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Once-Stout Eagles’ Defensive Line Is Struggling Early This Season

Jonathan Jones

Through two games in the NFL season, the proud Philadelphia Eagles defense has amassed just two whole sacks, and only one has come from the once-vaunted defensive line.

Philadelphia has one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, but the defensive line seemingly can’t catch a break this year. Just an eighth of the way through the season, the Eagles have already lost defensive tackles Malik Jackson for the year and Tim Jernigan for several games, at least. The series of unfortunate events have left the Philadelphia defensive line as one of the shallowest for the NFC East contenders.

“Life in the NFL,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz told reporters Tuesday after Philly’s 24-20 loss to Atlanta on Sunday, speaking specifically to the rash of injuries suffered along the front. “Things have a way of settling down after an amount of time. There’s always going to be an adjustment period when you’ve got new guys coming in and guys are settling in to new roles.”

How did Philadelphia get to this depleted state? Before the injuries were the transactions. First, in the offseason, the Eagles traded defensive end Michael Bennett to the Patriots for a fifth-round pick in 2020 once it became clear Philadelphia didn’t want to pay his salary. Defensive end Chris Long hung up his cleats—at least temporarily—once it became clear his role would be reduced for this iteration of the Eagles. (Chris Long reportedly hasn’t ruled out a return to the Eagles, by the way.)

The team loaded up in the offseason by returning Vinny Curry after a year in Tampa Bay, signing Jackson to a rather affordable three-year, $30 million contract and re-upping defensive end Brandon Graham, who after a down year in 2018 told The MMQB Sunday night he’s set a personal goal of double-digit sacks this season for the first time in his career.

But Jackson’s season was over as soon as it got started when he suffered a Lisfranc injury in Week 1 against Washington. Then Jernigan, playing in replacement of Jackson, left Sunday night’s game with a broken foot that will sideline him upwards of a month.

What about Fletcher Cox, who led the team in sacks with 10.5 last season, and has zero so far this year? He admitted to The MMQB Sunday night that missing all of training camp and the preseason recovering from foot surgery has likely set him back to start the season.

“I think I’ve got to play better. I missed some time and missing training camp is kind of catching up with me. At the same time I’ve got to be better. I will be better. And I’ve got to do whatever I need to do to help this team win. … I didn’t get any preseason action and I think the biggest thing for me right now is be a pro about it, approach it every day and attack it and get ready for next week.”

“We’re figuring it out,” Graham says, when asked about the defensive line’s identity. “We’re seeing what kind of works and what doesn’t. people getting hurt, that changes a lot. So we’re kind of figuring it out.”

Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Schwartz tried to hide some of the warts Sunday night but the lack of a pass rush from his front four was obvious. Sure, the Falcons get the ball out quickly with dynamic playmakers at all three receiver positions. And yes, perhaps there was pressure to compensate for all the injuries on the offensive side of the ball and create turnovers. But several of Philadelphia’s top defensive plays came off blitzes.

The lone sack came on an Andrew Sendejo blitz in the fourth quarter. And Matt Ryan’s second interception was a product of Schwartz sending seven defenders to the six Falcons blockers.

The blitz finally bit Schwartz and the Eagles, though, when Matt Ryan read the defense on fourth-and-three and switched the play at the line for a quick pass to Jones, who took it to the house 54 yards for the game-winner.

“We knew if we got certain looks we wanted to send some pressure here and there throughout the day,” safety Malcolm Jenkins said. “A lot of the blitzes got home really quick and got us off the field, forced a turnover on one of them. But you live by it or die by it.”

The blitz kept the Eagles alive Sunday night until it killed them. This week against Detroit, a strong defensive line effort could take the double-edged sword out of the entire defense’s hands.

Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.