Over the course of seven weeks, the Eagles have gone from Malik Jackson, Tim Jernigan and Hassan Ridgeway alongside Fletcher Cox at defensive tackle to Cox and a pair of undrafted rookies.
So what can Eagles fans expect from a pair of interior linemen who will be appearing in their first NFL game?
“I’m a hard worker,” said Anthony Rush. “I’ll be playing real hard on Sunday and they can make their judgment off of that.”
With Ridgeway the latest to succumb to injury and the abrupt release of stopgap Akeem Spence, there’s no way around it — both Rush and Albert Huggins will be in the lineup against the Bills this week. Rush spent time with the Eagles during OTAs, so he is expected to start, but Huggins will play extensive snaps as well.
Rush and Huggins were on other teams’ practice squads as of Tuesday morning. As Huggins remarked, “Now the real work begins.”
“I’m a rookie, man,” said Huggins. “I’ve been in the league for six months, so I know I have a lot of work to do. I haven’t arrived.
Like my family says, ‘I’m just a squirrel trying to get a nut.’”
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz acknowledged his new linemen need to be ready to play “quick” and described the situation at tackle as “a challenge.” However, it’s not an altogether new problem for the unit.
“We had situations like that last year,” said Schwartz. “We were able to find a formula that worked for us and were able to make a run. We need to do the same thing this year.”
In 2018, Bruce Hector appeared in eight games for the Eagles as an undrafted rookie. The club also acquired Treyvon Hester mid-season and plugged him in for 12 games, plus playoffs – though Hester at least had a year of NFL experience under his belt.
Of course, Cox was in the midst of his most dominant season as a pro, so the cycle of anonymous players next to him which included Destiny Vaeao and Haloti Ngata was much less of an issue. This season, Cox’s performance has come under scrutiny, and the lack of help he’s getting up the middle is far more noticeable.
At least Rush has a handle on the playbook. Originally signed by the Eagles in April, the UAB product was released early in training camp and caught on with the Raiders, where he stuck on the practice squad.
Listed at 6-foot-5, 350 pounds, Rush is a massive body to fill space inside if nothing else.
“I’m a good run-stopper and I’m gonna try to get a few sacks,” said Rush. “I know (the Bills) don’t toss it around like that, but when they do, you’ve got convert that run-stopping defense into a pass rush.”
Huggins joined the Texans after the draft and made the practice squad out of camp. He also was a regular contributor on two National Championships at Clemson, where he played 46 games as a rotational, run-stuffing lineman.
He’s definitely a lot smaller than Rush at 6-3, 305, though Huggins is powerful, finishing third among all prospects invited to the scouting combine with 35 reps in the bench press
“I think have great intensity, dependability,” said Huggins. “Once I show that coaches that I’m dependable, I could stay around here a long time.”
While this hasn’t been Cox’s best season, the All-Pro is doing what he can to get his teammates ready.
“He’s been a real good teacher for us, teacher to me even the first time I was here, kept in contact with me and stuff,” said Rush.
“First defensive meeting, he introduced himself to me, and the next thing you know he just started talking to me about plays,” said Huggins. “He’s depending on me and I’m depending on him on Sunday.”
It seems Rush and Huggins might be better suited for stopping the run than getting after quarterbacks, which that push up the middle is what the Eagles defense has sorely missed this season. However, the Bills are a run-first, run-second and sometimes run-third offense, so loading up on big bodies isn’t a bad strategy.
Effort shouldn’t be a question, either. While this is just another game for a bunch of guys who can go home and polish their Super Bowl rings, it’s an audition for Rush and Huggins, who days ago were fighting to crack NFL rosters.
“We all have one goal and that’s to continue playing in the NFL,” said Huggins.
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