It's time for Fletcher Cox to deliver for Eagles, and he knows it
With playoff implications on the line, the star defensive tackle upped his number of snaps over the last two games.
Fletcher Cox has reached a point in his career when he's often given the benefit of the doubt.
The Eagles defensive tackle may have only 5 1/2 sacks, but his NFL peers know that numbers hardly tell the story of his impact, and so Cox was voted to his third straight Pro Bowl.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz may employ a rotation-heavy front, and the plan from the start of the season may have been to decrease Cox's snaps to keep him fresh for December and a postseason run. But when the Eagles' best defensive player decides he wants to play more, you let him.
"I kind of control my own substitution," Cox said. "With that being said, it's still out of respect for [line coach] Chris [Wilson] and him knowing when I can and cannot go. When I feel like I know I need a rest, I let Destiny [Vaeao] go in."
But with the Eagles engaged in tight games over the last month, and particularly the last two games, Cox has decided that he'll have time to rest after the season. The 27-year old played 84.1 percent of the defensive snaps against the New York Giants and Raiders the last two weeks after playing only 68.7 percent in his first 11 games.
"In certain situations, as one of the better players on the team, I've got to be on the field, especially when teams are starting at midfield," Cox said Wednesday. "I have that about me."
In the second half of Monday night's win, the Raiders opened five of their final eight possessions from their own 40 or better. On those five series, Oakland turned the ball over via interception, missed field goal, fumble, punt, and interception, and Cox was in the middle for most of it, creating his typical havoc.
"You always want to keep your best players fresh throughout the season," Cox said. "Sometimes I'm always dying to go into the game, but at the same time, it's four quarters."
It's also 16 games — and, in the Eagles' case, more. Cox missed two games and part of another in October with a calf strain, so he's had additional time to rest. But the 71 percent of snaps he has played overall in 2017 is down enough from 2016 (76 pct.), 2015 (81 pct.), and 2014 (80 pct.) to warrant notice.
"We do want to try to keep guys fresh over the course of a game and over the course of a season, but late in the season you start dealing with a lot of other things," Schwartz said Tuesday. "But I do think that, as you get into different games and you get closer to the end than the beginning, guys like Fletch can play a few more snaps."
Sunday's "meaningless" game against the Cowboys should offer Schwartz the opportunity to rest regulars such as Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham, who is nursing an ankle injury. But in a little more than two weeks, the Eagles will need their best linemen as much as possible.
Cox's presence alone forces offensive lines to alter their protections. Earlier in the season, Schwartz had schemed several ways to get his 6-foot-4, 310-pound tackle matched up against one blocker. The most prominent was having Graham, who leads the Eagles with 9 1/2 sacks, rush inside alongside Cox on passing downs.
But mostly, offenses are taking their chances doubling Cox, who, after notching all his sacks in his first nine games, has zero in his last four.
"Teams are figuring it out. They watch tape also," Cox said. "They know if they're lining me up over the center trying to create a one-on-one. But what most teams have done is just slide the protection. It's just more opportunities for other guys. Just look at Chris Long."
Long, Graham's backup, has three sacks in his last seven games.
Some NFL executives would have never given Cox the $100 million contract he signed last offseason because, for one thing, defensive tackles are easier to double-team than edge rushers. But Cox's ability to push the pocket back into the quarterback and create opportunities for others can be just as valuable.
"Being consistent is my whole thing," Cox said. "The sack numbers may not show, but if you turn the tape on you always see me flying around or being able to help someone else get a sack."
One benefit Cox has yet to receive is preferential treatment from officials. Against the Raiders, he was dubiously flagged for holding.
"That was not a [expletive] hold," Cox said, "You see what I did the next play? The same [expletive] thing, and he didn't call the holding penalty."
The fewer carries he had over the last four games, the less productive LeGarrette Blount was.
The Eagles running back averaged 4.8 yards per rush (137 carries for 658 yards) through the first 11 games this season. Blount averaged 12.5 rushes a game over the span. But since then, he has averaged only seven carries a game and 2.6 yards per rush (27 for 71).
The decrease in Blount's rushes has corresponded with an increase for Jay Ajayi, who has averaged 12.5 carries over the last four games. Ajayi is averaging 4.3 yards per run over that span (50 for 214). In his first three games with the Eagles, the former Dolphin rushed 20 times for 194 yards (9.7 avg.).
Blount was asked if he was the type of tailback who needed lots of touches to get into a rhythm.
"The game calls for certain runs, and we got a lot of backs, a lot of good backs," Blount said Wednesday. "And some of the runs are designed for certain backs, and if those runs are working, that back will play more, and if he gets hot, that back will play more."
Blount endured a similar late-season swoon last year with the Patriots. In his first 13 games, he averaged 4.1 yards (248 carries for 1,029 yards) on 19.1 rushes per game. In his last six games, including the postseason, Blount averaged 2.8 yards (86 for 241) on 14.3 rushes a game.
"You can't really go into the game thinking or trying to predict how many carries," Blount said. "You just got to know that whenever you get in there, you got to take advantage of every opportunity that you get. There's not really any complaints from me considering the fact we only lost two games."
Eagles coach Doug Pederson said he didn't see any correlation between the dip in Blount's numbers and the time of year and/or his number of carries.
"We'll continue with the plan that we've had set forth when we got Jay in," Pederson said Tuesday. "They're both effective runners. Corey [Clement] is a nice change of pace as well."
Jake Elliott might be that rare kicker who is better from long than short.
Elliott has connected on 17 of 19 field goals (89.5 percent) from 40 yards or longer this season. But the rookie is 9 of 12 on tries shorter than 40 yards (75 pct.). He also has missed three 33-yard extra points.
The Eagles kicker, who nailed the 48-yard winner Monday night against the Raiders but also missed a 33-yard attempt at the end of the first half, said the sample was too small for a narrative.
"They're just miscues," Elliott said of his misses in the 30-yard range. "Obviously, if I hit those same balls, they're not going to be good from 40-plus."
But there is something of a pattern dating to college. In his last two years at Memphis, Elliott was good on 22 of 28 field goals shorter than 40 yards (78.6 pct.) and on 22 of 26 from longer than 40 yards (84.6 pct.).
Elliott's sophomore season was the anomaly. He hit 93.8 percent of field goals shorter than 40 yards and only 37.5 percent longer than 40. But his freshman-year numbers were more in line with the rest of his career: 90 percent, shorter than 40; 87.5 percent, longer than 40.
"It's the same exact kick," Elliott said of short vs. long. "The one I missed the other night, I just caught a little bit of turf from behind and just didn't hit a very true ball, and with that wind it's not going to stay straight."
One thing is certain thus far in his career: He's clutch. Elliott has already kicked two game-winning field goals – his 61-yarder against the New York Giants in September will forever be a part of franchise lore – and he put the Eagles ahead with a 33-yarder late in the win over the Rams earlier this month.
Are some kickers just better when the game is on the line?
"It's hard to tell," Elliott said Wednesday. "A lot of it is a confidence thing. Going into that final kick [against the Raiders], for some reason or another, I just had all the confidence in the world."
Elliott missed one game-winning attempt in college, a 48-yarder in 2015. But he made three others for Memphis. And in high school, he kicked two game-winners back-to-back, in the fourth and fifth games of his kicking career.
Five questions: Brandon Brooks
If you couldn't play the position you now play in the NFL, which position would you want to play? I'd probably go wide receiver. Catch some touchdowns.
What's your least favorite part of the week of preparation leading up to a game? Just how long it takes to get to the game. You're practicing what if they do this, what if they do that, and then you get to the game and the random look you practiced, they didn't run it at all.
What's your favorite play you ever made in football? Probably the Broncos game when Jay [Ajayi] had that long run and I was able to pancake my guy into the safety.
When did you know there was a possibility that you could play in the NFL? Probably sophomore or junior year of college, but it was more along the lines of if I really work at this and dedicate myself maybe I might have a shot. Let's be real. I came out of Miami, Ohio.
If you didn't play football, what career would you have? I would just go into finance. That's what I've done in the offseason for years.
Inside the game
— Of the reasons for the Eagles' defensive turnaround against the Raiders, the one that drifted under the radar was a schematic shift to stop the run. Late in the third quarter, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz went with four linebackers to counter Oakland's tight-end-heavy package.
The Raiders rushed six times for 64 yards – four times for 56 yards vs. the Eagles' base personnel – on their first drive of the second half. A few drives later, Schwartz inserted linebacker Najee Goode into the middle alongside Dannell Ellerbe, who was making his first start of the season.
On their final seven carries against the Eagles' four-linebacker package, Oakland averaged just 2.3 yards. Before the switch, the Raiders had gained 99 yards on 14 runs (7.1 avg.) with just Ellerbe in the middle.
On Tuesday, Schwartz indicated he was sticking with Ellerbe, who was acquired last month after the Eagles lost Jordan Hicks for the season. Joe Walker, who missed two games earlier this month with a neck injury, and Goode had been filling Hicks' spot. The results were mixed.
Walker was a healthy scratch Monday night.
Goode said that matchups could dictate who plays on a weekly basis.
"We're going week to week. We're still trying to figure it out," Goode said. "What we know is guys are going to try and run the ball on us, and we may have to rotate back and forth."
The Eagles could face one of the best running offenses in the first round of the playoffs – the Saints, who have the 1-2 punch of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, or the Rams, who have MVP candidate Todd Gurley.
— The Eagles are the only team in the NFL that has seven players with at least two interceptions, and all of them are defensive backs: Patrick Robinson (four); Rodney McLeod, Jalen Mills, and Ronald Darby (three each); and Corey Graham, Malcolm Jenkins, and Rasul Douglas (two each).
"Everybody's contributing," Jenkins said Thursday. "When it's coming, guys are taking advantage of it. And that's one of the things we set out at the beginning of the year. We wanted to be near the top of the league in interceptions."
The Eagles (19) have the third-most interceptions in the NFL, behind the Ravens (22) and Jaguars (21).
The Eagles total is nowhere near the franchise record, however. The mark of 33 picks was set in 1944 in just a 10-game season. In the modern era, since the 1970 NFL merger, the team's best is 32 interceptions in 1989.
That Eagles team had nine players with picks, but not all of them were defensive backs. Safeties Terry Hoage (eight) and Wes Hopkins (five) led the way, followed by cornerback Eric Allen (five), linebacker Seth Joyner (four), safety Andre Waters (three), cornerback William Frizzell (three), cornerback Roynell Young (two), cornerback Eric Everett (two), and defensive tackle Jerome Brown (one).
That group notched an interception at a rate of 5.53 percent. The Eagles' rate this season is 3.33 percent.
By the numbers
3-6: Record of teams over the last 10 years that had home-field advantage throughout the conference playoffs and rested their starters for all or part of their season finale.
11: Number of teams since 2002 that have won 14 or more regular-season games. Of those 11, only three (Patriots in 2003, 2004 and 2016) went on to win the Super Bowl. A win Sunday would give the Eagles 14 wins.
47.5: Alshon Jeffery's percent of catches when targeted (56 of 118). Since 2007, only three receivers have had a lower ratio when targeted more through 15 games: Brandon Marshall in 2016 with 46.1, 59/128; Larry Fitzgerald in 2012 with 45.7, 69/151; and Braylon Edwards in 2008 with 40.2, 54/134).