D-Line Diagnosis: Where Are the Sacks?

When asked last week why the Eagles’ defense has been unable to come up with more sacks, Todd Bowles pointed to four specific things.

“Part of the time, the ball is coming out quick,” he said. “Part of the time they’re max protecting. Part of the time we have to beat one-on-ones. Part of the time, coaching-wise, we have to scheme it better and help those guys get free.”

Let’s take a look at those four things individually.

Matthew Stafford consistently got rid of the ball quickly last week. But here’s the thing: For much of the game, that played right into the Eagles’ hands. Because of Stafford’s lack of patience and his focus on getting the ball out of his hands, he missed several opportunities at big plays downfield (see the All-22 breakdown here). And he also threw a lot of incompletions on the shorter/intermediate routes.

According to Pro Football Focus, before last week, Stafford was completing 77.1 percent of his passes between 0 and 10 yards. Against the Eagles, he completed just 12 of 22, or 54.5 percent. In other words, it’s not as if the defense was just giving up the shorter plays and allowing the Lions to methodically march down the field. They took a good number of those away. On the season, opposing quarterbacks are completing just 52.7 percent of their passes against the Eagles. That’s the best mark in the league. The secondary gets credit for that, but pressure, or even the possibility of pressure, has factored in also.

Bowles also talked about max-protecting. I showed this in the All-22 breakdown, but in case you missed it, here are a couple images.

In both cases, eight blockers against four defensive linemen. Tough to get to the quarterback in these situations. The Eagles simply have to rely on their coverage. It’s not that the Lions max-protected all game, but they chose their spots, specifically on plays downfield. I’d expect other teams to do the same going forward.

Bowles also talked about scheming better and helping the pass-rushers get free. Some might think that means increased blitzing. But I’d be surprised if the Eagles started to send a lot of extra pressure at opposing quarterbacks. The point of bringing Jim Washburn and the wide-nine was to generate pressure from the front four and not have to blitz. The Eagles have enough talent on the defensive line where they should still be able to do that.

“If it works, it’s great. If it’s not, don’t do it,” Bowles said, when asked about his philosophy on blitzing.

In other words, you might see more of it some weeks than others. It all depends on the opponent and the game-plan.

Something Washburn said the other week caught my attention too.

“We used to watch [Bears linebackers Brian] Urlacher and [Lance] Briggs,” Washburn said, via Paul Domowitch of the Daily News. “They’d stand up there in the A-gap. The other team would be scared to death to chip the ends. Urlacher and Briggs rarely came, but their presence standing up there in the A-gap affected what the offense did.”

It might not always be blitzing, but perhaps the threat of blitzing would help create space for the defensive ends.

And finally, winning one-on-one. That’s a simple way of saying the defensive linemen need to play better and take advantage of opportunities that present themselves.

Keeping all that in mind, below is the table we use every week to measure pass-rushing production. It takes into account opportunities (courtesy of Pro Football Focus), sacks and hurries (as tracked by the coaches). It also shows pressure percentage, which is simply the frequency with which each player notches a sack or a hurry.

 
Pass-Rushing Opportunities
Sacks
Hurries
Pressure Percentage
Jason Babin1852.52314.1%
Trent Cole1851.52313.5%
Cullen Jenkins1720148.1%
Fletcher Cox1521N/AN/A
Derek Landri114097.9%
Cedric Thornton83022.4%
Darryl Tapp730.5711.0%
Brandon Graham440.51331.8%
Phillip Hunt28027.1%

What stands out here? Let’s start with the defensive ends. Cole and Babin have combined for just four sacks. Their hurries and opportunities are identical. Both guys have track records of being productive pass-rushers. If Bowles and Washburn can scheme a way to get them more one-on-one opportunities, the sacks and turnovers are likely to follow.

It also seems like Graham is long overdue to get more snaps. On a per-play basis, he’s been easily their most productive pass-rusher. Graham played 24.4 percent of the snaps against the Lions. That number’s got to increase.

Some have asked about second-round pick Vinny Curry getting a shot. I’d have no problem with that. If he’s going to play, it’d almost definitely be for Tapp at right defensive end. Or he could step in for Hunt as the ninth lineman on gamedays, but Hunt plays special teams too.

At defensive tackle, you’ll notice the table is not filled out completely for Cox. That’s because there was a mix-up with his hurry numbers that I’m working to get clarification on.

With 14 hurries, Jenkins has been fine, but the Eagles are getting nothing out of Thornton and Landri.

Landri has nine hurries, but has struggled recently with just three in the last four games. And Thornton has just two hurries all season. Getting more interior pressure is critical going forward.

Note: Soon after I Tweeted out the link to this piece, Derek from Iggles Blog asked about the possibility of going with a 4-DE nickel look. That’d be one way to get Graham on the field more, especially considering what little pass-rush production the Eagles are currently getting from their defensive tackles.

Other than potentially getting Curry into the mix, I don’t see any personnel changes being made here. But getting more production out of this group has to be high on the list of priorities going into the final 10 games.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

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