Cox emerging as a force on Eagles' defensive line

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Eagles defensive end Fletcher Cox. (Ron Cortes/Staff Photographer)

The most impressive play in the Eagles' Thanksgiving win over the Dallas Cowboys might not make any highlight reels. It was a second-down run stuff by defensive lineman Fletcher Cox, and promotional campaigns are not usually built around second-down run stuffs.

But DeMarco Murray's 1-yard loss 4 yards away from the end zone helped limit the Dallas Cowboys to a field goal instead of a touchdown in the third quarter of a 33-10 Eagles win, and it exemplified Cox's level of play all afternoon.

"I thought that was the play of the game," Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin said. "He's playing at a Pro Bowl level right now."

Cox finished with four solo tackles, two tackles for losses, one sack, and one quarterback hit. It was among his finest statistical performances of the season, although Cox's presence has not been revealed on the team's stat sheet as much as on the game film.

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That's where it becomes clear that the 23-year-old is developing into one of the NFL's best defensive linemen, and he might have played better than any other player on the field on Thursday.

"I just think Fletch has been a disruptive force all along," coach Chip Kelly said. "He doesn't have a lot of sacks, but it didn't mean he wasn't playing well. He's been playing at a very, very high level. He creates a lot of havoc on the defensive line, especially on the run stuff. He had a big sack again [Thursday]. Things are starting to come to him."

Cox has three sacks in the last four games. The Eagles' defense is not necessarily designed for defensive linemen to accumulate high sack totals. Cox often plays in a "two-gap" role, which means he's responsible for gaps on both sides of the blocker.

Cox is rated as the fourth-best 3-4 defensive end by the website Pro Football Focus, and he has been adept against both the run and the pass. Even though his sack total of three is relatively modest, Cox's 26 hurries are the third-highest total of any player at his position.

The Eagles have 42 sacks this season, although they consider the individual sack to be overrated. That's because a player like Cox could penetrate into the backfield and a player on the edge is the one who brings the quarterback down and gets credit for the sack. The Eagles care more about pressuring the passer, which Cox has done consistently this season.

"Three-four ends are probably the most underrated players out there," Cox said. They don't get a lot of [publicity] in this league. But the folks upstairs know what I'm doing."

Cox, who has one year remaining on his four-year rookie deal, is eligible for a contract extension after this season. The front office knows how valuable he is. The rest of the league is seeing it, too.

"I'm pretty sure teams around the league, they're watching the film, so I'm pretty sure they know what I'm doing," Cox said.

The talent has always been there for Cox, who was the No. 12 overall pick out of Mississippi State in the 2012 draft and blossomed late in his rookie season. But the coaching changes and subsequent change in defensive scheme meant Cox had different responsibilities than he did when Jim Washburn was his position coach, and last season proved to be a transition year while Cox adjusted to the new scheme.

"I know I'm way more comfortable in the defense than I was last year," Cox said. "I know what to expect from my coaches. I know what to expect from the guys behind me. I know what they're doing, I know where they're at most of the time. So it's fun."

The development of the Eagles' young defensive line has been a key part in the team's improvement this season. The Eagles have allowed only one 100-yard rusher in 12 games. The production of the line was on full display when it kept Murray to only his second game of the season with fewer than 100 yards.

The line will be challenged again on Sunday when Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle Seahawks visit. After Thursday, the linemen can no longer contend that they're under the radar.

"When you've got a group of guys playing great on the defensive line," Cox said, "it takes the defense to another level."

 

The Skins game

The NFL announced a 4:30 p.m. starting time for the Eagles' game at Washington on Dec. 20.

 


BY THE NUMBERS

42

Sacks by the Eagles' defense this season.

31

Sacks allowed by the Seahawks.

18

Sacks allowed by the Eagles.


zberman@phillynews.com

@ZBerm