Jim Schwartz doesn't confer with opposing offensive line coaches about how they prepare to play the Eagles, but the Eagles' defensive coordinator has a good sense of where they start.
"I'm sure they start with No. 91 and say, 'OK, how do we keep this guy from wrecking the game?'" Schwartz said.
No. 91, of course, is Fletcher Cox. The Eagles signed Cox to a $103 million contract last offseason because he's the type of defensive lineman who keeps opponents' lights on late at night. After dominating offensive linemen throughout the first month last season – Cox totaled four sacks in his first four games and was the NFC defensive player of the month in September – those opposing coaches made their adjustments. They often included four hands on Cox, who required double teams to contain him. His production dipped to the point that Cox totaled just 2.5 sacks for the remainder of the season. The Eagles' defense was affected.
Cox still made his second Pro Bowl and had what he considered a good year, but there's room for improvement in his sixth season with the team. And the next step in his development comes knowing that he'll often be double-teamed, just like some of the other standout defensive tackles in the NFL. Cox said it he views it as "disrespect" when teams try blocking him with one guard.
"The next step to being a great player, and Fletch is, is being able to meet that and be able to still get a hit when they're pitching around you," Schwartz said, using a baseball analogy.
How can Cox do that?
"Try to find a way to get one-on-ones," Cox said. "And when teams are sliding [a double-team], I have to find a way to get to the quarterback, to be disruptive. That's me being relentless and going out and doing everything."
Cox knows he won't get double-teamed every play. When he's lining up against a guard, he needs to win his matchup. And if another lineman is helping the guard, it's up to the other players on the defensive line to produce.
Schwartz noted that the Eagles "didn't win enough one-on-one" away from Cox after Cox received more attention last season. Bennie Logan and Beau Allen were the players charged with winning those matchups. The Eagles added Tim Jernigan this offseason, and they're counting on him to take advantage of those opportunities when linemen key on Cox. It will also benefit the defensive ends, too – Brandon Graham had his best season last year playing next to Cox, and the Eagles added Derek Barnett and Chris Long to the Graham-Vinny Curry defensive-end combination.
"I think we've also added some good pieces around him, not just in tackle positions, but the end positions," Schwartz said. "There are some ways that you can take out defensive linemen when it comes to pass rush. We've worked hard to try to be able to handle that."
Cox is already encouraged about teaming with Jernigan, and in their limited time together, Cox said they've already developed a sense of how to play with each other. Cox has tried to help Jernigan adjust to defense because he went through a similar transition last summer.
There's been much speculation since Jernigan arrived about how he could benefit playing next to Cox. But if Jernigan can excel, then Cox will benefit, too. That's why Cox is invested in the others' success – "there's enough money to go around," he said – and knows that high sack totals elsewhere could lead to the sacks for him.
"Second year in the defense, second year in the scheme we're doing a few different things right now, just keep teams honest and keep the lines honest," Cox said. "If they're sliding to me, give Vinny and Timmy one-on-ones. If I get my one-on-ones, I have to win. This whole thing is about who can beat their man."
Cox shed some pounds this offseason so he can be quicker. He wants to play from 310-314 pounds, which would be 6-10 pounds lighter than last season. He already noticed that he's "moving around a whole lot better."
He also understands the responsibility his contract requires and the place he fills on the team. In fact, when Cox thought about his next step as a player, he didn't initially mention succeeding even when receiving more attention from opposing offenses. He mentioned leading the team on the field so the Eagles' defense requires opposing teams to continue to first worry about No. 91.
"The next step is rallying everyone up, getting everyone to follow me," Cox said. "I have to set the tempo. I can't wait for anyone else to do that."