The foundation on which these NFC champion Eagles are built began with a decision in the 2012 draft.
Eagles General Manager Howie Roseman watched a blue-chip prospect from Mississippi State slide out of the top 10. He picked up the phone to trade up from his 15th overall pick.
“We had Fletcher Cox as one of the top five players in the draft,” Roseman said this week. They landed Cox at 12th overall, thanks to a deal with the Seahawks, who had settled on taking defensive end Bruce Irvin out of West Virginia. Roseman called the trade a “win-win,” but it’s fair to say the Eagles, playing for Philadelphia’s first Lombardi Trophy on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, have come out ahead after moving up for Cox. The All-Pro defensive tackle is key to the Eagles’ plan for flustering Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
So, Cox doesn’t want to hear many blitzes called by Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
“Honestly, as a D-line,” Cox said, “we kind of get selfish when we hear a blitz call.”
That’s because the Eagles have pressured quarterbacks (287 times, to be exact) more than any NFL defense this season. Much of that derives from a deep defensive line that doesn’t ask anybody to play the entire game. Cox, along with defensive end Brandon Graham, leads Philly’s attack in snaps and sacks.
So if the Eagles want to follow the path of the Giants, who twice toppled Brady in Super Bowls with a fierce four-man rush, it starts with Cox and company.
“It’s going to come down to the front four guys,” Cox said, “us being able to get after the quarterback with four and not having Jim blitz.”
Many of the other six Eagles defensive linemen credit Cox, their team’s highest-paid player with an $11.5 million salary, for living up to his paycheck and, consequently, elevating the play of others around him. As a pass rusher, only Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins was more productive from the interior than Cox’s 50 pressures in 391 pass-rushing snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
Cox’s 5.5 sacks were the fifth most at his position during the regular season.
“When I see that, it’s a big motivator,” backup defensive tackle Beau Allen said.
The Eagles know the value and how to scheme around a dominant interior presence. Schwartz, the former Lions head coach and Titans defensive coordinator, has coached some of the game’s best from Ndamukong Suh to Albert Haynesworth.
“All those guys are similar in that they’re not one-trick ponies,” Schwartz said. “That’s Fletch, he’s not just a run stopper, he’s not just a pass rusher. He can do it all.”
Cox upped his game in the Eagles’ playoff victories against the Falcons and Vikings. He has led all defensive tackles in these NFL playoffs in PFF’s run-stop percentage and pass-rush productivity. His seven run stops in only two games are the most of any defensive tackle this postseason.
“Fletcher has been playing out of his mind right now,” defensive end Vinny Curry said. “His energy trickles down to each guy in our room.”
That Eagles defensive line room is full of strong personalities from Cox to veteran newcomer Chris Long, who won a Super Bowl with the Patriots last season. “Love” is a word they’re not afraid to throw around, crediting time spent off the field together as a reason for the defensive line’s success.
So when a random man in the crowd threw Cox an Eagles-themed Mexican wrestling mask, he covered his face with the mask without hesitancy in front of a crowd of reporters. It was a different look than the now-famous dog masks Eagles players don to literally wear the underdog labels they’ve been given by oddsmakers.
“They can see all my superpowers right now,” Cox said under the mask.
The Patriots, and the rest of the world, also should see them on Sunday.