Numbers lie, but the film doesn’t.
Fletcher Cox has had, at least statistically, the worst four-game start of his 10-year career. The Eagles defensive tackle has been credited by the NFL with just five tackles and hasn’t recorded a sack, tackle for loss, or quarterback hit.
According to Pro Football Focus, he has just five pressures in 100 pass-rush attempts. Teammate Javon Hargrave, for comparison, has 24 tackles, 5 sacks, 6 tackles for loss, and 7 hits. And he has 12 pressures in 97 rushes, per PFF.
“I could be better. I know I could be better,” Cox said Thursday. “That’s the problem I got to fix and embrace whatever that we’re doing and make the best of it.”
What new Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon is doing is employing multiple fronts, which requires his linemen to play a hybrid read/attack scheme. Cox said that having more responsibilities has “made it hard to get settled into a game,” while also conceding that it’s his job to play the system.
“He’s playing good,” Gannon said Wednesday. “We’re four weeks through, the production will come. I’m not worried about the production from Fletch.”
While Hargrave has benefited at times from the extra attention Cox may receive, the rest of the defense hasn’t taken advantage, especially in the last two games. But the narrative that the 30-year-old perennial Pro Bowler is getting doubled most of the time, or significantly more than his counterpart inside, is false.
Cox has been singled up vs. an offensive lineman on almost exactly 50% of the snaps he played, excluding three quarterback kneels at the end of games. In the run game, he has been doubled on 38 of 77 snaps (49%), and in the pass, it has been 50 of 100.
“I seen some double teams. Some singles,” Cox said. “The biggest thing is when I get the one-on-ones, I just got to win them and win them quick, knowing the quarterback’s not going to hold the ball.”
Opposing offenses have done a solid job of taking Cox out of plays. But it has been no different than in past years, and he still found a way to eat. Gannon is right that it’s early in the season. But Cox’s supposed regression isn’t a new theory. His production had already been declining.
From 2015-18, he averaged 8 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, and 76 pressures per season. And in 2019-20, the averages decreased to 5 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, and 52 pressures.
Cox could still rev up the engine when necessary. He was arguably the best player on the field in the Eagles’ playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks in January 2020. But those types of outings are increasingly few and far between.
His slippage, though, was small potatoes compared to some of the team’s other issues. But the Eagles front office, despite evidence to the contrary, continued to pay him as if he was still in the best defensive tackle conversation, and likewise afforded him great internal influence over coaching and scheme.
The addition of Gannon and a new defense, though, has seemingly added to the natural decline that comes with age. While Cox had played in both even- and odd-man fronts, his previous five years were spent in Jim Schwartz’s aggressive 4-3.
He made no secret of his preference then. Most D-linemen prefer to attack. Gannon has employed both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, and has implemented what some Eagles D-linemen have said is a “hybrid” approach to the read or react construct.
Cox was asked about a possible changing role early in training camp, but he said then that he had only been asked to line up over his usual 3-technique spot. He has always been moved around, but that has long been where he thrives most, especially when his responsibility is to simply penetrate one gap.
But Gannon has utilized a 3-4 about half the time, and in that front, Cox has a different role.
“Sometimes I play in a 3-technique, sometimes I play in a 4i [-technique],” Cox said. “It’s just one of them things where it’s hard to get settled into a game when you’re playing so many positions and doing so many things.”
For whatever the reason, Cox has looked even more pedestrian on film this season. He had some moments in the first three games, but had nowhere near the impact the Eagles have come to expect from the former All Pro.
He has struggled to win one-on-ones, hasn’t fought through double teams, and in some circumstances, particularly in short yardage, has given an apparent lack of effort. The Eagles, though, have yet to give even the slightest public hint of dissatisfaction.
“It starts with coaching,” coach Nick Sirianni said. “We got to do a better job of letting our playmakers make plays. We have to do some different things to help free him up.”
What that may entail remains to be seen. Gannon is unlikely to switch wholeheartedly to the 4-3. He wants to remain multiple up front. The Cowboys and Chiefs have two of the better offenses in the NFL, and Cox matched up occasionally against two of the better guards, but something has to change.
But there may be little Gannon can do to reverse the inevitable. And based upon a review of Cox, at least in the first four games, the film confirms his negligible numbers.
Stopping the run
Some defensive coordinators prefer a 3-4 front for one obvious reason: It gets five men on the line to account for more gaps. A true two-gap scheme has the three interior linemen account for both sides of a blocker and the outside linebackers set the edge. This system should allow for the inside linebackers to be free to flow unaccounted for and make stops.
There are a host of ways for offenses to create running lanes vs. this front. And defenses will find ways to counter, as well. The Eagles have, for the most part, struggled to stop the run because they’ve been light in the box. But the unit has been a sieve the last two weeks.
Personnel has been an issue. Linebackers Alex Singleton and Eric Wilson have struggled to get off blocks. But the linemen haven’t done a consistent job of containment.
It’s not clear what Cox’s [No. 91] responsibility was on this play vs. the 49ers: Was he supposed to hold up the blocker or penetrate as a 3-4 down lineman?
Nevertheless, the 49ers stretched the defense out and ran through a gaping hole that second-level defenders couldn’t fill.
Stopping the run takes all 11 defenders. So if Cox is to get doubled, others need to step up. Offenses, though, have taken advantage of Gannon’s two-deep coverages, and in this instance, the Cowboys ran a draw.
“Our linebackers have to continue to do their part of this, too,” Sirianni said. “When Fletch gets double-teamed, Javon has to make a play, the linebacker has to make a play.”
Cox has taken himself out of plays when attacking vs. the run. But if he makes the correct read, he can still bust up plays as he did here in Dallas.
Cox had an illness the preceding week, missed some practices, and had the leave the Dallas game late because of cramps.
Offenses will slide protection to Cox, but sometimes personnel doesn’t matter, it’s just based upon the direction of the play. Sometimes he’ll face up against two O-linemen and sometimes he may get chipped on a combo block. But every lineman has to fight through their share of doubles.
Hargrave [No. 97] has gotten sacks when Cox has been doubled, as he did on the following play. But that shouldn’t take away from his improvement this season.
Cox tripped and fell, but there have been more examples of the 6-foot-4, 310 pounder getting pancaked than in previous seasons, even if they have come against two blockers.
There aren’t many linemen who can beat doubles, but Cox has done so at various points in his career. The others need to win one-on-ones, but his effort, or lack thereof, on certain rushes has been a trend in recent years.
He has seen his share of solo blocks. He got pressure on just a few chances in the first three games, though. Both came from his traditional 3-technique spot and offered glimpses of what previously made him a speed and power force.
But there have been more examples of Cox failing to win those battles. His first opponent below — Cowboys right guard Zack Martin [No. 70] — is one of the best in the business. But he also struggled with left guard Connor Williams [No. 52] and Chiefs rookie Trey Smith [No. 65] in the latter two plays.
The most alarming development, though, has been how Cox has performed in short-yardage situations. He has often been the linemen pushed back the most and has often been out of the play even if a quarterback sneak or rush has been in his general direction.
The Eagles were able to stop Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott on the second example, but Cox had little influence. And on the Chiefs’ goal-line play, while he was blocked away from the run, it came far too easily.
The touchdown gave Kansas City a 26-16 lead, but there was still more than a quarter to play. In the last three games, Cox has been among the first Eagles to run inside without joining most of his other teammates in obligatory post-game handshakes.
In Dallas, an Eagles fan dangled a jersey over the tunnel and he grabbed it, threw it on the ground, and continued inside. Is he frustrated with himself, the team, or the scheme? He met with reporters after the Cowboys loss and pointed the finger at himself.
“I’m my own motivation,” Cox said when asked about recent criticism of his play. “I don’t need nobody else to motivate me. I got my mom, my family. They’re the only people that need to motivate me. Anybody else is just outside noise.”