Just a few short weeks ago the Philadelphia Eagles were flying high. They were 10-2 and looked to be the favorite in the NFC. Their quarterback, Carson Wentz, had taken a huge leap forward in year two and the defense was really getting after people. It looked like the Eagles were serious Super Bowl contenders, maybe even Super Bowl favorites after 13 weeks of the season.
Then, in the third quarter of a Week 14 win over the Rams, disaster struck.
Wentz, who was probably the front runner for MVP at that point, suffered a torn ACL trying to dive into the end zone for a touchdown that was ultimately called back for holding on an offensive lineman. That had to be like a kick to the shin for Eagles fans.
Enter backup quarterback Nick Foles.
Foles played well enough for the Eagles to win two out of their last three games of the regular season, but he appeared to get worse with each start. Heading into Saturday’s Divisional Round playoff game against Atlanta, it was apparent that Philly’s defense was going to have play their asses off if they wanted to have any chance of winning. That meant making the routine plays as well as the spectacular. For the Eagles to be able to shut down the Falcons’ potent offensive attack, it was going to take some outstanding individual efforts as well.
That is just what they got out of Fletcher Cox.
The fact that Cox has been named to the last three Pro Bowls and has been a second-team All-Pro three times in his six year career, even though he’s never had double digit sacks in any given season, should tell you that there is a lot more to his game than just rushing the passer.
On Saturday, Cox was all over the field no matter whether it was a run or a pass. He was a huge part of the reason why Falcons starting running back Devonta Freeman couldn’t get rolling against the Eagles. While Cox only had one sack, it actually ended up having a big impact on the outcome of the game as well. Allow me to briefly point out of some of the plays Cox made that helped Philly secure the 15-10 victory
First, the “routine” plays.
Falcons first down on their own 38-yard line, early in the first quarter.
This was the second play of the drive, right after Foles threw an interception on the Eagles’ second offensive play of the game.
Atlanta lined up with tight end Levine Toilolo lined up just off the line and outside of right tackle Ryan Schraeder with wide receiver Mohamed Sanu in a tight split just outside of Toilolo after wideout Nick Williams had motioned from that side across the formation to the other side.
For the Eagles, Brandon Graham was lined up as the left defensive end in a six-technique alignment (head up on Toilolo). Cox was lined up as the left three-technique on right guard Wes Schweitzer’s outside shoulder. Eagles corner Jalen Mills was lined up in press on Sanu, and safety Malcolm Jenkins was walked down into the box at linebacker depth and positioned between Sanu and Toilolo in the D gap.
The Falcons wanted to run a wide zone to their right side, so they had Sanu bump Mills off the line, then come off to Jenkins and pin him inside. Toilolo and Schraeder were to execute a combo block on Graham, with Toilolo eventually going up to the second level to seal off Mychal Kendricks, who was lined up as the middle linebacker after Williams’ motion.
That left Schweitzer to try to reach block Cox, and hopefully, if all went well, Freeman would have Mills one-on-one in space where he could put him in the blender and get up the sideline.
All did not go well, however.
Sanu did do a good job of bumping Mills off the line and then sealing off Jenkins inside. And hell, Schraeder did so well reaching Graham and pinning him inside (aside from letting him get upfield a bit) that Toilolo didn’t even have to touch Graham before he was able to get up on Kendricks, whom he pinned inside, too.
Freeman did make it all the way outside to Mills and damn near shook Mills out of his shoes. Which is when Cox took him down.
After Schweitzer was initially able to get outside leverage on Cox with his reach block, Cox kept working and pushing until he had damn near pushed Schweitzer right into Freeman’s path. Just as Freeman approached Mills, Cox was able to get full extension with his arms to push Schweitzer off him and free himself from Schweitzer’s clutches. Instead of a being able to get up the sideline, Freeman had a mountain of a man blocking his way.
As you might imagine, the mountain won. And it was definitely something Freeman got used to seeing as the day went on.
For example, with 10:38 left in the first quarter the Falcons were inside the red zone with a first-and-10 at the Eagles’ 17-yard line.
This time they had Toilolo motion back in from out wide to line up as the tight end to the left side of the formation. Freeman and fullback Derrick Coleman were in the backfield lined up in an I formation.
Graham was the left defensive end again in a wide five. Cox was lined up on the left side again too, but this time he was head up on Schweitzer. That’s all you need to know for this one.
Atlanta had Coleman shuffle over a bit to his left toward Toilolo to make it an I formation right before the snap. After the snap, he went at Vinny Curry, who was lined up as the right defensive end, to try to cut him. Toilolo and the offensive line blocked to their right like they were running a zone play. Freeman was supposed to start weak, to the right, with the option of cutting back to the left off of Coleman’s cut block on Curry.
Once again Cox ended up ruining Freeman’s run.
Schraeder actually got a decent reach block on Graham and got him to widen out and open up some lanes inside. The problem was Schweitzer was supposed to try to combo block Cox off the line with the center, Alex Mack, and then work up to Kendricks who was the outside linebacker to that side.
First of all Schweitzer wasn’t able to move Cox off the ball at all, even with Mack’s help.
Second, Schweitzer couldn’t come off to block Kendricks until Kendricks had already come downhill to fill his gap because Cox had a hold of him and wouldn’t let go.
Third, when Cox finally did let Schweitzer come off to Kendricks, Cox ended up pressing Mack back into the backfield.
With Kendricks filling the B gap and Cox upfield in the A gap, Freeman pretty much had nowhere to run. He tried to put his head down and muscle through, but Cox was a brick wall at that point.
Ever seen anybody run head on into a brick wall? Ever seen anybody win one of those encounters?
Freeman didn’t fair much better as Cox took him down for a loss of a yard.
The sack that ended up being bigger than you thought.
The Falcons gained 33 yards on the first two plays of a drive that started with just a little over two minutes left in the first half.
With a first-and-10 at the Eagles’ 47-yard line, Atlanta only needed another first down or two to get into field goal range in a game they were leading 10-6 at the time.
Matt Ryan was under center with Freeman in the dot behind him. Tight end Austin Hooper was lined up to the offense’s right side, with backup receiver Justin Hardy in a short split outside of him. To the offense’s left were Julio Jones and Sanu, both of them lined up inside the numbers, with Sanu in the slot.
I think the idea was to give the Eagles a look that could be run or pass and then throw it. Ryan took a long look to his left as Jones ran a corner route and Sanu ran a 5-yard out from the slot. Seeing both of those guys covered, Ryan worked through his progressions all the way back to Hooper, who had run a little 5-yard stop underneath Hardy who seemed to be clearing out for him.
Ryan started his throwing motion to dump it off to Hooper when bam, there was Cox all in his face.
What had happened was, for some odd reason the Falcons decided to let Schweitzer try to block Cox all by himself on that play.
Right off the snap Cox was able to get his hands inside on Schweitzer’s chest. Then when Schweitzer shot his punch wide, Cox chopped up with both arms to knock Schweitzer’s hands up and off of him. Cox immediately shot his hands right back into Schweitzer’s chest and drove him back into Ryan’s lap. By this time, Ryan was working through his progressions, and just as he saw Hooper open, Cox did an arm over to escape off Schweitzer’s block and take Ryan down.
Ryan ended up holding onto the ball instead of risking a fumble with the contact and took the sack for a loss of 3 yards.
Just in case your memory needs refreshing, the Falcons would end up punting three plays later, giving Philly just enough time to get down the field and kick a field goal before the first half ended. How different are things at the end of the game if the Eagles were only up by two rather than five?
And finally, the hustle play that may have saved a touchdown.
Y’all know I love me some hustle plays, and Cox had a pretty good one right near the end of the game.
Picture this, there are two minutes left and the Falcons are on the Eagles’ 26-yard line, just outside the red zone. Ryan, all by himself in the shotgun, gets the snap, steps back to pass and turns and whips a quick screen pass to Taylor Gabriel to Ryan’s left. Gabriel was to the trips side between Sanu and Hooper and those guys do a great job of blocking Mills and Patrick Robinson.
Gabriel, who is as quick as a hiccup and just about as fast, starts off straight ahead, but then he cuts back behind three of his offensive linemen who are now downfield blocking for him. With Ben Garland getting up on Jenkins, and Mack and Schweitzer double-teaming middle linebacker Nigel Bradham, Gabriel only had safety Rodney McLeod standing between him and pay dirt. If Gabriel jukes McLeod, he scores the game winner and heads back to Atlanta a hero.
But for Cox’s hustle, that definitely could have happened on Saturday.
Cox was lined up as the left three-technique again, and Schweitzer didn’t even try to block him. Instead, Schweitzer popped up like he was pass blocking for half a second to draw Cox upfield, then took off to the second level to try to block Bradham. Curry and Tim Jernigan were lined up as the right defensive end and right three-technique, and they both bit the cheese and got upfield and ran themselves out of the play.
Cox, however, made a hard right turn as soon as he felt Schweitzer leave. He hauled ass toward Gabriel.
When Gabriel saw that big green monster running toward him, he decided “you know what maybe that whole cutting back deal is a bad idea.” Instead Gabriel kept going straight ahead and tried to stay behind Hooper and Garland. Since he couldn’t cut back, Gabriel no longer had a free path to the end zone with just one man to beat. Instead, he had a bunch of Eagles defensive players to try to navigate through, so a potential big play only ended up going for seven yards. And guess who ended up tackling him.
Go ahead and guess.
Yep, Fletcher Cox, all 6’4 and 300+ pounds of him.
Not only did he keep Gabriel from cutting back to a probable house call, he also dove to make the tackle on him seven yards down field as well. Maybe a tackle for seven yards doesn’t sound impressive to you, but the play itself may well have saved the game for the Eagles, especially when you consider the fact that Atlanta came up only two yards short right at the end.
I just want to point out the fact that Devonta Freeman carried the ball 10 times for just seven yards against the Eagles. Cox ended up being the tackler on six of those carries for a grand total of 10 yards. Cox damn near shut Freeman down all by his damn self just a week after Freeman rushed for 66 yards and a touchdown against the Rams.
That is the kind of impact Cox can have on the outcome of a game above and beyond just sacking the quarterback.
But, if you needed a reminder, he showed you he can sack the quarterback, too!
With his seven tackles, a sack and a hit on the quarterback against the Falcons, Fletcher Cox showed once again that he is a certified beast of an interior defensive lineman. I know people will talk up Foles’ performance this week, but the fact remains that the Eagles only managed to score 15 points against the Falcons on Saturday. Thanks in large part to Fletcher Cox’s contributions, those 15 points were enough. For that winning effort he earned my Hoss Of The Week honors for the Divisional Round of the playoffs.