Malik Jackson’s absence haunted the Eagles all season, and it had a lot to do with why they aren’t preparing for a divisional round playoff game at Green Bay this weekend.
If you watched Sunday’s wild card round loss, you saw Fletcher Cox pawing and mauling Seattle offensive linemen — three of them backups — as Cox stalked Russell Wilson. Wilson is just a tad lighter on his feet than the Eagles’ 310-pound Pro Bowl defensive tackle; Cox could flush Wilson, but the Seahawks’ quarterback seemed to glide away from his grasp, over and over.
What the Eagles needed was someone else rampaging through the Seattle backfield, cutting off Wilson’s escape. They didn’t have it. Brandon Graham was playing on a painfully swollen knee. Timmy Jernigan, Anthony Rush, Josh Sweat, and Derek Barnett just didn’t get there in time, more often than not.
Which brings us to Jackson, and an offseason plan for pass rush improvement that went off the rails even earlier than the Eagles’ plan for adding explosiveness to the offense.
“Malik Jackson was a big loss for us,” general manager Howie Roseman said Wednesday, when Roseman reviewed the season. “This is a guy who didn’t miss a game in eight years, and then 30-some-odd plays into his Eagles career was down, and that was a guy we were really excited about.”
Roseman’s offensive plan bit the dust early in the second game, with DeSean Jackson’s core muscle injury. By the time DJax felt something wrong in his abdominal wall, on the field in Atlanta, the other Jackson was already on injured reserve, with a Lisfranc sprain of his left foot, suffered in the fourth quarter of the season-opening victory over Washington.
The idea of signing Malik Jackson to a three-year, $30 million free-agent contract was that crafty, mobile quarterbacks can roll away from pressure from an edge rusher, but consistent push up the middle is harder to evade. Teams like to double Cox, to keep him contained. That’s harder to do if the other defensive tackle is also a Pro Bowl-level pass-rushing force, as Jackson was for Jacksonville in the 2017 season.
As the Eagles packed up for the offseason Monday at NovaCare, Jackson and Cox talked about the year that wasn’t — and their plans to make the 2019 vision belatedly come true.
They never quite got in sync. When Jackson was healthy in training camp and the preseason, Cox was rehabbing the foot injury he suffered in last year’s playoff loss at New Orleans. The Wednesday before the opener was the first time they’d practiced together. Cox played 65 snaps against Washington, Jackson played 32 before he rode the cart down the tunnel. Then it was back to the drawing board.
“It’s everything I think about,” Jackson said. “It’s unlucky I got hurt, but lucky I got to know Fletch a little bit more on a personal level, be with him, talk to him.”
Cox said he “didn’t take one rep in training camp, one rep in OTAs. Went into the first game not [having that base]. … You feel like it’s there, but it’s not. … The first four weeks of the season, that was my training camp.”
Cox’s sack total dropped from 10.5 in 2018, to 3.5.
“I started the season off pretty slow. I kind of picked it up as I got healthier. … Overall, I thought it was a pretty decent year for me,” he said. “I know I can be better. I will be better, being a year [away] from surgery now.”
Cox was asked about having played 79 percent of the defensive snaps, in his eighth season, in which he turned 29. Would he like a lighter load in 2020?
“That was the plan this year,” Cox said. “Obviously, I did play a lot of snaps … Malik went down and I believe I played beside seven players this year [actually, it was six], which is really hard, especially when you’re trying to get things down and be on the same page with guys. You want to build a chemistry with one or two guys.”
Cox said he is proud of how he persevered.
“It shows I still show up, no matter who you put beside me. … I look forward to building that same chemistry with Malik next year, man, knowing that we’ll have an offseason together, knowing that we’ll have a training camp together. It’ll be fun for the both of us.”
Jackson hadn’t played fewer than 16 games since his rookie season of 2012 in Denver. He was adrift at first, he said, calling rehabbing an injury, away from most of the team, “an eye-opening experience.”
“Nobody wants to be on IR, especially the whole year, for the first time. It was a lot,” he said. “But I learned a lot, about myself and I’m ready to come back next year stronger.”
Jackson came to the Eagles off a disappointing season with the Jaguars, in which he was benched.
“To go through what I went through with Jacksonville last year, and then to sit here, it [stinks]. But the city’s been real nice to me, the team’s real good to me,” Jackson said. “Just got to come back and be who I know I am. It’s no pressure, but it’s really a lot of excitement.”
Jackson said his timeframe for being ready to practice is somewhere between OTAs and training camp. He said his season on the sideline wasn’t a total waste. He did some traveling, discovered he liked art. Went to California for his daughter’s fourth birthday.
Did he feel part of the team, having played only part of one game here?
“I think I was, but there were some things I kind of had to step away from, myself, just to kind of get myself together,” he said. “But the team did a good job of bringing me in. I was here a lot, so I definitely felt like I was a part of the team.”
Jackson said he felt he did get a sense of how the team worked. He said his biggest takeaway was “probably just how well they’re coached. Just being able to step back and look at Coach Pederson and his crew, just from top to bottom. We had a lot of injuries this year, but the coaching was just immaculate.”
Cox was proud of his effort against the Seahawks, in which he forced a fumble and recorded two tackles for a loss. He said he “felt fresh all week.”
But the Eagles sacked Wilson only once, safety Malcolm Jenkins getting him on a blitz. It wasn’t the pass rush anyone envisioned.