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Four-man pass rush adds up to sacks for Eagles

The Eagles defense has eight sacks in the last two games, and while sacks don't tell the entire story, they have, in this case, signified an improved pass rush.

Eagles linebacker Trent Cole. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)
Eagles linebacker Trent Cole. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)Read more

The Eagles defense has eight sacks in the last two games, and while sacks don't tell the entire story, they have, in this case, signified an improved pass rush.

The difference after being shut out on sacks in the previous two games, defensive coordinator Bill Davis said, has been the Eagles' ability to generate pressure with only four rushers. They used the standard four-man rush to notch six of the eight sacks, and 51/2 have come from outside linebackers.

"The outside linebackers got the production in this game, but the thing that is growing is the four-man rush, and all four of them together," Davis said Tuesday. "We can give a lot of different structure to opposing offenses. Sometimes the ends are inside and the tackles are out. Sometimes we're in an odd front, sometimes we're in an even."

Blitzing less has allowed Davis to drop seven players into the pass coverage, and the combination of pressure up front and tight coverage on the back end has created pressure on quarterbacks and resulted in more sacks. The Eagles are 18th in the NFL in sacks per pass play. The pass rush is still a work in progress, but last year the Eagles finished second to last.

There has been strong individual play, and Brandon Graham has emerged as the Eagles' best rusher even though he has played only 34 percent of the defensive snaps. He did not record a sack Sunday against the Rams, but coaches credited him with four hurries in only 15 pass-rush attempts.

A week earlier against the 49ers, Graham had a sack and a hurry in only five rushes. He is still not an ideal 3-4 outside linebacker, but he has improved in coverage and setting the edge against the run and now can play behind both Trent Cole and Connor Barwin. It's hard to make an argument against giving him more snaps.

"I think about it, man, all the time," Graham said of playing more. "I just do what I can, man. Sometimes you've just got to be a team player and do what they ask of you, and whenever your opportunity comes, just be ready. And I promise you, I'm going to be ready."

The Eagles' pass rush may be improved over last season, but it appears that the New York Giants' pass protection - among the worst in the NFL in 2014 - has also gotten better. Giants quarterback Eli Manning, whom the Eagles will face Sunday, has been sacked only seven times in five games, one year after he endured 39 sacks.

The primary reason for the change - again, taking into account that sacks aren't the lone indicator of pass-rushing prowess - has likely been a new offense. Manning is playing in a scheme with more short, quick passes, and the ball is coming out faster. He's averaging 2.31 seconds post-snap before he throws, nearly a half-second quicker than last season (2.73).

"We're going to need to be at our best to get to Eli," Barwin said. "But also we're going to need the [defensive backs] to be at their best, as well. If they give us a second where Eli holds the ball, we'll make sure we'll be there to get him."

Barwin, who had five sacks last season, leads the Eagles with three this year. He's the first to admit that others have contributed. His first sack against the Rams came when he and Cole rushed from two-point stances and ran a "game."

Barwin stunted outside and Cole twisted inside. Cole beat the guard, defensive end Fletcher Cox slipped past the center inside, and quarterback Austin Davis tucked the ball, spun, and stepped upfield toward Barwin. The linebacker's second sack of the game occurred when Davis hitched two times, tucked to run, and Cox forced him to Barwin.

"Those have to do with good coverage down the field," Barwin said.

While the linebackers have all but one of the team's 11 sacks, Eagles down linemen have started to contribute in getting pressure. The coaches didn't award a single hurry to a lineman in the first four games, but five were handed out after Sunday's game - two each to Cox and Bennie Logan.

"Are they selling sacks?" Cox joked in the locker room stall next to Graham. "I need to buy a few."

They should come if Cox rushes as well as he did against the Rams. Davis has an assortment of rush packages that he can employ with either a three- or four-man front. He also has his blitzes, but Davis has sent extra rushers less over the past two games (27.9 percent of pass attempts) than in the first three (42.7 percent).

The effectiveness of the four-man rushes has made blitzing less necessary. Graham's development has had perhaps the greatest impact. Last season, he played only the "Predator" outside linebacker spot behind Cole. This year, he has added Barwin's "Jack" spot, allowing him to rush from his more natural left side.

"You see the consistency of play," Davis said. "With a lot of players, first of all, we're in the second year of the scheme. Brandon made the transition."

After an offseason when many wondered if Graham would be around in 2014, his transition has been a welcomed change.