Trench Warfare: Projecting Philadelphia Eagles Defensive Line

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Dec 1, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Cedric Thornton (72) lines up during the third quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles defeated the Cardinals 24-21. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Trench Warfare:  Projecting Philadelphia Eagles Defensive Line

It’s been a little over a year since the Eagles began to break the news to their defensive linemen that they would be lining up in a 3-4 defense, and would need to relearn their roles in the NFL.   It was five months ago where the Eagles season ended in Philadelphia, shredded by a running game of one of the NFL’s elite passing offenses. The bittersweet losing the chance to win and advance in the NFL playoffs ended the cinderella season of the surprising Philadelphia Eagles in 2014.  This year, Eagles defense comes down to trench warfare:  Projecting the Philadelphia Eagles defensive line

From a team that was bashed virtually the entire season on it’s pass defense, it was the run defense that came up short when the team needed it most.  Part of the challenge was the game plan which overloaded to neutralize tight end Jimmy Graham. Part of it was a young 3-4 defense which was in the midst of a learning curve. Part of it was simply the wonderment of a previous year’ 4-12 team even making it to the playoffs. But part of it was simply failure, the inability to exploit the opportunities that were present. And that is the bittersweet taste. The victory was within their grasp, but the team simply couldn’t grab it and hold on.

The Philadelphia Eagles defense has yet to win over the fans, but its coming.  The heroics of outside linebackers Trent Cole and Brandon Graham sacks of New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in the 2013 playoff game gave hope that the 3-4 will prove to be stalwart as the Eagles become accustomed to it.   Cornerback Brandon Boykin‘s six interception season was the most by an Eagles defender since Asante Samuel picked off seven in the 2010 season.

The curious thing about that 2010 season, not one of the current defensive linemen playing for the Philadelphia Eagles were on the team in 2010.    In fact, none played on the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles defensive line either.   The line in that year was Trent Cole, Cullen Jenkins, Mike Patterson, and Jason Babin.  Since then, Cole has switched to outside linebacker, Jenkins and Patterson moved on to the rival New York Giants, and Babin?  Well, let’s just say he’s still looking for an easy sack of a quarterback somewhere…

The defensive line of 2014 will consist of defensive ends Cedric Thornton and Fletcher Cox, with nose tackle Bennie Logan anchoring.   Rounding out the defensive linemen are defensive ends Brandon Bair, Vinny Curry, Taylor Hart,  Joe Kruger, Francis Mays, Cedric Thornton, Alejandro Villanueva, with defensive tackles Beau Allen, Wade Keliikipi, and Damion Square.  Of the group, the “veterans” are Cedric Thornton, Fletcher Cox, and Vinny Curry who each enter their third season.

For the box score lovers, the Philadelphia Eagles defensive line was a vanilla group in 2013.  They did not produce many sacks – combining for a total of ten sacks in 2013.   They played solidly against the run, at least until they faced the New Orleans Saints.   But there is a great deal of hope for this group to play at the next level in 2014.

For starters, the novelty of the 3-4 defense to the Philadelphia roster has worn off.   Shackled by the new system, Billy Davis had to limit the number of looks he set against the opposing quarterbacks.   In a July 27 Sunday interview with Paul Domowitch, Davis discussed the challenges of having a new defense.

“Last year, you saw the base foundation of the defense.  We’ve kept our foundation, but we’ve added some bridge-concept coverages and added some run calls.   We’ve grown it in a way that didn’t take away from last year. The guys understand what we did. We just saw some holes where maybe there were some gameplan tools we didn’t have. We added them in the off-season and worked on them and will continue to work on them. So we’ve grown the package without changing it. We’ve just given ourselves more tools.’’

Don’t think Bill Davis arrived to open arms when he was hired as the defensive coordinator. At the time, a number of big name defensive minds were available and the signing of Davis was more than surprise – it was shock and dismay. After the Denver Broncos dismantled the fledgeling defense, the fans were nearly at a boiling point. But something happened that made everyone sit up and take notice. In two words, Davis assumed the risk of wrath when he implored the Philadelphia fans: “Trust Me.”

Whether the fans did or not, Davis was true to his word. The defense improved, the team began to play defense, and the wins began to pile up. By January of 2014, a Bleeding Green survey of the approval of Bill Davis showed fans were 77% in favor, 18% uncertain, and a mere 5% not in favor. It seems the fans have been won over. Still, not everything was finished: The kid gloves are off this year. With this defense entering the second year, introductions are long gone, and implementation is history. With so much focus about the excitement in the defensive backfield, and the spotlight on the linebackers, there’s not many writing about the defensive line.

Well, I don’t follow the herd.  So let’s go against the grain and discuss this defensive line by crawling down into the trenches.

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