They were built to dominate. Built to wreck stuff. Built to put this football team on their back and carry it as far as possible.
As the Eagles got set to begin the 2021 season, it was natural to think the defensive line was the strength of the team. Loaded with first-round picks, Pro Bowlers and huge contracts, this was the elite veteran nucleus on a team loaded with youth and question marks just about everywhere else.
Hasn’t worked out that way. Not even close.
The Eagles’ vaunted defensive line has been the most disappointing position group on the team.
They haven’t dominated. They haven’t wrecked anything. And to say they’ve underachieved would be putting it mildly.
The Eagles are paying their defensive linemen $58.8 million this year, second-most of any NFL team.
What are they getting for that investment?
Fletcher Cox missed the Pro Bowl for the first time since 2014 and although he’s been better the last few weeks, it’s been a disappointing season for the all-time Eagle. Derek Barnett, the 14th pick in the 2017 draft, regressed from mediocre to non-existent, and was one of only two defensive ends in the NFL to start at least 15 games and record two or fewer sacks (along with seven penalties). Josh Sweat got a huge contract, started weak and finished strong, but still only ranked 36th in the NFL in sacks. Javon Hargrave started strong and finished weak. Ryan Kerrigan? Yikes.
Not one of these guys played better than average start to finish. Not one. The most consistent lineman of the bunch might have been rookie defensive tackle Milton Williams, who gradually earned himself more and more playing time as the year went on.
Obviously, the Eagles tremendously missed Brandon Graham, their best pass rusher and one of their true team leaders. But the Eagles have allocated a tremendous amount of resources to the D-line just because it is one of the most important position groups in the modern NFL. And this group let the Eagles down week after week.
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Derek Carr, Tom Brady, Jimmy Garappolo, Justin Herbert, Teddy Bridgewater, Pat Mahomes, Trevor Siemian, Mike Glennon, Daniel Jones, Zach Wilson and Garrett Gilbert combined to throw 376 passes against the Eagles this year.
They were sacked a combined eight times.
The Eagles recorded 29 sacks this year, second-fewest in the NFL and fewest by the Eagles since sacks became an official stat in 1982. And 10 of those 29 were in two games. A lack of pressure means quarterbacks can stand in the pocket and pick you apart, which helps explain why the Eagles also recorded just 12 interceptions and 16 takeaways.
On a positive note, the Eagles were very good against the run this year -- ninth overall but seventh before the meaningless finale vs. the Cowboys.
But we all know that the single biggest priority in the NFL these days is generating pressure on the quarterback. If you can’t make a quarterback uncomfortable and make him move his feet and force him to make throws he doesn’t want to make, you’re doomed.
Which is why an NFL-record nine QBs this year -- really, every established QB they faced other than Matt Ryan and Teddy Bridgewater -- completed at least 73 percent of their passes against the Eagles.
Which brings us to Brady.
If you can’t pressure him, you have no shot. You will lose.
The Buccaneers allowed an NFL-low 21 sacks this year. When Brady was sacked two or fewer times, the Bucs were 12-1.
This is a terrifying matchup.
One of the least productive defensive lines in the NFL. Against one of the best offensive lines. Protecting the greatest football player in history.
Now, the Eagles can beat the Bucs. They can.
But to have any chance, this defensive line is going to have to do one thing it hasn’t done all year.
Live up to expectations.