Paul Domowitch: Eagles' d-line trying to turn up the pressure

Brandon Graham, a first-round draft pick in 2010, continues to make progress after an ACL tear.
Brandon Graham, a first-round draft pick in 2010, continues to make progress after an ACL tear. (ANDY LYONS / GETTY IMAGES)
Posted: October 25, 2012

QUARTERBACK pressure is the foundation of a good NFL defense. Put heat on the guy behind center and the rest of the dominoes usually fall.

Don't and you're in for a long, long day.

Michael Vick is a perfect example. On pass plays when he's been under pressure this season, which has been on 96 of his 231 attempts, according to Pro Football Focus, Vick has a dreadful 40.7 passer rating and .458 completion percentage. On plays when he hasn't had pressure, he's a regular Dead Eye Dick, with a Pro Bowlish 104.0 rating and a .704 completion percentage.

The same goes for just about every other quarterback in the league, including the gentleman the Eagles will be facing Sunday at the Linc - the Falcons' Matt Ryan.

On pass plays with no pressure, Ryan has a sterling 106.9 passer rating that includes a .722 completion percentage, 8.0 yards per attempt and 11 touchdown passes.

When he's been pressured, though, the numbers tumble. A 74.8 passer rating and .550 completion percentage. Just three touchdown passes and a 5.8 yards-per-attempt average.

Which brings us to the Eagles' pass rush and the importance of getting pressure on Matty Ice.

When we last left defensive line coach Jim Washburn and his frustrated unit before the bye week, they were gnashing their teeth after a third straight sackless performance in a 26-23 overtime loss to the Lions and cursing the existence of max-protections and three-step drops.

The Eagles, who a year ago registered a league-best 50 sacks, have just seven in the first six games and none since Week 3. They are 31st in the league in sacks per pass play, sandwiched between 1-5 Jacksonville and 2-4 Oakland.

Washburn insists that his linemen are rushing just as well as last year when sacks were as plentiful as candy on Halloween. But because of those maximum protections and short drops, quarterbacks are getting the ball out before his front four can lower the boom.

The fact that the Eagles are forcing opponents to keep more players in to block and get rid of the ball quicker certainly is not without its benefits. Through six games, the Eagles are first in the league in opponent completion percentage (.527) and third in opponent passer rating (69.4). They've given up just seven touchdown passes.

But sacks and near-sacks often lead to turnovers, and that is where the Eagles really are lacking right now. Their eight takeaways are tied for the ninth fewest in the league. That, along with a dreadful return game, has given Vick and the offense fewer short fields to work with and more opportunities to turn the ball over themselves.

"It's frustrating,'' defensive end Brandon Graham said. "But the way I look at it, I'm glad we got that respect. You better get [the ball] out because we're coming after you.

"We just need to tighten it up a little more and make them hold it a little longer and we'll get there. And those hurries will turn into sacks.''

Before the loss to the Lions, Washburn said he needed to "tinker'' a little with his defensive line rotation.

"There are a couple of guys I'm going to work in a little bit more,'' he said.

One of them almost certainly is Graham. Another could be rookie second-round defensive end Vinny Curry, who has yet to dress for a game.

Graham, the Eagles' 2010 first-round pick, who tore his ACL late in his rookie season, has seen his snap count steadily increase this season, from just four plays in Week 1 to 17 in Week 3 to 21 against the Lions. He's got a half of a sack, four quarterback hits and seven hurries in 79 snaps.

His four QB hits are just two fewer than Jason Babin and Trent Cole, who have played about 200 more snaps than Graham. His seven hurries also are third on the line to Babin's 11 and Cole's 10.

"I'm just trying to get better every day,'' the 6-2, 268-pound Graham said Monday after the Eagles' first practice back after the bye week.

"I'm going to stay a little longer today and get some lifting in and do what I've got to do.''

It's been a long road back for Graham, who has had to spend much of the last year and a half not only recovering from a career-threatening injury but listening to people question the wisdom of the Eagles selecting him over Jason Pierre-Paul in the first round of the draft.

He was activated last November, but only played in three games. Now, he is finally healthy and determined to prove he isn't a first-round bust.

"I feel 100 percent back,'' he said. "This is the best I've ever felt. I was out there today bouncing around, laughing. I'm feeling good. That [bye] week is a really welcome week. I think it helped a lot of guys, rejuvenated us. I'm recharged and ready to go.

"I feel like I'm giving out everything coach [Washburn] wants me to do. All I can do is keep stepping forward and turn it into making plays. I hope no more changes come and we can just keep it going and start winning some more games so coach [Andy] Reid can keep his job here.''

Because he missed all of training camp last year and didn't play much during the season, Graham has had to play catch-up learning Washburn's wide-nine and prove to him that he deserved to be part of the line rotation.

"It's all about trust and I had to start from the ground up to earn that trust,'' he said. "I've tried to prove to him that I'm a dedicated person. I don't get frustrated too much. I come every day to work and that's what I'm going to keep on doing.''

The likely casualties if Washburn increases Graham's workload and decides to activate Curry would be ends Phillip Hunt and Darryl Tapp.

Hunt's playing time has been shrinking. He has played a total of seven snaps in the last two games. Has just one hurry in 62 snaps after opening the year ahead of Graham on the depth chart.

Tapp has played 138 snaps, which is third among the Eagles' ends behind Cole (284) and Babin (278). Seventy-three of those 138 snaps have been pass plays, according to PFF. But he's got little to show for them so far - half a sack, one hit, no hurries.

Next to Cole, Tapp probably is the Eagles' best run-defending end. So unless Washburn is considering moving one of his two versatile tackles - Fletcher Cox or Cullen Jenkins - outside on run downs, he might be reluctant to replace Tapp with Curry.

Graham is hopeful that new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles has some ideas that might loosen up the max-protection the Eagles have been seeing and create some more one-on-one pass-rushing opportunities for himself and his linemates.

"I'm excited just from his meeting with us [on Monday],'' the defensive end said. "I know he's going to look out for everybody. He's going to make sure we don't get beat up as much as we got beat up the last couple of weeks.

"He's going to make sure the tackles don't get doubled as much. We're going to become more unpredictable, if you want to say. I don't know exactly what he's going to do, but I know he's got a plan.''


Contact Paul Domowitch at pdomo@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @Pdomo. For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' blog at eagletarian.com.

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