They can see it.
As the Eagles’ defensive lineman rotate in and out of games, they can see the energy draining out of their offensive line counterparts. By the end of the fourth quarter, Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox and Malik Jackson and Javon Hargrave and Josh Sweat and Derek Barnett and Hassan Ridgeway and Genard Avery all still feel fresh.
The guys they’re facing late in games? They’re gassed.
“It's not like you're looking for it all the time,” Graham said, “but you can be like, like sometimes when you watch it from the sidelines and you watch certain players you'd be like, ‘Man, that boy look tired out there.’"
That means the Eagles’ defensive line rotation is working. Because all of this is by design.
Anyone who has been around the Eagles’ defense for any of the last few decades will tell you about fastballs. That’s an old Jim Johnson term for pass rushers and the Eagles use a similar philosophy today under Jim Schwartz. Have as many good pass rushers as you can and rotate them in and out of the game to keep them fresh.
It’s a simple strategy and through the first quarter of 2020, it’s working. The Eagles lead the NFL with 17 sacks.
But you need talent and depth to do it well. The Eagles have both.
“I never seen anything like this, to have so much talent on one defensive line, where we can just keep rotating and not drop a beat,” said Javon Hargrave, in his first year with the Eagles. “Having so many guys to come in and contribute. It is really amazing. I am just glad to be a part of it.”
The Eagles are four deep at defensive tackle right now and they’re four deep at defensive end before the return of Vinny Curry off IR.
Here’s a look at the Eagles’ defensive line usage and production this year:
Fletcher Cox : 210 — 1 sack, 3 QB hits, 1 TFL
Malik Jackson: 179 — 1/2 sack, 9 QB hits
Javon Hargrave: 99 — 1/2 sack, 1 QB hit
Hassan Ridgeway: 91 — 1 sack, 1 QB hit, 1 TFL
T.Y. McGill: 16 — 1/2 sack, 2 QB hits
Brandon Graham: 196 — 3 sacks, 7 QB hits, 5 TFLs
Josh Sweat: 153 — 3 sacks, 5 QB hits, 3 TFLs
Derek Barnett: 114 — 2 1/2 sacks, 4 QB hits, 2 TFLs
Genard Avery: 47 — 1 1/2 sacks, 6 QB hits, 1 TFL
Vinny Curry: 22 — 1/2 sack, 1 QB hit
Casey Toohill: 16 — no stats
And Jackson had an even different outlook on the rotation. Not only is he getting a breather when he’s on the sideline, he’s studying too. Because all four of the Eagles’ defensive tackles are true pass rushers with moves aside from bullrushes, he watches closely. It gives him an idea what’s working against those guards and what isn’t.
That’s just an added bonus, though. The real reason they do it is to keep everyone fresh.
“You just can't wait to get back in the game,” Graham said, “because our rotation definitely keeps us fresh so that you can go out there and go 100 miles for four or five plays that you're asked to go. And I think that you know that your chance to make a play has gone up even more when you see the offensive linemen get gassed."
Want more proof that the rotation is working?
Of the Eagles’ 17 sacks, 11 have come in the second half.
And 8 of those 11 have come in either the fourth quarter or overtime.
That means that 47 percent of the Eagles’ sacks this season have come after the third quarter as offensive lines start to tire. In addition to leading the league in sacks, the Eagles also lead the league in sacks after the third quarter.
“I say all the time, a fresh Hassan is way better than a seven-play-later Fletcher Cox, or a Hargrave going in for six, seven plays and Malik coming in fresh and ready to roll,” Cox said. “That’s a really good thing that we have going, and to trust those guys to go in there, it says a lot about those guys doing their job and honing in on what they need to do."