Eagles' Cox in rush to adjust

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Eagles defensive lineman Fletcher Cox. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)

FLETCHER COX' value to the Eagles' defense can't be measured in statistics.

The third-year defensive end is seventh on the team in tackles, but that means nothing. He doesn't have any of his team's 19 quarterback sacks, but that really doesn't mean much either.

"I can't say enough about Fletcher Cox and what he's done for our pass rush," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "We talk about it all the time. When the sack numbers weren't up and we said there were guys making [the quarterback] move off his spot and breaking his rhythm, Fletcher is probably the biggest guy of moving people off the spot right now.

"The sack numbers haven't fallen his way, but I'm willing to bet that, at some point, those numbers are going to pop for him because he's that close that often."

The 6-4, 300-pound Cox was selected by the Eagles with the 12th overall pick in the 2012 draft to be a three-technique tackle in their 4-3 scheme. Think John Randle. Think Warren Sapp. Think Cortez Kennedy. Think defensive tackle slashing through the gap between the guard and tackle and bringing down the quarterback or the ballcarrier.

Cox got off to an impressive start, registering 5 1/2 sacks as a rookie. But then Andy Reid got fired and Chip Kelly got hired and Kelly deep-sixed the 4-3 and brought in Davis to run a two-gap 3-4.

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A lot of people thought it was a waste putting a guy with Cox' unique combination of size, speed and athleticism in a two-gap 3-4 where the d-linemen spend much of their time keeping blockers off of the linebackers.

Judging by the uninspired way he played early last season, Cox thought that for a brief while also.

Slowly but surely, though, he embraced the new scheme.

"I think I'm doing pretty good with the adjustment," Cox said. "I think I've made a lot of progress. I just want to keep working and do whatever I've got to do to help this team win.

"I think I'm going to be here for a long time. I want to make the best of it because I love everything about this organization."

Even though the numbers may not show it, Cox has developed into a dominant and disruptive player in Davis' scheme.

If the Eagles cool off red-hot Texans running back Arian Foster on Sunday, Cox will be a factor. If they get pressure on quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, Cox will be a factor.

"I wouldn't say I'm [just] occupying blockers," Cox said. "I'm still trying to get to the ball. If you watch the film, I'm not stuck on blockers a whole lot. I get rid of the guy I'm going against and try to get to the ball."

Evan Mathis, the Eagles' All-Pro left guard who has missed the last six games with an MCL sprain, has been playing on the scout team this week as he prepares for his Week 10 return. Has been going mano a mano with Cox. Not fun.

"I had to see a lot of him," Mathis said. "It's almost like I have a new appreciation of him and what those guys [on the defensive line], especially Fletcher, are doing in there.

"He's a very disruptive player. He's the type of guy who can create chaos and allow the other guys to make the plays. He does a great job of playing his role. Sometimes that sacrifices your stats. But when you look at it, what he does is definitely not underappreciated."

Said assistant defensive line coach Mike Dawson: "Fletch is a selfless player. He's doing the techniques and fundamentals. He's out here working hard every day and getting better and better."

Davis and defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro regularly rotate six d-linemen and move them all around, depending on the front and the package.

"Every guy in the room can play every position on the defensive line," Cox said. "Watch the film and you'll see me lining up at nose guard. You'll see me lining up on the tight end. You'll see me lining up at two technique [head up on the guard] and three technique [between the guard and tackle].

"To be able to do all of the techniques, it gives us a lot of versatility in being able to move guys a lot in and out," Dawson said. "Different guys play with different combinations. Sometimes Fletcher could be out there with Vinny [Curry] on one play and then be in the exact same formation and be out there with Bennie Logan. When you have guys who are highly intelligent, it's easy to do that."

Short-yardage struggles

That third-and-1 play at the Arizona 2-yard line late in Sunday's four-point loss to the Cardinals where LeSean McCoy was stuffed for no gain kind of underscored the Eagles' short-yardage problems this season. Last year, the Eagles, who finished first in the league in rushing, were one of the best short-yardage teams in the league, converting 72.9 percent of their "and-one" plays (35-48). Only the Giants (83.7), Chiefs (74.4) and Panthers (73.2) were more efficient. Through seven games this season, they are dead last, converting just 47.1 percent (eight of 17) of their "and-one" plays.

Certainly, the fact that Evan Mathis and center Jason Kelce have missed a combined 10 starts with injuries and right tackle Lane Johnson sat out the first four games serving a PED suspension has been a factor. But it's not the only reason.

On that failed third-and-1 play Sunday, Matt Tobin and David Molk, who have been filling in for Mathis and Kelce, both executed their blocks perfectly. So did tight end James Casey. It was All-Pro left tackle Jason Peters who got hung up and failed to block Cardinals linebacker Larry Foote, who made the stop on McCoy.

"It's been a combination of everything," head coach Chip Kelly said yesterday. "Obviously, when you are missing some guys like that, I think there's a little bit of a different feel for what we've got going on offensive line-wise because we have been juggling a little bit.

"That's not an excuse. We need to do a better job there and we know that. We need to continue to stay on the field in third-down situations. It's about us executing and converting in those situations."

Figuring the Eagles * 

Defensive coordinator Billy Davis has used a four-man rush on 57.7 percent of the opponents' pass plays in the first seven games (169 of 293). The Eagles have registered 12 of their 19 sacks with a four-man rush. Opponents have a 92.4 passer rating when the Eagles have rushed four. A breakdown of their pass rush through seven games:

Cmp.

Rush (No.) Pct. YPA TD/I Sk. Rat.

3 (25). . . 79.2 11.7 3/0 1 155.2

4 (169). . . 58.0 7.7 6/1 12 92.4

5 (71). . . 50.7 4.8 3/2 4 67.1

6 (23). . . 52.4 7.6 3/0 2 117.1

7 (5). . . 40.0 5.2 0/0 0 57.1

* Last season, Nick Foles had the second best red-zone passer rating in the league (116.4). Only the Broncos' Peyton Manning had a better one (121.5). He completed 65 percent of his red-zone attempts (26-for-40) and had 16 TDs and no interceptions. Through seven games this year, Foles is 32nd in the league in red-zone passing with a 70.0 rating, a 43.6 completion percentage, five TDs and two interceptions. The NFL's top-rated red-zone QBs through the first 8 weeks:

C-A Yds. TD/I Rat.

P. Manning. . . 35-44 234 14/0 128.4

M. Ryan. . . 17-22 94 9/0 123.9

T. Brady. . . 24-36 180 13/0 118.1

A. Smith. . . 21-31 146 9/0 117.7

A. Davis. . . 19-28 118 7/0 115.8

* Forty of LeSean McCoy's 137 rushing attempts have resulted in zero or negative yards this season. That's the most in the league. NFL rushing leader DeMarco Murray is second with 34 in 206 rushing attempts. The Lions' Joique Bell is third with 26 in 98 attempts. The Texans' Arian Foster and the Cardinals' Andre Ellington both have 25.

* The Eagles' defense is 26th in touchdown passes allowed (15), 31st in interceptions (three), 15th in yards allowed per attempt (7.3) and 20th in passer rating (93.9), but amazingly, lead the league in opponent completion percentage (57.3). Carson Palmer had just 20 completions in 42 attempts last week. It was the first time in 40 starts that he has completed less than 50 percent of his passes.

* The Eagles were in Arizona territory on 10 of their 14 possessions last week, yet managed just two touchdowns. They ran 37 of their 88 offensive plays - 42 percent - on the Cardinals' side of the 50. And managed just two touchdowns. Nick Foles completed just 11 of 23 passes for 117 yards in Arizona territory. McCoy, who had 83 yards on 21 carries overall, had just 19 on nine carries on the Cardinals' side of the 50.

2-MINUTE DRILL

FROM THE LIP

"When I line up, I think there is no better option than myself. That's how I practice. That's how I play. John [Harbaugh] brought me here to make plays. That's what I'm going to do." - 35-year-old Ravens WR Steve Smith, who is averaging 16.5 yards per catch

"The face of the franchise, that is yet to be determined. That will be determined by his play. The one thing we have had discussions about is the understanding if you are the starting quarterback, there will be people ... that see you and you have to represent yourself and the organization the right way." - Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt on rookie QB Zach Mettenberger taking selfies before his first NFL start last week

"I got greedy. I was trying to play like 24-year-old Mike Vick. You have to play with some type of control." - Jets QB Michael Vick on his erratic performance against the Bills last week after replacing Geno Smith

"You can't blame him for the idiot play-calling at the end of the game, because it was [idiocy]. Run the football. Second-and-3, third-and-3, run the football. You can't put that on Jerry." - NFL Network analyst and former Cowboy Deion Sanders on criticism of his former boss, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones

"Communications. Is that a surprise? Are you shocked?" - Man-of-few-words 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh when asked what his major was in college

BY THE NUMBERS

- The Ravens haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 18 games. That's the longest streak in the league. From '06 to '09, the Ravens went 39 games without allowing a 100-yard rushing performance.

- The Patriots are 30-9 against AFC East opponents since '08. That's the best division record of any team over the last seven seasons.

- Tony Romo is 24-5 as a starter in the month of November. His .828 win percentage in the month is the best of any Super Bowl era quarterback with at least 20 starts.

- The Colts' Andrew Luck has recorded six straight 300-yard passing games. If he makes it seven Monday night against the Giants, he'll tie Peyton Manning for the third longest streak of 300-yard performances. The Saints' Drew Brees has had nine straight 300-yard passing games twice.

THIS AND THAT

- Second-year tight end Zach Ertz has just 24 catches so far this season. But they've been quality catches. He's tied for fourth in the league with 14 third-down receptions. All 14 have resulted in first downs. In last week's loss to the Cardinals, Ertz had four third-down catches, all of which resulted in first downs.

"That's kind of the down where I know I'm going to be in the game right now," Ertz said. "The playing time goes up or down depending on what's going on [in the game]. But on third down, I feel like I've carved out a nice little niche, a nice little role with the team. I feel like I can get open on third down often. Hopefully, I can get more opportunities on first and second down. But right now, my role is to get open on third down and make plays in the red zone. And I think I'm doing a very good job of that."

As a rookie, Ertz played 40.7 percent of the snaps. That percentage figured to escalate this season, and for a while it did. He played 64.5 percent of the offensive snaps in the Eagles' first four games. But he had a poor day blocking in the 26-21 Week 4 loss to the 49ers.

In the last three games, Ertz has played just 45.3 percent of the offensive snaps. "I think it's a work in progress for him," Chip  Kelly said of Ertz' blocking. "He would obviously tell you, and I think everybody would tell you, he's a better receiving tight end right now than he is a blocking tight end. But I think he's worked very, very hard at it in our training sessions and it's starting to translate on the film."

Said Ertz: "I think I'm doing very well. Besides the Niner game, I think I've blocked very well. Obviously I had a few poor blocks in that game. But other than that, I think I've blocked very well. I don't think that's a negative aspect of my game in any sense. Just because it's less than my receiving ability, people kind of blow it out of proportion that I'm a poor blocker. But I don't think that's the case."

- Left guard Evan Mathis, who has been out since Week 1 with an MCL sprain, has been wearing a knee brace in practice and plans to continue wearing it in games when he returns next week against Carolina. Center Jason Kelce has worn a brace on his knee ever since tearing his ACL in 2012. 

But they are the only two Eagles offensive linemen wearing knee braces. Most college programs require offensive linemen to wear them. And there are a handful of NFL teams that also encourage the use of them. But the Eagles leave it up to the players.

"Some teams, all of their [o-linemen] wear them," Kelce said. "The Patriots are big on that. Green Bay, if I'm correct, they have all their guys in them." The brace clearly hasn't affected Kelce's mobility. But many players still prefer not to wear one. Right tackle Lane Johnson wore one in college at Oklahoma, but never was comfortable with it. "I didn't like wearing one," he said. "They made us. It was mandatory. But I didn't like them at all. As far as mobility, they inhibited me a little bit. Not too much. But a little bit." 

On Twitter: @Pdomo

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