Eagles' Cox redefining himself

Posted: August 21, 2014

A FEW YEARS AGO, the Eagles employed a defensive-line coach who was concerned with sacking the opposing quarterback, and not much else.

Jerry Azzinaro would be the polar opposite of that. It's very unlikely that the Birds' current d-line coach and Jim Washburn ever have a drink together when NFL folk gather, at the Scouting Combine or the Senior Bowl.

"I expect to win the Super Bowl," Azzinaro, who also carries the title of assistant head coach, said yesterday, when asked if he expects certain sack numbers from Fletcher Cox, now that the 12th overall pick in the 2012 draft is a two-gapping 3-4 end. "I think if the correlation of sack numbers equaled Super Bowl, I think everyone would take their guys and put 'em in the widest ."

Actually, coach, we tried that here . . .

"I have no comment on that," Azzinaro said, shaking his head. "Unless you're not aware of what they keep score on, you're always trying to find out ways, how can we win this possession? When you add up the possessions at the end of the game, plus or minus 12 possessions a game. We're looking for how you can concentrate and focus on each possession, how do you win those possessions? Most of the time, you can win those possessions if you control the run game."

This was never the Eagles' view of defense during the Andy Reid years, regardless of the defensive coordinator. Reid's teams threw the ball much more than they ran, and they felt the rest of the serious contenders were more or less built the same way. Reid wanted a defense designed to stop his offense, which was what attracted him to his first and most successful defensive coordinator, Jim Johnson. Johnson, coaching in Indianapolis, had given the Brett Favre-West Coast offense Packers fits when Reid was an assistant there.

Funny how that works: the Eagles now run a two-gap 3-4 because that is what the current coach, Chip Kelly, thinks is a tougher challenge for his offense, which stretches defenses horizontally and runs more than it passes, current defensive coordinator Bill Davis explained to reporters yesterday.

So, two very different ideas of how to play defense, one thing both have in common up front: Cox, the 4-3 tackle turned 3-4 end, still just 23 years old, whose pedigree says he should be a playmaker, on a defense that lacks those.

It seems like ancient history now, but the night the Eagles moved up from 15th to 12th overall in the 2012 draft to nab Cox, from Mississippi State, the most excited man at NovaCare was Washburn.

"He's an exploder, and he's tough. If they can't explode, I don't want 'em. If they don't love football, I ain't got no use for 'em. He explodes and he can play and he likes it and he's passionate," Washburn said. "When God made him, he meant him to play in this system right here."

The plans of the deity notwithstanding, Washburn and his wide-nine setup are long gone. Cox, who notched 5 1/2 sacks as a rookie, managed only three last season - but his "hurries" increased from 14 to 39, which Pro Football Focus said ranked him second in the NFL among 3-4 defensive ends.

Cox, who yesterday deflected an interview request, said when camp began that he was "ready to take off," an evaluation Azzinaro endorsed yesterday, while unwittingly producing a counterpoint to Washburn's words in 2012.

"Big, strong, athletic guy that can play in any system God invented," Azzinaro said.

"I know how to sack the quarterback. If sacks were our only goal, I think I could get that done," Azzinaro said. "But that might increase our x-play total." (X-plays are gains of 20 yards or more.)

Davis, asked yesterday if Cox can ever be a double-digit sack producer in this setup, said: "Yes, I think he can. Because on third down, he's a three-technique again ."

Davis said Cox' second year in his defense will be better than 2013.

"Fletcher Cox is a talented man," Davis said. "Really, he's got a lot of growth ahead of him, and a good skill set. I like where his mindset is right now. I think he had a great camp, worked his tail off. haven't played a lot of snaps, we rotate, so the numbers won't be up right now."

While Cox, 6-4, 300, might flash more as a sack threat in a 4-3, Azzinaro said he has a strong overall game as a 3-4 end, which is exactly what the current regime covets. By way of analogy, Azzinaro invoked the San Antonio Spurs.

"They have five of the purest basketball players in the game. They can all shoot, they can all dribble, they can all rebound, they can all pass," Azzinaro said. "I think when you look at 3-4 spacing . . . you're looking for a guy that can block-protect, that can shed a blocker, that can tackle, that can rush the quarterback - you're looking for a guy who can kind of do it all. You can't cheat football. Ultimately, if you want to sustain success, you sustain success by having well-rounded guys."

In an interview with the Eagles' website this week, Cox said the coaches "use me in a lot of different ways. I just take it as a plus, and roll with it."

Typically in a 3-4, the end occupies a blocker for a linebacker to make a play. "You have to sacrifice for the people behind you, the people beside you," Cox said.

Cox said he doesn't need to shirk his gap responsibilities, go chasing sacks or "try to be Superman" for the Eagles' defense to succeed.

"I'll just take it and run with it - do what the coach asks me to do, take care of business, and I think I'll be real productive at it," he said.


On Twitter: @LesBowen

Blog: ph.ly/Eagletarian

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