Eagles' Cole abstaining from sacks reluctantly

RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Trent Cole has 71 career sacks, but just three since 2011.
RON CORTES / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Trent Cole has 71 career sacks, but just three since 2011.
Posted: October 04, 2013

FALL BOW SEASON opened Sept. 14 in New Jersey.

Trent Cole already has downed two deer.

Quarterback season opened Sept. 9.

Cole has yet to bag a QB.

He hasn't even scared many.

As a matter of fact, Cole hasn't recorded a sack in six games, dating back to 2012. He has been credited with only two hurries this season.

Mention this to him, and . . . he flashes his million-dollar smile? Sure.

He has been waiting for this issue to arise; and, like any good huntsman, he is prepared.

"I ain't commenting on that," Cole said, with a chuckle.

Why?

"I just can't. I ain't. No way."

He can, of course. He just won't.

He won't because he believes his sack drought is not his fault.

His coaches seem to agree. The defense arguably is the league's worst. The team is 1-3 entering Sunday's visit to the 0-4 Giants.

Nevertheless, they say Cole is playing well; that they have no complaints about his conversion from end to outside linebacker.

"I like Trent's effort," said coach Chip Kelly. "I like what he's doing. He's been asked to do some different things. I think everything we've asked Trent to do, he's been doing."

Perhaps Kelly's satisfaction is warranted.

Kelly knows that, given the proper scheme, or at least the proper assignments, Cole can be unblockable.

Reared as a right defensive end in a traditional four-linemen system, Cole recorded 57 sacks in his first six seasons. He was drafted in the fifth round out of Cincinnati in 2005 and was on his way to being one of the all-time draft-day steals.

He managed 11 sacks in 2011, the first season of the Eagles' 2-year wide-nine debacle. Eleven sacks should have meant a third Pro Bowl appearance, but that honor went to Jason Babin, who notched 18 on the left side as Cole attracted most of the attention. Still, with 68 sacks and averaging nearly 10 per season, Cole was on track to supplant Clyde Simmons as No. 2 in Eagles annals behind Reggie White.

Then, in 2012, Cole had only three sacks, a career low. He had none from Games 4 through 11, the longest sack-less streak of his career. In a league where defenses are predicated on pressuring hyper-protected quarterbacks, that simply cannot happen.

The Eagles went 1-7 in those games.

How important is Cole?

Before the Birds built around running back LeSean McCoy, quarterback Michael Vick or even left tackle Jason Peters, they constructed a defense predicated on Cole's ability to get to the quarterback. Before the 2012 season, they extended his contract and paid him $14.5 million in guaranteed money, with the possibility of making $54 million through 2017.

He was paid to continue a tradition, from White to William Fuller to Hugh Douglas to himself. The Birds tend to invest a lot of money in ends and cornerbacks to create sacks and interceptions.

"It's always been like that here," Cole said.

No more.

The Eagles abandoned the 4-3 scheme when they fired Andy Reid and his staff after an abysmal 2012 season. Kelly hired Billy Davis to implement a 3-4, despite lacking the perfect personnel for it.

First-round defensive end Brandon Graham backs up Cole at outside linebacker. First-round defensive tackle Fletcher Cox now is an end. Second-round outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks now plays inside. Second-round end Vinny Curry cannot get on the field.

And, of course, there is Cole, and his lousy 2012 season, and his fruitless 2013. There are a few possible reasons why Cole no longer hits quarterbacks like they're sitting ducks.

He will be 31 on Saturday. The Eagles once had a flair for abandoning thirtysomethings just before their expiration dates.

Cole lost more than 10 pounds in the offseason preparing to play linebacker. He always played at 270 pounds, which was light for an every-down defensive end. Every ounce helps when you're facing a 320-pound tackle, like the Giants' Will Beatty.

Cole is playing in a third system in three seasons. Old hunting dogs sometimes have a hard time with new tricks.

And, maybe he's just not being asked to rush like he used to.

"He hasn't had the sacks. But the disruption [of] the quarterback . . . has been up there," Davis said.

He said the two-gap system he lately has used, as well as the attempts to disguise his attack when facing veteran passers such as Peyton Manning, has hindered Cole:

"I'm well aware that's harder to pass rush, obviously, than when you're wide in an edge and cutting it loose," Davis said. "Part of that in Denver [on Sunday] was about the disguise of what we were doing for Peyton. So we didn't line up and say, 'Here comes our pass rush.' "

Which, of course, might be the mistake.

Cole on Sunday often had single matchups against Chris Clark, a part-time player making his second career start at left tackle. Cole never sniffed Manning.

To be fair, most teams are aware of Cole's disruptive potential. They often roll away from him; they sometimes double-team him; they usually get rid of the ball very quickly.

Also, to be fair, every team has feasted on quick-hitting routes underneath, dumps to backs or screens, all geared to defang what could be the fiercest element of a largely toothless defense.

However, Cole plays 78 percent of all plays. He should have something to show for it.

Perhaps a little more time from Graham is warranted. He finished 2012 with 5 1/2 sacks despite seeing limited playing time. He has a sack and a hurry this season, despite playing just 22 percent of the time. Graham also has experience at linebacker; he starred at that position in high school.

The Eagles do not appear inclined to give Graham a chance; at least, not at Cole's expense.

Maybe they should ask for more.

"There were elements that I put them in, some techniques that are always advantageous to pass rush, and there are other times they aren't," Davis said. "The production, I think, is going in the right direction."

Cole's production should go in the right direction this weekend.

The Giants have major issues along their line, wracked by injury and inconsistency.

Cole has sacked the Giants' Eli Manning eight times, twice as much as he has sacked any other quarterback.

Maybe, for Cole, hunting season really opens Sunday in New Jersey.


On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

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