The annual selections to the NFL’s Pro Bowl were announced Tuesday, and Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox was among the selections for the fifth consecutive season.
It’s a nice honor, and Cox is an important component of the team’s defense, but Pro Bowl voting — divided equally among coaches, players, and fans — is often a popularity or reputation contest that doesn’t necessarily reflect current performance.
The voters also selected Jalen Ramsey at cornerback, even though Ramsey is having an unremarkable season with the Rams after forcing his exit from Jacksonville by sitting out three games. By comparison, Cox is Man of the Year, but you get the idea.
Just playing all 14 games so far deserves some recognition for Cox, who needed foot surgery in the offseason, got only sparing work through training camp, and was hampered by nagging toe and ankle problems in the early part of the season. At this point of the schedule, Cox is asked to do very little during the practice week, and he’s probably far from 100%.
On Sunday, when the Eagles defense is tasked with controlling the strong running game of the Dallas Cowboys, led by Ezekiel Elliott and rookie Tony Pollard, much of the responsibility will fall on Cox. In fact, it is where the game might well be won or lost.
“I’m not as fresh as I was Week 1, but nobody in here is,” Cox said Wednesday. “I think the coaches do a good job of keeping me fresh and then letting me roll on Sundays.”
Cox shrugs off mention of his individual performance this season, which is not close, at least statistically, to what he achieved in 2018. He has 3.5 sacks, compared to a career-high 10.5 last season, and 30 quarterback pressures and hurries, compared to 80.
A defensive line has to be considered as a unit, of course, and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz pointed out the standard explanation for Cox’s drop-off, which is that he is often the main target of opposing blocking schemes.
“Everybody makes it about stats and everything else. We're trying to do whatever we can to come out with a win, and whether you make the play or your teammate makes the play, the play gets made,” Schwartz said.
“There have been a lot of plays that [Cox’s] teammates have made as a result of him either getting extra attention or being disruptive and someone else has made the play. But when it’s all said and done, really doesn’t matter who is making the play. It’s a matter of getting stops and keeping points down and getting wins.”
That’s a fine explanation of the downturn in production for Cox, except that teams have been focused on containing him for a number of seasons. The difference this year is what he has been able to do despite that.
His health might be a big part of it — in addition to any lingering foot issues, Cox was listed this week as limited in practice by a triceps injury — but the state of the entire line is probably also a contributor. Four teammates have started at the other tackle position this season.
There was Malik Jackson for a game, Tim Jernigan for seven games in two separate stints, Hassan Ridgeway for five games, and Bruce Hector for a game. Snaps have also been taken at defensive tackle by Akeem Spence, Anthony Rush, and Albert Huggins. That isn’t a formula for consistency, and doesn’t even take into account the defensive-end position, which hasn’t been a bargain, either.
Where the spotty play has been most apparent isn’t against the run, but against the pass. The Eagles are third in the league in rushing yardage allowed, but 18th in passing yardage. Unable to get pressure on quarterbacks, the line has left the linebackers and secondary exposed. There’s no reason to run against the Eagles, and, with one notable exception, that wasn’t a successful avenue for opponents, anyway.
The Eagles have faced nine teams with running backs ranked among the top 21 in the league for rushing yardage. Eight of them averaged 39 yards against the Eagles. The other guy, Ezekiel Elliott, went for 111. So, the mission Sunday, particularly with Dak Prescott reportedly favoring a sore shoulder, is obvious.
“We need to do our job and tackle him, or at least hold him up until the next man gets there. We’ve done a really good job of stopping the run this year,” Cox said. “We know what week it is. It’s a rivalry game. It’s an NFC East game. They beat the brakes off us last time. It’s going to be a good game.”
Tackling would definitely help. Elliott and Pollard combined for 248 yards Sunday against the Rams, and 144 of those yards were gained after contact. Getting through the line to the second level of tacklers was no big deal. It better be hard Sunday, or the Eagles will be in trouble.
This is late December and none of them are fresh, and none perfectly healthy, least of all Fletcher Cox. He has been here before, though, and done well enough to get those five Pro Bowl selections. Against the Cowboys, if the Eagles are to survive, Cox has to gather himself and play as if the fifth wasn’t just an honorary award.