Thornton living up to his potential in Eagles' 3-4 defense

RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cedric Thornton takes down Peyton Manning on Sunday, for the Eagles' only sack of the Broncos quarterback.
RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Cedric Thornton takes down Peyton Manning on Sunday, for the Eagles' only sack of the Broncos quarterback.
Posted: October 04, 2013

A YEAR AGO, as Cedric Thornton struggled to get snaps on a 4-12 Eagles team, veteran defensive-line starters Mike Patterson and Cullen Jenkins told Thornton his time would come.

"Last season, they were telling me that next year was going to be my test," Thornton said yesterday, as the Eagles prepared for Sunday's visit to the New York Giants. "They prepared me for it . . . Most likely, you're not going to get too many opportunities, but when you do, you just want to step up to the plate. If you don't, then you never know when that opportunity's going to come again."

This week, Thornton gets a chance to show Patterson and Jenkins what he's learned, when the Eagles visit the Giants, the team that scooped up the two veteran defensive tackles when the Eagles decided to move on without them last offseason. The new Eagles defense hasn't been any better than the awful one Jenkins and Patterson started for last season, but new coach Chip Kelly said yesterday that Thornton "is probably playing our best defensive football right now" as a 3-4 end.

That's interesting, because the other end is Fletcher Cox, the 12th player selected in the 2012 NFL draft. Thornton came to the Eagles in 2011 undrafted out of Southern Arkansas, but football is funny that way: Your pedigree doesn't get you any closer to the quarterback when the ball is snapped.

Cox has shown promise. Even though he was touted at draft time as a hybrid-type player who would flourish in any front, he had never played in a two-gap 3-4 before this season and has had an uneven transition, which Kelly alluded to yesterday.

"Fletch is like everybody on defense, he's learning on the run," Kelly said. Then he noted that sometimes the Eagles still play one-gap 4-3, with which Cox is familiar.

"There are times when Fletch flashes . . . Fletch has a lot of athletic ability . . . At times, he's created some mismatches in there. We just need everybody - offensively, defensively and on special teams - we just need more consistency."

Up in North Jersey, Jenkins is starting for the Giants, Patterson is coming off the bench. Jenkins, who played 81 percent of the snaps in Sunday's loss to Kansas City, missed practice yesterday with knee and Achilles' problems. He told a conference call with Philadelphia-area reporters that he hopes to play against his old team.

Jenkins said he identified with Thornton when they met; Jenkins entered the NFL in 2004 with the Packers, as an undrafted rookie from Central Michigan.

"Cedric's a heckuva player. I used to talk to Ced a lot back there," Jenkins said. "I know it was a lot of guys who helped me along my process. I wouldn't be where I'm at without what they did, so anytime you see guys, you see what they're going through, you always try to lift 'em up and give them whatever help you can give them, because you know what it's like to be in that position."

Jenkins said that when he left the Eagles after being released in February, he figured Cox, with his long arms and elite athleticism, would make the 3-4 transition smoothly, but he wasn't as sure about Thornton.

"My only worry with Cedric adjusting was that he had worked so hard with [former defensive line coach Jim] Washburn and that system of firing straight off the ball . . . When you work so hard on something like that, then it just gets snatched up from under you and you have to adjust, I was just hoping [Thornton and Vinny Curry] would be able to adjust smoothly to it," Jenkins said.

"I play my hardest for whoever coaches me," Thornton, 6-4, 309, said, when asked about new defensive-line coach Jerry Azzinaro. "I try to get the job done, everything he wants me to do, the best way he wants me to do it.

"I want [Patterson and Jenkins] to know their teaching wasn't in vain, and that I paid attention," Thornton said.

Reporters hoping to learn details of Thornton's adjustment - and what might be difficult about going from one-gap to two-gap-rushing upfield as quickly as possible or reading and reacting - were thwarted yesterday by Thornton's decision to answer most questions by talking about the greatness of God. Thornton, son of two clergy members in Tarry, Ark., routinely refers questioners to Philippians 4:13 - "I can do all things through Christ, which strengtheneth me."

Washburn used to call Thornton "country strong." Asked yesterday what he thought that meant, Thornton said: "That means that where I'm from, in the country, we serve God, and he gives me strength."

Curry, who definitely seems more of a pass-rush 4-3 end, has had a tougher time getting on the field than Thornton; Kelly was responding to a question about Curry yesterday when he praised Thornton. Kelly explained that there are only two end spots in a 3-4, and if Curry is playing, either Thornton or Cox is on the bench.

Kelly said Thornton is "playing with great effort. High motor. Very rarely is he out of position."

Thornton led the Eagles with eight tackles (by the team's reckoning) Sunday in Denver, and he notched their only sack of Peyton Manning.

"I don't think you rate success off of individual stats," Thornton said. "I'm a team player. I want to win."

Thornton said he'd never played two-gap before this year, but in the offseason, he watched a lot of film of it, especially the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, where Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis got his start.

Eagles left guard Evan Mathis said Thornton's development has been inspiring to watch. Thornton spent the first 13 games of his 2011 rookie season on the practice squad and never played that year, though he joined the roster in December.

"He always played hard. Wasn't always in the best position. Was on the ground all the time. Was getting knocked around all the time. Kept getting up and kept fighting," Mathis said. "It's rare that I've seen anyone make as much progress as he did over time. You think, 'This guy has no chance.' You see the fight in him, you see a guy who just keeps working, listening to his coaches, and just keeps going. Never ceased making progress. And has come leaps and bounds since his rookie year . . . I think he respects his opportunity. He respects the situation that he came from . . . that kind of shows in his work ethic, day in and day out."

On Twitter: @LesBowen


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