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The Eagles’ Pass Rush Has Only Scratched the Surface

Philly’s front four showed flashes of brilliance under coordinator Jim Schwartz last year. With a few key additions, that group has a chance to go from tantalizing to utterly terrifying this season.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The day after he was traded to the Eagles in early April, Tim Jernigan flew to Philadelphia to meet with his new bosses. The Ravens had dealt the 24-year-old defensive tackle in a package that sent Baltimore the 74th pick in the 2017 draft. Not long after Jernigan arrived at the Eagles’ facility, defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz pulled him into his office.

Philly was able to pry Jernigan, a second-round pick in the 2014 draft, away from the Ravens on the cheap because the fourth-year Florida State product is set to enter the final year of his rookie contract. After handing nose tackle Brandon Williams a five-year, $52 million extension earlier this offseason, Baltimore’s front office knew it wouldn’t soon dole out another huge payday to an interior defensive lineman, so it opted to recoup value for Jernigan instead of letting him walk in 2018 free agency. For Jernigan, coming to the Eagles in a contract year represents a chance to pump up his value at the perfect time. He told The Ringer about his initial meeting with Schwartz after the Eagles’ first practice of training camp Thursday, recalling how the coach opened that conversation by trying to put dollar signs in his eyes. “[Schwartz] explained that he had a bunch of guys who played this exact position that he put in pretty good situations for the rest of their life,” Jernigan says.

Schwartz listed off names like Ndamukong Suh, whom he mentored for four seasons as the head coach of the Lions. He mentioned Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes, who landed life-changing deals after playing under Schwartz during his lone year as Buffalo’s defensive coordinator. “He just told me that if I could trust in him, believe in him, and do what he said, everything was gonna be all right,” Jernigan says. “That’s what I plan to do.”

The system Schwartz brought to Philadelphia last season — his first as the Eagles defensive coordinator — makes for a pass rusher’s paradise. His front four are always attacking, hell-bent on penetrating and disrupting rather than reading and reacting. “Naturally, defensive linemen are aggressive with their mentality,” says defensive end Chris Long, who signed with the Eagles in March after spending one season in New England. “[Schwartz’s defense] matches up with that aggressive mentality. You’re playing run and pass, but you’re not slowing down for much.”

For linemen looking to get after the quarterback, there may be no better scheme and no better coordinator. And this year, Schwartz couldn’t ask for a better stable of players to make his defense go. Jernigan, Long, and 2017 first-round pick Derek Barnett join established stars Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox to constitute what could be the league’s deepest, most talented, and most terrifying stable of pass rushers. Philadelphia took the strength of its roster in 2016 and amplified it. In the process, it created a unit that has a chance to take over the NFL.

Brandon Graham (Getty Images)
Brandon Graham (Getty Images)

Graham’s first experience with Schwartz — and with the coach’s willingness to be candid about topics that many of his peers won’t broach — came more than seven years ago, at the 2010 Senior Bowl. Schwartz, then the Lions head coach, was in charge of the North team, and he approached a fellow coach with a small wager after watching Graham harass offensive linemen for a few practices. “He bet on me, that I was going to win MVP,” Graham says. “We were all around each other before the game, just talking and having fun, and he told me.” Graham did just that, racking up five tackles with two sacks in a performance that helped make him attractive to the Eagles with the 13th overall pick in that year’s NFL draft.

The early years of Graham’s career were full of fits and starts. He tore his right ACL late in his rookie campaign, an injury that also kept him sidelined for most of his sophomore season. His first chance to be a full-time starter came when he notched 5.5 sacks in 2012, but just as Graham began to settle into the 4–3 defense the Eagles ran under Andy Reid, the longtime coach was fired. With the Chip Kelly regime came a new defensive coordinator (Bill Davis), a new scheme, and a new style of play. Graham has long been regarded as a player who outperforms his stats — the four-year, $26 million extension he signed in 2014 was considered a bargain even at the time — but his game lagged as an outside linebacker in a primarily 3–4 defense.

Graham learned many of the principles of his approach from former Philly defensive line coach Jim Washburn, a master of teaching the one-gap attacking style of 4–3 who worked under Schwartz in Tennessee for eight seasons before coming to the Eagles in 2011. So when Graham learned that Schwartz had been hired by Philadelphia after head coach Doug Pederson replaced Kelly in January 2016, the veteran defensive end knew he’d have a chance to alter the trajectory of his career. “[Washburn’s lessons] kind of stuck with us from the beginning,” Graham says. “And when we got Jim Schwartz, it kind of made it even more hype. Now we’ve got the guy to actually run this defense. We can really take it to the next level.”

Seven years into his Eagles tenure, Graham exploded in Schwartz’s system. Though he finished last season with only 5.5 sacks, the figure exemplifies that judging a player by his sack total can be misleading. Graham tallied 83 quarterback pressures, per Pro Football Focus, trailing only NFL Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack. Graham has the physical pedigree of a first-round pick, and his game is defined by constant, maniacal effort.

Graham’s 2016 tape looks like a loop of a man being repeatedly shot out of a circus cannon. “I’ve always admired Brandon’s game,” Long says. “He’s a complete player. His stats aren’t always going to jump out at you, but when you turn on the film, he’s going to jump off the film.” The singular attacking objective of Schwartz’s scheme allowed Graham to tap into his full capacity as a pass rusher, and many thought that it would do the same for Cox.

Coming off a 9.5-sack campaign in 2015, the Eagles rewarded Cox with a jaw-dropping contract extension last summer — a six-year deal with $63.3 million guaranteed, the highest guarantee ever handed to a defensive tackle, topping even those given to Suh and Dareus. In Schwartz’s scheme, Cox opened last fall on a tear, piling up four sacks in the Eagles’ first four games, including a pair in Philly’s 34–3 beatdown of the Steelers in Week 3. He appeared poised to set a new career high in sacks and bolster a front four that would decimate offensive lines across the league.

But then opposing teams, as they often do, adapted. No matter whether Cox lined up as a 1-technique (inside the guard) or 3-technique (outside the guard), offenses routinely sent their center to Cox to provide extra help.

Those double teams meant that Philly’s defensive tackle opposite Cox regularly saw single matchups, but the run-stuffing Bennie Logan (now in Kansas City) and the undersized Vinny Curry (now a starting defensive end for the Eagles) rarely took advantage. That stagnation prompted the team’s offseason pursuit of pass-rushing reinforcements, and Jernigan’s addition could usher in a new chapter. “Last year when [Cox] had such a good start that first month, teams adjusted,” Schwartz said during a press conference earlier this week. “They started taking him away, and we didn’t win enough one-on-ones away from him because that other tackle got the one-on-ones. Well, that happened in OTAs, and Timmy’s able to get good pressure.”

Fletcher Cox (Getty Images)
Fletcher Cox (Getty Images)

Schwartz’s scheme is predicated on creating pressure with its front four more than any other unit’s in the league. Philly rushed four on 79 percent of its defensive plays last year, according to Football Outsiders, the highest mark in the NFL. It also finished third in pressure rate (generating heat on 31.6 percent of snaps), up from 19th the season before Schwartz arrived. The Eagles had a consistently effective pass rush, but when that group faltered, the backside of the defense was exposed.

The hope in bringing Jernigan, Long, and Barnett aboard is that a few key additions will unlock Philly’s massive defensive upside. The group has the potential to make a similar leap to the one the Falcons’ offense did last year, when an Atlanta unit that showed inconsistent flashes of brilliance under a new coordinator in the 2015 campaign used a handful of key signings (such as center Alex Mack and speed-demon wide receiver Taylor Gabriel) to ascend to higher plane and earn a Super Bowl berth last season. With a line that can go five, six, even seven deep, the Eagles believe they can terrorize opposing offensive lines, an ability that should help a team that went 7–9 in 2016 reach a new dimension. “If you want to bring pressure, you’ve got to bring eight guys on Sunday that can get [to the quarterback],” Long says. “That’s the way the NFL has evolved, into more of a rotational league. You need to be fresh to go 100 miles per hour.”

Jernigan says that he’s still getting familiar with his new role. Both in Baltimore and at Florida State, his job focused on getting the best of an opposing offensive lineman rather than manning a specific gap. Playing defensive line was more control than chaos.

Now, for the first time in his football life, he’s encouraged to tear after the quarterback at all costs, and he’s part of a group that has a chance to be the best in the league. “Other defenses I’ve played in — not just in Baltimore, but high school, college — if I would have done things a certain way, I probably would have gotten yelled at,” Jernigan says. “Here, it’s perfect.”

Asked how it feels, Jernigan pauses before flashing a gold-plated smile. “It’s gonna be fun, man.”