Fresh Eagles defensive line enjoys sharing snaps and success
The Eagles have used a seven-man rotation along the defensive line for most of this season. That selfless play has made them a dominant force.
We have heard all season about the unselfish play of the Eagles offense. Sharing is caring and rewarding in quarterback Carson Wentz's world. They did not have a 100-yard receiver until tight end Zach Ertz finally eclipsed triple digits in Sunday's rout of the Chicago Bears, and eight guys have caught touchdown passes this season.
Veteran LeGarrette Blount leads the running backs in carries most weeks, but rookie Corey Clement has the most touchdowns among the backs. It would not surprise or disturb anyone to see Jay Ajayi get the bulk of the work out of the backfield one of these weeks.
Not as well documented is how selfless the Eagles have also been on the other side of the ball, particularly along the defensive line. Vinny Curry, for example, has raised his game to another level this season even though you might not be able to tell from his statistics alone. Three sacks is not going to catch the attention of the average NFL fan, but Curry's defensive coordinator is more than pleased with the sixth-year defensive end's performance and general manager Howie Roseman is probably feeling considerably better about his five-year, $47.5 million investment.
"He has had a tremendous year for us," Jim Schwartz said Tuesday at the NovaCare Complex. "He has played with power. He has played the run extremely well. He has done his job and I think that's the greatest compliment I can give a player."
That is high praise from Schwartz, who just a few seconds earlier declined an invitation to laud the overall play of the defensive line, which has unquestionably been elite.
"We'll reserve the pats on the back until after the season is over," Schwartz said.
Defensive end Brandon Graham leads the Eagles with seven sacks, which is only tied for 20th in the NFL, but the team is tied for sixth in the league and tied for second in the NFC with 31 sacks.
Graham could have more sacks if he played more, but that would come at the expense of the veteran Chris Long, who has proved his worth in a part-time role. Graham has played 69.3 percent of the Eagles' defensive snaps this season, which leads all of the team's defensive linemen. Fifteen of the 19 players with more sacks than Graham have played a higher percentage of snaps than him this season and that is because the Eagles truly do have depth along the defensive line.
They are one of only five teams in the league with five players that have at least three sacks and you have to think they'd have more if Fletcher Cox had not missed a couple of games with a calf injury. Sacks, of course, are not everything. The Eagles also are the only team in the league that has five players — Curry, Graham, Long, Cox and Derek Barnett — with at least 10 quarterback hits. Those five have combined for 57 hits on the quarterback and defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan has added seven more, according to NFL stats.
Cox is third among NFL defensive tackles with 5 ½ sacks, trailing only Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals and Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams. Atkins has one more sack, but he has played 70.8 percent of his team's snaps this season. Donald has six sacks and has played 75.4 percent of his team's snaps. Cox has played just 55.4 percent of the Eagles' snaps.
Curry's sack total could also be higher, but he has played only 53.3 percent of the snaps at right defensive end this season compared to 45.9 percent for first-round draft pick Barnett.
"I'm the one splitting the most time, but you have to take the ego out," said Curry, whose snaps are actually up more than 10 percent from last season.
Easier said than done to check the ego at the locker room door?
"Hell no," Curry said. "We're 10-1. You just have to handle what you can handle and control what you can control. At the end of the day, all of the guys in that room can play."
That's especially true about Barnett, who should at least be in the conversation for defensive rookie of the year. His 4 ½ sacks are fourth among NFL rookies and they have come in the team's last six games.
"I ain't mad about splitting time with that guy for five minutes," Curry said. "That guy can play."
All of the Eagles' defensive linemen can play and all of them have been willing to split time in a seven-man rotation that also included Beau Allen before he was sidelined by a knee injury. In addition to their pressure on opposing quarterbacks, they are also the linchpin that fuels the NFL's top rushing defense.
"We have a great bond together and guys love playing together at a high level across the board," Curry said.
That is obvious by the results on the field.
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