As the legendary defensive coordinator and mathematician Archie Medes once said, the shortest path between two points is a straight line.
That seemingly obvious statement is why the stock for productive interior pass rushers in the NFL has gone through the roof in recent years.
Nothing bothers quarterbacks more than immediate pressure up the middle. They can step up and avoid an edge rusher coming around an offensive tackle. But they’ve got nowhere to run from a pocket-collapsing, runaway-train defensive tackle barreling up the middle.
Four games into the season, the straight-line strategy has been working pretty well for the Eagles. Their three top defensive tackles – Fletcher Cox, Malik Jackson and Javon Hargrave – have spearheaded a pass rush that leads the league in sacks with 17.
Cox, Jackson, and Hargrave have only combined for two sacks thus far, but the disruption they’ve been causing inside has created sack opportunities for the rest of the line. Defensive ends Josh Sweat and Brandon Graham each have three sacks. Their other end, Derek Barnett, has 2 ½.
In the Eagles' last two games – a 23-23 tie with the Bengals and Sunday night’s 25-20 come-from-behind win over the 49ers, Jim Schwartz’s defense racked up 13 sacks and had 53 total quarterback pressures (see chart for breakdown).
Barnett and Hargrave didn’t play in the season opener. Both were hurt early in the team’s abbreviated training camp – Barnett with a hamstring injury and Hargrave with pec and hamstring injuries. But they are healthy now and playing well.
“Once we got healthy on the D-line and got Derek back and got Hargrave back, I think you really saw a big jump from those guys just production-wise,” defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said.
The Eagles are on a 68-sack pace at the moment. The current team sack record is 62, set by Buddy Ryan’s 1989 defense that featured Hall of Famer Reggie White, Jerome Brown, and Clyde Simmons.
The most sacks by a Schwartz-coached defense has been 54. That was in 2014 when he was the Buffalo Bills' defensive coordinator. None of his previous four Eagles defensive units had more than 44 sacks (2018).
Schwartz’s defense will face a major challenge Sunday when it goes up against the 3-0 Steelers. Pittsburgh’s offensive line is one of the best in the league. It includes three players with 77 or more career starts. Center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro have a combined 13 Pro Bowl invitations and four first-team All-Pro selections.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is a future Hall of Famer who has been sacked just five times this season and has the third fastest snap-to-release average in the league through the first quarter of the season.
“They run the ball pretty good,” Cox said. "The best way to defend the pass is to stop the run. That’s the thing we always talk about. Get them in second-and-10, second-and-12, third-and-long.
“Then we can go after Ben with the pass rush. He gets the ball out quick. But as a defensive line, we just have to be patient. At some point, we’ll get there.”
This game will be extra special for Hargrave. He spent the last four years playing for the Steelers before signing a three-year, $39 million free-agent deal with the Eagles in the offseason.
“He’s excited to go play his former team,” Cox said Wednesday. “I’m sure he’s got an extra chip on his shoulder.”
Hargrave, a 2016 third-round pick, was drafted to play nose tackle in the Steelers' 3-4 base defense. But when Stephon Tuitt got hurt last season, he got an opportunity to be an interior rusher in some of the Steelers' nickel fronts.
“He was a good player for us,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Wednesday. “A good teammate. A guy who was highly productive and versatile.”
Graham, 32, has a team-high 15 quarterback pressures in the Eagles' first four games, including 10 in the last two. Jackson, who signed a three-year, $30 million free-agent deal with the Eagles in 2019 before suffering a season-ending foot injury just 32 snaps into his first game, is off to a dominant start.
While he only has half a sack in the first four games, he’s second on the team in total pressures with 14, including a team-high eight hits on the quarterback.
“We missed Malik last year,” Schwartz said. “He’s come back and not only has played well on the field, but he’s been an outstanding leader for us.”
At 6-5 and 290 pounds, Jackson is tough to handle inside. He also can slide outside and play end when Schwartz wants to go with a “heavy” three-tackle look.
“Malik is a really smart player,” Schwartz said. "He’s a veteran player and he’s a hard matchup. He’s a different kind of matchup for the guards.
The Eagles' four D-tackles – Jackson, Hargraves, Cox and Hassan Ridgeway – each bring a different playing style to the table.
“We have some different kind of guys,” Schwartz said. "We’ve got Fletch in there. Hargrave is a little bit more of a bull rusher. We saw Ridgeway [who had a fourth-quarter sack against the 49ers] have good pass rush and use his power.
"And Malik can do a lot of different things. He’s got one of the best sets of D-line hands that I have ever been around or coached. He’s really good, and it’s a tough matchup for some of those guards.
“He plays with great tempo. You see him chasing plays down. We’ve seen that from all of our D-linemen, but Malik, Fletch and Barnett really stand out that way, making tackles on run plays down the field.”
The Eagles are getting significant contributions from many of their defensive linemen. Defensive end Genard Avery, who was acquired from the Browns in a trade-deadline deal last year for a fourth-round pick, played just 33 defensive snaps last season. But he had a sack and four quarterback hits in just 16 snaps against the Niners.
Sweat, a fourth-round pick in 2018, came on strong late last season and has taken his development to another level this season. He has two sacks in the last two games.
“They’ve got high-end talent on that line, but they also have quality depth,” Tomlin said. “They just have a multitude of talented people that they can bring at you. It really creates some problems. It allows guys to be fresh and dominate in the latter portions of the game. And that really stood out to me, especially against Cincinnati, when Fletcher had that big sack late in the game.”
Three of the Eagles' five sacks against the Niners came in the fourth quarter. Against the Bengals, they had one in the fourth quarter and three more in overtime.
“You can see guys showing up,” said Cox, who has battled through an abdominal injury the last two weeks and still managed to register six quarterback pressures in 70 pass-rush opportunities. Only Graham has played more pass-rush snaps the last two games (75).