Wanted: A pass rush for the Philadelphia Eagles, who desperately need one before they take the field on Thursday night at Lambeau Field against superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has led the Green Bay Packers to a 3-0 record with four touchdown passes and zero interceptions.
The Eagles, who have thrived in recent seasons with one of the league’s best defensive lines, have not produced in a 1-2 start to the 2019 season. They’ve recorded two quarterback sacks in three games – one from defensive tackle Tim Jernigan against Washington and one on a blitz by safety Andrew Sendejo in Atlanta – and they’ve had relatively few pressures from a four-man pass rush, which has necessitated more blitz calls from coordinator Jim Schwartz, which has resulted in more man-to-man coverage in the secondary, which has led to …
It spells t-r-o-u-b-l-e for the Eagles defense that doesn’t have an immediate answer.
“We just have to play better and we will,” tackle Fletcher Cox said. “I know I have to play better. It starts with me.”
It does, because Cox is one of the best defensive players in the entire NFL. But he’s been a shell of himself, likely because he’s not fully recovered from a toe injury that he suffered in the January playoff loss to New Orleans. Those around Cox have not picked up the slack – not end Brandon Graham, who signed a contract extension in the offseason rather than test the free-agency market, and not from 2017 first-round draft pick Derek Barnett, who is playing hard and coming close, but not quite getting home on his pass rush.
The Eagles are down to their third tackle next to Cox with Malik Jackson (foot) on the Injured Reserve list and with Jernigan out for the next few weeks – or longer – with a reported broken foot.
“We need to pick it up up front,” Graham said, “because it all starts with us. We have to get the defense going.”
Of all the concerns with the Eagles late in September – the injuries, the running game, the turnovers, the coverage in the secondary – the lack of dominating play up front defensively may be the most alarming. The Eagles are doing a decent job against the run, but they’ve been unable to get off rushing the quarterback.
In the offseason, the Eagles traded end Michael Bennett and Chris Long retired. The Eagles used a fourth-round draft pick on Shareef Miller, who has been inactive for the first three weeks of the season. They signed Vinny Curry in free agency after he was released by Tampa Bay. They added Jackson to team with Cox, believing that the duo would wreak havoc inside. They re-signed Jernigan just before the 2019 NFL Draft.
Instead of loading up in the draft on defensive linemen, the Eagles took an offensive tackle (Andre Dillard) for the future and two offensive players (running back Miles Sanders and wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside) with their first three draft picks.
And here is the defensive line, grasping for answers, preparing for the quick-passing Rodgers, who has beaten the great defenses of Chicago, Minnesota and Denver on the way to a perfect opening three weeks.
Thursday night is another one of those “must-win” feels and that’s strange for a game in September. This one is on the defense, and the line of scrimmage in particular. We’ll see if the early warning signs go away or turn into a full-blown alarm after 60 minutes against Rodgers and Green Bay’s passing game. ••