The Eagles need to improve the outside pass rush

Trent Cole (58) has one sack, 20 hurries, and one batted pass in 311 pass rushes. He will likely be gone after this season.     RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
Trent Cole (58) has one sack, 20 hurries, and one batted pass in 311 pass rushes. He will likely be gone after this season.     RON CORTES / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 18, 2013

Now that Nick Foles has quelled the outcry for a franchise quarterback - OK, not exactly - the look-ahead crowd has set its sights on the Eagles' next biggest need:

An outside pass rusher.

But is it as simple as looking at the total number of sacks generated by outside linebackers this season (five) and coming to the conclusion that the Eagles need to add a pass rusher either via the draft or free agency?

Or is the argument more nuanced?

Is the sack overrated, as defensive coordinator Bill Davis suggested recently? Does the Eagles' scheme give its outside linebackers fewer pass-rushing opportunities than other 3-4s? And will there even be a "dominating" pass rusher on the market who can contribute immediately?

For the record, Chip Kelly and Davis have said they are satisfied with their pass rush. The Eagles are 29th in the league in sacks per pass play, but the coaches say that pressure has been there, and opposing quarterbacks have not had free rein in the pocket.

"If the sack numbers are high, that's great. If they're not, that's OK, as long as he's uncomfortable," Davis said. "It's when he's sitting back there with a real comfortable look in his eye that I get uncomfortable."

The overall improvement on defense supports Davis' claims. In the last six games, the defense has allowed an average of 17.7 points and 397.2 yards, down from 34.5 points and 446.8 yards in the first four games.

But the strength of this defense has been against the run, and quarterbacks are still having success through the air. Sometimes it seems the Eagles pass defense is hanging by a thread and all it will take is a topflight passer to cut it to the ground.

Much of that falls on the secondary, but it can do only so much if quarterbacks have excess time to find open receivers. It's not as if the Eagles don't have above-average pass rushers, but much of the pressure has come from inside guys like Fletcher Cox and Vinny Curry.

They need more help on the outside. Connor Barwin has gotten into the backfield, but the Eagles need him to drop into coverage more than the other outside linebackers. Trent Cole has struggled. And Brandon Graham has been used sparingly.

Of 301 pass-rush opportunities, Barwin has three sacks, 21 hurries (per Pro Football Focus), and eight batted passes. Cole has one sack, 20 hurries, and one batted pass in 311 pass rushes. And Graham, in only 109 rushes, has one sack, 13 hurries, and no batted passes.

But those numbers alone don't tell the entire story. Each of them has forced quarterbacks to intentionally ground the ball - essentially a sack. And they don't rush as often as other 3-4 outside linebackers.

Barwin rushes on 62.7 percent of pass plays. Cole (80.4 percent) and Graham (80.7) rush more often, but not as much as some of the outside linebackers who lead the league in sacks, for instance.

The Colts' Robert Mathis (131/2 sacks) rushes 94.8 percent of time; the Ravens' Terrell Suggs (nine sacks), 89 percent; the Chiefs' Tamba Hali (nine sacks), 87.3 percent.

But the Chiefs' Justin Houston is far more productive, not only because he has 11 sacks rushing 77.3 percent of the time, but because he can drop into coverage and confuse offensive linemen.

"When we ran a 3-4 [in Houston] with Mario Williams and me, Mario Williams was the guy rushing every time," said Barwin, who played his first four seasons with the Texans. "It was no disguise to have five guys up on the line. But our defense, when you have five guys up on the line, you really don't know who are the four that are coming."

And that's one of the main reasons Kelly and Davis prefer a 3-4 front. With a 4-3, offensive lines generally know which four pass rushers they'll have to block unless there's a blitz.

"Not knowing if they're going to come is the trick," Eagles guard Todd Herremans said. "You got a guy down in a three-point stance at the end of the line you can pretty much bet that he's going to come."

But when an outside linebacker drops, the linemen sometimes have to read and react and change their blocking assignments. Tackles also don't have as many opportunities to adjust to pass-rushing moves as they do facing one 4-3 defensive end most of the game.

Of course, elite ends have more time to figure out how to beat tackles. And if you have a dominant outside pass rusher, why would you have him drop in the first place? If the Eagles had DeMarcus Ware, now an end after many years at outside linebacker, or Mathis, they would certainly rush them as often as the Cowboys and Colts.

"But how much are those guys getting paid, $12 million a year?" Barwin said. "Nobody on this roster is getting paid $12 million a year."

There won't be any free agents worth that kind of cash next offseason. The Redskins' Brian Orakpo will likely be available. The New York Jets' Calvin Pace is having a fine season, but he'll be 33 next year. The Cowboys' Anthony Spencer had season-ending microfracture knee surgery in September.

The draft is trickier. The top two prospects - South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and UCLA's Anthony Barr - are likely to be top five picks. There will be a lot of movement between now and May's draft, but there could be a significant drop-off after the first two.

But the Eagles may only want a prospect they can develop. Barwin will be back next season. Cole almost certainly will not. The feeling here is that Graham will return for the final year of his contract and take Cole's spot as a rookie grows into the position.

That may not satisfy the look-ahead crowd, but there are still six games to play, and then there is this from Barwin:

"I still think me and Trent could get more sacks," he said.


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