Fletcher Cox draws a lot of attention - from fan and foe. A mega-contract has left some critical of the defensive tackle because he hasn't had a sack in the Eagles' last seven games. But what many have failed to see are the multiple blockers Cox has had to contend with on a consistent basis this season.
In the game Monday against the Packers, for instance, Cox had only four one-on-one opportunities out of the 27 times quarterback Aaron Rodgers dropped back on a pure pass play. But the Eagles' defensive ends collectively had 58 one-on-one assignments - Brandon Graham 21, Connor Barwin 20, Vinny Curry 12, and Marcus Smith 5 - and they, too, failed to record a sack.
But Cox drew a large share of the blame for the Eagles' inability to pressure Rodgers. His $100 million contract certainly has made him more of a target when the defense has struggled this season. And a costly unnecessary-roughness penalty didn't help, either. But Cox hasn't been the problem.
"The best way to help an individual player is the other players do [their] job and he does his job the best he can," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Thursday. "You can't get frustrated and you can't press to try to make a play, because that's when you start bleeding in other places. I think Fletch understands that it's the performance of our defense. He's not a selfish player."
There's an argument to be made that Cox hasn't been enough of the solution. But when Graham has been off his game, there hasn't been another edge rusher to fill the void and make offenses pay for doubling Cox.
Graham has rarely had weeks when he's been shut down, and he's been as versatile as any defensive end in the NFL this season. But he's not an elite edge rusher. There are only so many in the league - Von Miller, Khalil Mack, and Justin Houston probably rank as the top three - but the Eagles will struggle to attain one this offseason because they already have so much invested in the position and because they have other needs to fill.
The 28-year-old Graham carries only a $7.5 million salary-cap number in 2017. But Curry, who signed a five-year, $46.5 million deal in January, will cost $9 million next year. He has just 11/2 sacks this season and only five in his last 29 games.
Sacks, of course, can be overrated. A lot of Barwin's strengths don't show up on the stat sheet, but that was truer when he played as a 3-4 outside linebacker. None of his $8.35 million cap number next year is guaranteed and it appears unlikely that he'll be back - at least at that figure.
Smith, who hasn't come close to living up to being drafted in the first round, will count for around $2.4 million against the cap in 2017. But the Eagles would save only about $1.5 million if they were to cut or trade him. So he could be back for depth, along with deep reserve Steven Means.
Cox's deal - six years for $102.6 million - makes him the third highest-paid defensive player in the NFL behind Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Miller. The Eagles under Andy Reid and Joe Banner would have been reluctant to pay that much to a defensive tackle.
The theory is that it's easier to concentrate blockers on interior linemen than on the edge. Cox had one year left on his contract and the Eagles could have also used their franchise designation this offseason - and two more - if they didn't want to extend him long-term. There is always the risk of a holdout, though.
Cox exploded out of the gate in his first four games, though, and had four sacks. While his effort hasn't dropped off, and his production to an extent, he hasn't been as dominant since. The additional attention he has received has been a significant reason.
"You could beat your man all day, and if the quarterback is making quick decisions, smart decisions, he's not going to get hit," Cox said. "Most quarterbacks make their mind up - they know what type of front we've got."
To counter Schwartz's aggressive scheme, quarterbacks have increasingly gotten the ball out quicker on short, timing routes or screens. The Eagles had the best sacks-per-pass-attempt average (10.1) in the first six games (20 of 199), but have been among the worst in the league (3.3) in their last five (6 of 180).
"We're working on some things you're going to see," Graham said. "I ain't going to say right now, but it's in the works as far as us rushing better as ends, making sure we contain and not let the quarterback escape."
If the ends can get to quarterback Andy Dalton this Sunday, it should force the Bengals to pay more attention to the outside rush. And that should benefit Cox, who has had to hear more criticism than is warranted.
"It starts to get to you sometimes because you're like, 'I haven't had a sack in five weeks,' " Graham said. "I heard him say it one time and I said it, too. . . . The individual stuff starts to come out a little more. But like I told him, 'Stay on track.' "
Should Jalen Mills start at cornerback?
"That's a good question," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Wednesday.
Pederson, of course, doesn't really make that decision. Jim Schwartz does. The Eagles defensive coordinator was asked the same question a day later and pointed to Mills' "rough outing" against the Seahawks two weeks ago as one reason for not yet starting the rookie.
"He's going to have some ups and downs," Schwartz said. "We're trying to manage that corner position and trying to get a good rotation in there. I think all those guys have made enough plays to continue to deserve playing."
The rotation has consisted of Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin starting, with Mills mostly substituting in for the latter. None of the three corners has played particularly well this season, and as Schwartz noted, Mills has been inconsistent.
But he was the most effective of the trio against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Monday, and with five games to go and the playoffs almost out of reach, the Eagles may want to see more of Mills.
The seventh-round draft pick said he believes he has improved with each game.
"It comes with the film study, learning from the older guys," Mills said. "But I feel it's more me getting adjusted to the game."
Mills said he has played more press than off coverage at the line because as a rookie, he has felt that more quarterbacks have been looking to challenge him underneath. Rodgers took advantage of McKelvin and Carroll whenever they played soft.
"You just want to give the quarterback different looks," Mills said. "You go press too much and they go fade, fade, fade or the back shoulder."
Formula for winning
The Eagles scored an average of 30.1 points in their first three games. Few expected them to keep that pace, and as the season has progressed the offense has scored less and less.
In the first quarter of the season, the Eagles offense averaged 28.8 points. In the second, it averaged 18.3 points. And over the last three games the Eagles have averaged only 17.3 points.
"You go back and there's always five or six plays that you say, 'We just missed one here, we could have done a little bit better here,' " Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Thursday when asked about the offense's recent lack of production.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins said after last month's loss to the New York Giants that the Eagles' formula for winning was for the offense to control the clock and to take points when afforded the opportunity, and that should be enough as long as the strengths of the team - defense and special teams - did their jobs.
Jenkins, though, said he was pleased with the offense's performance in a 27-13 loss to the Packers because the defense didn't hold up its end of the formula and Green Bay was able to extend drives. "We understand defensively we don't expect our offense to go out there and put up 27 points. That's just not where we are," Jenkins said Wednesday. "But we feel like if we do our jobs defensively, our offense gives us enough to win those games."
Five questions: Brent Celek
1. What's the first position you played? Fullback/running back in second grade.
2. Who was your football hero growing up? Jerome Bettis, hands down.
3. What's your favorite football memory? When we beat Dallas here to go to the playoffs [in 2008].
4. Who is the toughest opponent you ever faced? [Current Broncos and former Cowboys outside linebacker] DeMarcus Ware 10 years ago.
5. Who is the best teammate you ever had? Todd Herremans.
Inside the game
Isaac Seumalo made his first career start on Monday after he found out only hours before that right guard Brandon Brooks wouldn't be able to go because of an illness.
The rookie said that there were some early nerves but that he felt comfortable for most of the outing.
"There's a little bit of that shock and awe when you first go in," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "He handled himself well, but you can still tell a little bit [that it was his] first game but you can see the signs."
Seumalo displayed explosiveness and agility in the running game and was able at times to successfully shift protection toward stunts and twists. But he said he sometimes got too deep in pass pro drops.
"I thought I did some things well," Seumalo said. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland "said that, too - and other things I didn't do as well, which is disheartening."
Wendell Smallwood, another rookie, also made his first career start against the Packers. With Ryan Mathews unable to practice all last week, Smallwood prepared longer than Seumalo for his debut.
The running back played 22 of 59 snaps, rushed nine times for 37 yards and had one catch for 10 yards. One of the concerns coming into the season was whether Smallwood could stay on the field on third down and block when needed. He has struggled.
"It's been a challenge," Smallwood said.
He said the most difficult part hasn't been the technical part of blocking, but rather knowing whom to block.
"Getting to the right guy or picking it up and seeing it first," Smallwood said.
He said that running backs coach Duce Staley hasn't second-guessed him as much over the last few games when it has come to identifying his assignment.
"He shows not only a willingness," Reich said, "but he shows the aptitude to know who to block."
Inside the locker room
This weekend, NFL players will be permitted to wear custom footwear as long as the cleats benefit a particular cause or charity.
Many Eagles have already started to break in their special cleats. A group of about a dozen is wearing the same brand with the same design - a white shoe that has the initials "AO1" and the biblical verse Romans 5:8 ("But God demonstrates his own love for us . . .") imprinted on each side.
"Chris Maragos came up with the idea and then a bunch of us talked about the best way to share that message," Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz said. "We came up with what verse illustrated the Gospel in a great way."
Receiver Jordan Matthews handled the production of the cleat, while Wentz designed the illustrations. The latter has "AO1" - which stands for "Audience of One" - tattooed on his wrist and other players have adopted the phrase.
"It's his motto," backup quarterback Chase Daniel said of Wentz. "But I think other guys in the locker room maybe just don't have it tattooed on themselves. But they definitely believe."
The players plan on auctioning off the cleats, but have yet to decide on which charity or church to send the donation.
By the numbers
9-1: Eagles' record against AFC teams in the last three seasons, which is the best interconference mark in the NFL over that span.
6.3: Carson Wentz's passer rating when pressured by the Packers (15 of 44 drops) on Monday. He completed three passes for 22 yards.
4: Number of turnovers the Eagles have forced over the last five games. They had 12 in the first six games.