Rotation Crystalizing, Eagles Need D-line to Be ‘group That Leads This Team'

For a team reliant on fastballs, pitchers are pretty important.

In fact, they’re everything.

The Eagles’ pitchers — starters and relievers — are their defensive linemen. They’re the ones throwing the fastballs. They’re the ones making the entire defense work. Because without them, it wouldn’t.

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“We have to be the group that leads this team,” Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox said late Monday morning after finding a patch of shade post-practice. “We all expect that and the coaches expect that. As far as guys in the room, we’ve got guys in the room that can get after the quarterback. We’ve got guys in the room that can stop the run.

“We know our job. We know what we have to do. And we know we have to lead this team. Not just as a defensive line, but as a defense.”

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz brought his aggressive 4-3 scheme and Wide 9 front to town this offseason. The success of his defense is predicated on pass rush being generated by the line, instead of over-blitzing.

It’s pretty simple: No pressure up front, no success on defense.  

“Yeah, I’d agree with Fletch,” defensive end Connor Barwin said. “It’s up to us to get pressure with the four guys up front. That’s the way this defense is built, that’s the way this defense has success.”

This offseason, the term “fastball” made a comeback in Philly. It’s a term you might remember from the Andy Reid days, but it really fits what Schwartz wants to do as well. But in order for the pass-rushers to consistently be aggressive, there needs to be a rotation.

And in the first preseason game last Thursday against the Bucs, we got a sense of what that rotation will look like.

On the first three series of the game (11 plays), the Eagles used six different combinations on the front four, which included eight different players — four tackles and four ends. Brandon Graham and Barwin started the game at end, but Vinny Curry came in soon after and Steven Means got one rep. Cox and Bennie Logan also started but gave way to Beau Allen and Taylor Hart (Mike Martin was inactive) on the tail end of a long first-quarter drive.

“Yeah, we're keeping an open mind,” Schwartz said on Sunday night. “We're going to have some sort of rotation, just to try to keep guys fresh. We're pretty well documented saying that. I think you're at your best when you can keep guys fresh and they can be giving maximum effort when they are out there. You just can't play wide open for however many plays you're going to be out there if you're out there every snap.

“It will be merit-based. If we have four ends that merit play time, we'll rotate four guys. If we have four tackles that merit play time, we'll rotate four tackles. If we don't, then we'll change those numbers. We haven't really made those decisions yet.”

While Curry and Barwin had been working as starters throughout the spring and early in training camp, it’s almost safe to say the Eagles actually have three starting defensive ends. Curry was listed as the starter Thursday, but Graham was on the field for the first snap at left defensive end.

In the spring, the only difference, according to Graham, was that the official starters get their names announced in the stadium.

“I anticipate us being a lot fresher during the game, get our rest real quick and get right back out there,” Graham said Monday.

“Well, I think you try to go as hard as you can all the time,” Barwin said, “but I think it will help out as the season goes on, as we get to the second half of the season, as we’re playing into December. I think that’s when it will really start paying dividends.”

The basic idea is to keep all of the rotational players fresh, which can give the defensive line an advantage over fatigued offensive linemen. But it works only if the team has enough capable backups to feel comfortable taking starters off the field.

As long as they have capable backups, the rotation should work.

“While you’re in there, just play hard,” Logan said. “It’s like baseball with relievers. Coach says the main thing is fastball, fastball and the next guy just comes in and is ready to go.”

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