Nearly a quarter of the way into the 2019 season, the Eagles are on pace to set a franchise record for futility rushing the passer.
There hasn’t been anything to suggest improvement is imminent, either.
The Eagles (1-2) have managed to register only two quarterback sacks so far, their lowest total through three games since sacks became an official statistic in 1982. That puts the defense on pace for 24 sacks for the season, which would be five fewer than their worst finish in 2005 — the team went 6-10 that year.
In fact, of the five Eagles squads to finish with 36 sacks or fewer in a 16-game season, none posted a record better than 8-8.
After a 27-24 loss to the Lions on Sunday in which the Eagles only hit the quarterback three times in 33 dropbacks, it’s become an issue even members of a prideful defensive front can no longer ignore.
“Everybody saw the game,” said Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett. “We have to do a better job up front.”
It gets worse. One of the Eagles’ two sacks belongs to Andrew Sendejo, a defensive back. The other is credited to interior lineman Timmy Jernigan, who’s out at least a month with a foot injury.
That means not one active player in the front four — a group that still includes All-Pros Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, and Barnett, a former first-round draft pick — has recorded a sack through three games.
“We’re not getting to the quarterback, especially me,” said Cox, who reached a career high with 10.5 sacks last season. “I’m getting there, but I’m not getting there quick enough. We’ve gotta do a better job as a group, as a D-line and as a defense.”
Health is clearly one issue. Tackles Malik Jackson and Jernigan both went down two weeks into the season, while Cox (foot) and Barnett (rotator cuff) appear to be working back from injuries that limited them throughout the entire offseason.
The issues up the middle are perhaps most concerning. Cox posted the same stat line as Jernigan and Jackson on Sunday — zeroes across the board — as Lions quarterback Matt Stafford was consistently step up in a clean pocket.
But it’s also looking like the Eagles may have made some missteps on the edge this offseason. Graham was signed to a big contract extension coming off a down year, but Michael Bennett was traded away and Chris Long retired, unwilling to accept a reduced role. The Eagles didn’t appear to make a serious play for Jadeveon Clowney when he became available in August, either.
“I know how the sacks go,” said Graham, referring to his belief sacks come in bunches. “Right now, we’ll just let people say what they’re gonna say. We’ve gotta keep on working. It’s a long season. You never know how this stuff ends.”
It’s worth noting the Eagles finished inside the top-10 with 44 sacks in 2018. That was with Jernigan and Barnett sidelined most of the year, and Jackson playing for the Jaguars.
But Bennett’s 9.0 sacks and Long’s 6.5 were replaced by Barnett, a largely unproven third-year player, and Vinny Curry, who hasn’t recorded more than 3.5 sacks since 2014. Graham only had 4.0 sacks last season. And the unit was carried by Cox, who does not look good, let alone dominant.
“I can’t be disappointed in myself because I’m out there giving everything I’ve got,” said Cox. “Sometimes a player can try to do so much and end up making mistakes or feel the pressure, so I’ll do my job and try to be as disruptive as I can be.”
Unfortunately, that may not be good enough if somebody doesn’t soon step up around him.
To the league’s credit, teams are finding ways to slow the Eagles’ defensive line. After the unit showed signs of life in Atlanta, the Lions came in with a game plan that called for plenty of max-protection packages, keeping their backs and tight ends in to block.
Regardless, the Eagles aren’t going to have a lot of success in today’s NFL without getting their hands on opposing quarterbacks, especially not with a suspect secondary.
“If nobody believes in us, that’s cool,” said Graham. “We’ve just gotta fix some stuff. We know we’re right in it. We know what we’ve got. We’ve got injuries, but I like the fight that we have to the end.
“We just haven’t made enough plays to win the game.”
Graham says the Eagles are “standing tall through it all,” which is normally the type of thing a team without Antonio Brown-type scandals might say in November, not after Week 3.
And it may just be a matter of time until Cox is feeling better, Barnett once again looks like a promising prospect, Graham comes on or somebody like Curry or Akeem Spence provides some relief. Any one of those coming to fruition could change the entire unit’s fortunes.
Until then, the Eagles aren’t the Super Bowl contender so many believed they were when the season began.
“I’m not worried,” said Graham. “We only lost two games. We can always finish strong. You never know what starts happening in a season.”
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