josh Allen, forcing the Bills to punt.
On third-and-1 on the Bills’ next possession, Cox again beat Feliciano and tackled Gore for no gain, forcing a second straight three-and-out.
“That’s the thing that’s been hurting us,’’ Cox said. “We’ve been starting slow. Teams have been driving the ball down the field and scoring or getting field goals. We need to start fast. When we do, it helps the whole team.’’
Cox had his best game of the season. He finished with 1½ sacks, two hurries, and six tackles.
Graham had a sack, three quarterback hits, a momentum-shifting forced fumble and recovery, and six tackles, two for losses.
“I felt that was one of my best performances of the year,’’ said Cox, who has been taking slow but steady steps back from last season’s foot injury. “I’m just trying to keep chipping away.
“The biggest thing Sunday was I started fast. I’ve got to continue to start fast. It’ll help not only me, but it’ll spark this defense and help everybody else.’’
The Eagles have 21 sacks this season, which puts them on a 42-sack pace, which would be just two fewer than last season.
But 10 of those 21 came in one game, against the aforementioned Jets. Take those 10 out of the equation and you’re talking about a sack total ahead of only the Bengals, Dolphins, and Jets, who all have nine, and the Falcons, who have seven. Combined record of those four teams: 2-28.
But Sunday’s impressive performance by Cox is the biggest indication yet that he’s almost back to where he was last year, when he was the second-best defensive tackle in the game behind only the Rams’ Aaron Donald.
Defensive tackle Tim Jernigan, who missed the last six games with a foot injury, returned to practice this week and is close to returning. And the Eagles acquired another pass-rusher earlier this week, trading a conditional 2021 pick for defensive end Genard Avery.
While most Eagles fans had a lukewarm reaction to the addition of the 6-foot, 250-pound Avery, who had 4½ sacks last season with the Browns as a rookie but has spent all but two games this year as a game-day inactive, Cox thinks he’s going to help the Eagles.
“A Mississippi boy,’’ Cox said of Avery, who is from Grenada, Miss., 90 miles north as the crow flies from Cox’s hometown of Yazoo City.
“He just needs to learn the defense. We’re helping him understand things. Basically trying to simplify it for him so that, at the end of the day, he can just go out and play football.’’
Avery is a speed-rusher who potentially could flourish in Jim Schwartz’s attacking wide-nine scheme.
“We rush the quarterback,’’ Cox said. “I expressed that to him. I think he’ll enjoy that. He doesn’t have to worry about dropping into coverage or doing anything like that. He can just use his speed and go after the quarterback.’’
There are an awful lot of people at One NovaCare Way, from owner Jeffrey Lurie down to the janitorial staff, who are looking forward to the return of DeSean Jackson. With the possible exception of Carson Wentz, however, maybe nobody may be more eager for the speedy 32-year-old wide receiver to get back than tight end Zach Ertz.
“He just adds a different dimension to our offense,’’ Ertz said. “He just opens everything up. Not only for myself, but everyone. The middle of the field is much more open because teams have to account for him. If they don’t, he goes off for 150 [yards] and two touchdowns like he did in Week 1 against Washington.’’
Ertz and everyone else probably is going to have to wait a couple of more weeks to see Jackson play. He returned to practice this week for the first time since suffering a core muscle injury early in the Eagles’ Week 2 loss to Atlanta, but he has been a limited participant.
It seems likely that, with the bye week coming up after Sunday’s game against the struggling 3-4 Bears, they’ll hold Jackson out until the Nov. 17 game against the undefeated Patriots. Jackson sat by his locker Thursday during the media’ 45-minute locker room availability, but he declined to talk to reporters.
Without Jackson to worry about, safeties haven’t had to play as deep, which has shrunk the open space in the intermediate zones where Ertz makes his living.
And with the little fella spending the last six weeks in the whirlpool instead of on the field, much of the coverage attention that Jackson was supposed to draw has been focused on Ertz.
Ertz still is having a pretty good season – he’s on pace to catch 74 passes. But he had just one touchdown catch and just five receiving first downs in the last three games. His 57.8 catch percentage is the lowest of his career.
“There’s a lot more condensed coverage in the middle of the field [without Jackson],’’ Ertz said. “Often times, I’ll be by myself and their best corner will be on me. There’s also been a lot of double-teams.
“So I can’t wait to have him back. Obviously they’re going to have to account for him, or what happened in the Redskins game will continue to happen. He’s one of the most talented receivers I’ve ever played with.’’
Ertz acknowledged that the extra coverage attention he’s been getting has been a little frustrating.
“I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s easy,’’ he said. “It’s tough. At the same time, I’ve just got to see it as a sign of respect.
“It’s kind of funny when I hear people say I’m worse this season than I was last year [when he caught 116 passes, the most ever by an NFL tight end]. I’m not seeing the same coverages I saw last year.
“I put in the work each week and try and solve that and be better against it, and it’s coming. We’ve only played eight games. That’s a small sample size. I’m not too worried about it.’’
--In their 27-point loss to the Cowboys, the Eagles’ average drive start was their own 18.8 yard-line, while Dallas’s was the 41.7. That’s a minus-22.9-yard drive start differential, which was the largest in Doug Pederson’s four seasons as head coach. In last week’s win over the Bills, the Eagles’ average drive start was the 36.4, while the Bills’ was the 29.4, which is a plus-7.0 differential.
--While the Eagles have run just 28 percent of their total offensive plays from under center this season, 47.7 percent of their rushing attempts – 112 of 235 – have been from under center. Fifty-seven of Jordan Howard’s 100 carries have been from under center. He’s averaging 4.3 yards per carry on under-center runs and 4.6 on runs out of shotgun.
--The Eagles were in 21-personnel – two running backs, one tight end, and two wide receivers – on Miles Sanders’ 65-yard third-quarter touchdown run against the Bills. They used 21-personnel twice Sunday. The other time was in the first quarter on a quick pass to Alshon Jeffery that fell incomplete. They’ve used 21-personnel nine times this season – four run plays and five pass plays -- and have scored twice out of it. The other TD in 21 was Carson Wentz’s 28-yard scoring pass to tight end Dallas Goedert in the first quarter of the loss to the Cowboys.