PEOPLE RARELY seem to mention the Eagles' pass rush when detailing the problem areas the team must address as it looks for its first playoff win since 2008. Maybe it's because of the numbers Connor Barwin put up two years ago, or because of the presence of Fletcher Cox, or because Bennie Logan and Vinny Curry are two guys whom people love to love.
But when you look at the Eagles' performance over the past few years and measure it against the kind of impact that a truly dominant unit can have, I'm not sure that we've paid the front seven enough attention in our evaluations of the great roster rebuild of 2016.
Unlike many of their other weaknesses, the Eagles' pass rush was not a glaring liability, at least not in a nine-iron-through-the-television sense. Nevertheless, in 2015 the Eagles sacked the quarterback less often than all but seven teams, doing so on 5.5 percent of opponents' pass attempts, which ranked 24th in the NFL. There were some games where they seemed to dominate - wins over the Saints and Patriots come to mind - but those games also make the ones in which their pass rush was absent all the more conspicuous. If pressure can make two all-time great quarterbacks look as bad as Drew Brees and Tom Brady looked against them, how much better did quarterbacks like Carson Palmer, Jameis Winston and Kirk Cousins look due to the lack of pressure they faced?
The big question is how much of that deficiency was attributable to Billy Davis' 3-4 single high defense, which prioritized stopping the run and, at least theoretically, limiting big plays through the air. The majority of pressure that the Eagles did generate came from the interior of the line, where Cox earned a Pro Bowl nod thanks in large part to his 9 1/2 sacks.
Sacks don't tell a complete story about a team's ability to generate pressure, but in the case of the Broncos, who led the league with a sack rate of 8.3 percent, the numbers jibe with what we saw throughout the season, when Wade Phillips' utilization of the edge-rushing skills of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware was so disruptive that it sometimes seemed irrelevant who the other 20 men on the field happened to be. The interesting thing about the Broncos' defense is that it ranked just 20th in sack percentage in 2014 and 16th in 2013. Miller missed a year due to injury and there were other personnel changes, but there's little doubt Phillips' arrival last year had a huge impact on Denver's ability to generate pressure.
The Eagles clearly seem to have faith in coordinator Jim Schwartz, given their contentedness to roll with an odd cast of personnel at defensive end, where their top three projected pass rushers include a couple of guys who have spent the last three seasons as outside linebackers and a guy who has not played more than 35 percent of the defense's snaps in any of his four NFL seasons. The last player - 2012 draft pick Vinny Curry - might be the hinge on which the entire thing swings. It's safe to say the front office felt the 27-year-old was underutilized by Davis and Chip Kelly, given the five-year, $46 million contract extension they handed him this offseason, a deal that includes $23 million guaranteed despite a career to date that has seen him record 16 1/2 sacks in four seasons. Now, they need to be right, at least with the depth chart in its current state.
You won't find many people who doubt Curry's pass-rushing ability - Davis' reluctance to put him on the field seemed to stem from his lack of confidence in him against the run. Davis' scheme prioritized players who could stop the run on the edge, both at defensive end, where Cox moved outside from defensive tackle and teamed with sturdy veteran Cedric Thornton, who last week signed with the Cowboys. While Barwin tallied 14 1/2 sacks in 2014, their overall struggles against the pass were a better indication of their ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Teams who are dominant up front simply do not allow passers to throw 36 touchdown passes, as the Eagles did, regardless of who is lining up behind them in the secondary.
Schwartz's philosophical roots lie in the Wide-9, which might not be the kind of thing you want to hear, given the still-smoldering wreckage of the Juan Castillo and Jim Washburn era. But Schwartz's year with the Bills, when Buffalo ranked third in the NFL in passing yards allowed and 11th against the run, is reason enough to avoid painting his scheme with that kind of brush. At the same time, the Bills went out and signed premier edge rusher Mario Williams the offseason they hired Schwartz, and he inherited a defensive-tackle rotation that featured All-Pro nose tackle Marcell Dareus and mammoth run stuffer Kyle Williams.
The Eagles seem to believe they already have the personnel. Though, given the huge amounts of money teams have paid edge rushers this offseason as they attempt to capture some of that Bronco magic, they might not have much of a choice.