The winning locker room on Sept. 25 was a good place for an Eagles pass rusher. The Pittsburgh Steelers scored only three points, with Ben Roethlisberger overwhelmed by a defensive line that sacked him four times. It was the third consecutive win with the defense recording at least three sacks.
Days later, $103 million defensive tackle Fletcher Cox was named NFC defensive player of the month, Jim Schwartz appeared on his way to a second head coaching job, and the Eagles looked like legitimate contenders in large part because of a defensive line that fit Schwartz's attack-style defense. That was the hope entering the season with four of the 13 highest-paid players on the Eagles playing on the defensive line.
It's a different tune this week. Cox was held without a sack in the last four games. The Eagles defense had just three sacks during the last two weeks. And with the high-powered Atlanta Falcons visiting Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday, the Eagles' best hope of stopping quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Julio Jones is by producing a pass-rush performance similar to what the Eagles did against Pittsburgh.
"You always have to account for who's the quarterback, what kind of offense are they running, whether you're winning or losing, and whether you're on the road or at home," defensive end Connor Barwin said. "All those factors matter. . . .That's not an excuse for not getting sacks, but you can't deny when you play at home, teams have to go on a silent count. It's going to help your pass rush. When you go on the road, and it's quiet, it's going to be hard. So those are all different factors."
In three home games this season - all wins - the Eagles averaged 4.3 sacks. In five road games - four of them losses - the Eagles averaged two sacks. And to further Barwin's point, sacks were harder to come by against a quick-throwing quarterback such as Eli Manning as opposed to quarterbacks who drop deeper into the pocket and who extend plays.
That's why Sunday's game will be a good gauge for the Eagles. Ryan attempts 34.8 passes per game and the Falcons have longer-developing plays than the Eagles saw against the Giants last week, creating more sack opportunities. Ryan has been sacked 22 times this season, which is tied for the fifth highest total in the NFL.
"The Giants threw an awful lot of three-step [drops] where sometimes, even when you're a free rusher, you can't get there," Schwartz said. "The Falcons use a lot more of . . . 'individual routes.' They try to spread the field. . . . Some of those aren't exactly quick passes; some of those take a little bit [of time to develop]. Get in, reverse your field, get back out. Those kind of thing do give you a little bit of time to get there. Our pass rush, our blitz package or a combination of both, is going to have to affect that timing."
Venue and opponent are certainly factors, but the sack production ultimately comes down to the personnel. When Cox dominated offensive linemen earlier this season, he was celebrated for his fit in the scheme. He had four sacks in the first four games, and the recent dry spell has affected the pass rush.
Cox is compensated as one of the NFL's elite players. Coach Doug Pederson said Cox was "still explosive" and "still playing at a high level." His production cannot be measured entirely with sacks, either. But even Cox noted that he needs to start getting them again.
"I think I've got to be better," Cox said. "The main thing is, I had a few chances last week, I had a chance in previous weeks, but I just have to get there. I got them early, and now I hit a wall. I think I'll be all right - I know I'll be all right - I just have to keep pushing and put myself in position to get there."
One of the challenges Cox faces is the attention he's receiving from offensive linemen. He often has four hands on him because he commands double-teams. Schwartz said that "offensive line coaches are going to start their game plan with No. 91." Pederson speculated that the return of defensive tackle Bennie Logan from a groin injury will help. Logan and Cox have played together for four years and know how to play off each other, and Logan's play before the injury also required linemen's attention. When Cox gets free, it's often in one-on-one situations or when he creates separation from the center-guard double-team.
"I talk with my position coach and he says, 'That comes with it,' " Cox said of double teams. "I get a slide a lot, and he's telling me to get a set of hands off me and keep pushing. If two people are on me, that means three other guys are getting one-on-ones. And when I do get those one-on-ones, I have to win."
The attention on Cox has helped Brandon Graham, who is tied with Cox for the team high with four sacks and also leads the team with 21 quarterback hurries. The right side of the defensive line must be a major factor against the Falcons' passing game.
Schwartz made sure to credit the way Cox and the defensive line are playing against the run, and the Falcons' balanced offense requires them to thrive in that area, too. The challenge with the Falcons will be the way they use play-action and how it affects the pass rushers.
But Schwartz's attack-style defense is built around the front four. With a secondary that could be overmatched if Ryan gets time, the best chance for an Eagles win Sunday will come if the pass rushers match their production from the other home games this season.