How Eagles' defensive line has grown into NFL's best


If you were able to peek through the door of the Eagles’ defensive line meeting room, this is what you’d see:

Sixteen Pro Bowls, four all-pros, four Super Bowl championships, 333 ½ sacks, 71 seasons and 1,020 games played.

The Eagles are rolling, and one of the big reasons is the performance of this deep, experienced, talented defensive line.

They lead the league in sacks, they’ve become one of the best in the league against the run, they have unprecedented depth and they just keep playing better and better.

“It is pretty crazy, I’m not going to lie to you.,” Linval Joseph said. “When I was starting out with the Giants (in 2010), being around Osi Umenyiora, (Jason) Tuck, Chris Canty, Rocky Bernard, J.P.P. (Jason Pierre-Paul) … you just have so many all-stars in one room, you’re a young guy, you’re thinking, ‘How could this be even possible, you know?'

“And here we go 10, 12 years later, we’re in the same situation, the same way. You look around and you’re just like, 'Wow, this is crazy.' A lot of guys in here are 1st-rounders, Pro Bowlers, Super Bowl champs. It’s a great feeling. 

“It gives you another energy drive to go hard because we all know what’s at stake and we all know what we’ve got to do to get there.”

Brandon Graham has been here since 2010, Fletcher Cox since 2012, Josh Sweat since 2018. Javon Hargrave arrived in 2020 and Milton Williams last year. The missing pieces all arrived this year, Haason Reddick as a free agent in March, Jordan Davis in the first round of the draft in April and Joseph and Ndamukong Suh last month as mid-season free agents.

Graham, Suh, Cox, Reddick and Davis were 1st-round picks, Joseph a 2nd-round pick, Hargrave and Williams 3rd- rounders, Sweat a 4th. 

Graham, Suh, Cox and Joseph have all played at least a decade. Reddick and Hargrave are in their late 20s. Sweat, Williams and Davis are all 25 or younger.

It’s the perfect blend of inside players and edge rushers, young guys and old guys, homegrown and free agents. 

And so far it’s working perfectly.

“We just strive to keep stacking,” Hargrave said. “We talk about it every day, we’re just starting to really see the results.” 

Jonathan Gannon and d-line coach Tracy Rocker have managed to juggle all these guys so everybody is getting enough snaps and nobody is getting too many snaps.

Out of the nine guys in the main rotation, Reddick is playing the most snaps at 71 percent, but Cox (64 percent), Hargrave (63 percent), Sweat (58 percent), Graham (40 percent), Joseph (38 percent), Williams (38 percent), Suh (38 percent) and Davis (30 percent) are all making the most of a modest workload.

For Cox and Graham in particular, the reduced snaps have allowed them to play some of their best football in years.

“The big thing is keeping the rep count down for a lot of guys,” Cox said. “We’ve got some dudes we can roll in and there’s not a drop off. 

“It’s a special group of guys who all understand their role, all understand what we need to do as a group to opposing offenses to win the game and we’ve got guys … you can bring in Milt, Suh, L.J., we’ve got Jordan back, it’s never a drop-off and coach can trust those guys in any situation.”

Best of all, this group is incredibly versatile. Although Davis and Joseph stick mainly to nose tackle, all the other interior linemen can swing outside. 

That gives Gannon and Rocker the ability to match up with virtually any front or scheme in virtually any situation.

“It gives you flexibility with structures, it provides you flexibility with match-ups,” Gannon said. “When guys can play certain different spots, it's not always, ‘This guy on this guy is a good match-up.’ Well, this guy might be good with bull rushes, but he struggles with counter rushes, so let's put our best counter rusher on him and the best bull rush on the guy that struggles to block the bull rush.

“That's scheme vs. scheme, people vs. people, people vs. scheme. With those type of players that we have, the flexibility allows you to do different things. Hopefully we set it up in a way that gives them favorable match-ups. 

"They're willing to do whatever we really want them to do, and they're for it because ultimately, they want to win games. It's not about their production or their stats. The biggest stat that they care about is wins and losses. It's been a joy to be around this group this year because everyone has bought into that.”

The additions of Joseph and Suh have also helped the Eagles fix their leaky run defense. After getting gashed week after week, the Eagles have now shut down three of the NFL’s best backs over the past month – Jonathan Taylor, Derrick Henry and Saquon Barkley.

The four weeks before Suh and Joseph arrived, the Eagles allowed 150 rushing yards per game. The four games since they began playing, they’ve allowed 104 per game.

“We put up the X’s and O’s, and it's cool to draw plays up there and say, ‘Hey, this shouldn't work or that should work or this is a hard down,’” Gannon said. “But ultimately that O has to block that X for it to work.

“I think our guys have taken it to heart, like, ‘Hey, man, if you get a single you've got to win that at the point of attack,’ and really that's what it is. We're winning at a high level.

"It's tough to block our front when everyone is winning their 1-on-1 match-up. We're executing at a very high level and we're winning a lot of 1-on-1 right now.”

This the No. 2 overall defense in the NFL, No. 1 in pass defense, No. 1 in interceptions, No. 2 in sacks, No. 1 in takeaways.

And with this offense scoring bucket loads of points and opposing teams forced to throw more than they want, it plays right into the Eagles' hands.

“It’s all about team here, which I really, really appreciate,” Joseph said. “It’s all about team and everybody wants to be great. And when you have people who’re hungry and have the desire to go get it, only good things happen.” 

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