The defensive line, in addition to the secondary, was constantly viewed amongst the elite of the league. The constant rotation of fresh bodies kept the pass rush at fever pitch through all four quarters. Oh, and the Birds were winning a lot of games, winning division crowns, making Conference Championship games and even reaching the Super Bowl.
Wow. That really, truly feels like decades ago.
Much has changed in the last few years. Here we are in 2013, and the Eagles roster is entirely different than how it looked under former coach Andy Reid. The offense is obviously going to be different, and when word reached Eagles fans that a 3-4 defense would be replacing their classic 4-3, some were worried.
After all, the roster had been shaped for years and years on running the 4-3, not the vastly different 3-4.
But fans shouldn’t freak out just yet about the state of the defensive line and the front seven as a whole. New defensive coordinator Billy Davis has more than 20 years experience coaching NFL defenses, both in 4-3 and 3-4 schemes, and he is too smart to stick to only one kind of defense.
Today’s NFL is all about versatility and creating mismatches. Creating chaos and confusion between switching up from a 4-3 under to a 3-4 zone blitz, 3-3-5 stack, 2-man front or even a 1-man front is the best way to get under a good quarterback’s skin. Davis knows this, and he will be running a variety of defenses in 2013.
Davis would be remiss if he didn’t play to the strengths of the roster like any good coach does, and the defensive line will be the group that changes its face the most throughout the game. For the base 2-gap 3-4 defense, which looks to be the base Eagles defense, the d-line should be solid.
Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga was brought in this offseason to spearhead the freshly added 3-4, and has a ton of experience in this particular kind of defense. He’s an outstanding run-stuffer but does tend to wear down. When the Birds switch to a 4-3, he can still play the role of disruptive nose, only now he’ll focus on one gap, not two.
The 5-tech ends in the 3-4 are a mixed bag. On one side, you have former first rounder Fletcher Cox, who at times dazzled last year as a rookie (5.5 sacks). He was brought in to play a penetrating 3-tech in a 4-3, but has the size (6-foot 4, 300-pounds) and strength to play off tackle in an odd front, so whichever defense the Eagles are running on any particular play, expect to see him.
Some might worry that playing the 5-tech in a 3-4 won’t capitalize on his pass rushing capabilities. To those, all I have to say is this: J.J. Watt had 20.5 sacks last year running a very similar scheme.
The other end, Cedric Thornton, is still growing as a professional player, but he’s got some talent. However, I don’t expect to see him on the field outside of when the Eagles are running the 3-4.
When the Eagles do switch up to a 4-3, they’ll bring outside linebackers Trent Cole, Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham up front to rotate at end, sometimes with their hands in the dirt, other times standing up. All three are very talented pass rushers, but both Cole and Graham are learning their linebacking and coverage roles for the first time, so expect a slight learning curve there.
Both sets of 4-3 and 3-4 (and other variations of such) should be effective. There’ll be, at minimum, three fantastic pass rushers on the field at any given moment (Cox, Barwin, Cole or Graham), and the run-stuffing Sopoaga will man his boulder-like position in either front.
Injuries, like with every team in the league, will be crucial in dictating how the season goes. But as a whole, there’s enough talent on this defensive front to make some noise. Enough good athletes that have a lot of versatility should prove ample fodder for Davis’ imagination.