By David F. Cohen
It is not news that the Eagles’ defense had been the red-headed stepchild of the 9-3 NL East leaders.
Everyone assumed that the offense would purr.
But Billy Davis’ defense?
Not so much.
Which is why it is refreshing that the D is finally getting its due.
Outside linebacker Connor Barwin has been the best player on the rapidly improving Eagles defense, trailing only the Chiefs’ Justin Houston with 12.5 sacks in 12 games.
Barwin isn’t the only Eagles defender playing at a Pro Bowl level, however. Defensive end Fletcher Cox, already a premier run-stuffer, has picked up three sacks in the past four games.
“Fletcher Cox is great every day,” Barwin said after Thursday’s game, via CSN Philly. “He’s a Pro Bowl player. I thought the play of the day was the turnover. Second-and-2, Fletcher dominated the play and got a TFL (tackle for a loss), made it third-and-4. I think that was the play of the game that set the tone for the whole game.”
Cox not only harassed Romo but also dominated the line of scrimmage, shutting down MVP candidate DeMarco Murray.
Among 3-4 defensive ends, only J.J. Watt, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson have earned higher grades from Pro Football Focus this season. Cox’s 26 quarterback hurries are only five fewer than Watt’s 31.
With Barwin, Cox, linebacker Mychal Kendricks and safety Malcolm Jenkins enjoying career-best seasons, Philly’s defense is the class of the NFC East.
How integral have Cox’s contributions been for the Eagles defense? Coach Chip Kelly pulled no punches during his postgame press conference: “I think he’s been our best defensive lineman all year long.”
In Thursday’s pivotal win, Cox didn’t just set the table for his teammates—he also helped prepare the meal.
Cox was instrumental in shutting down DeMarco Murray, who the Eagles limited to 73 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, the back’s least productive outing of the season. Murray previously had been held under the century mark on the ground just once and entered Week 13 leading the league in rushing by over 400 yards.
Leading up to the showdown in Dallas, you got the sense Cox didn’t feel he or his linemates were getting the respect they deserved. The third-year player said as much to Geoff Mosher of CSN Philly as the Eagles prepared to face one of the most highly regarded offensive lines in pro football.
“People don’t give us credit we deserve but we put it on tape and we’ve shown the world we can stop the run,” Cox said, “and obviously if anybody ever watched football and knows what our D-line is known for, that’s stopping the run.
Philly’s tenacious pass rush ranks second in the NFL with 42 sacks. However, Cox entered the game with just two on the season, which sounds disappointing for somebody who was originally drafted as an interior pass-rusher in a 4-3 defense.
Postgame, the head coach defended Cox from any perceived lack of influence on quarterbacks.
“I just think Fletch has been a disruptive force all year long,” said Kelly. “He hadn’t had a lot of sacks, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t playing well. He’s been playing at a very, very high level. He creates a lot of havoc on the defensive line, especially in the run stuff. He had a big sack again today. They’re just starting to come to him from a statistical standpoint, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t playing well earlier in the year.”
Cox’s impact has not gone overlooked in Philly. With only one year remaining on his rookie deal, and given how well he’s taken to the scheme change in just his second season in a 3-4, the Mississippi State product seems destined to receive a long-term contract extension in the coming offseason.
Thanks to standout individual efforts like Thursday’s, he may be on the verge of becoming a star around the league as well. You may not see Cox playing in the Pro Bowl this February, but if he keeps this up, rest assured, you will eventually.