Updated: Friday, February 9, 2018, 2:52 PM
In the afterglow of the Eagles’ Super Bowl win, we offer a three-part series that examines the potential for the team’s defense to improve further with the growth of key young players.
Suddenly, there it was.
Like a puppy delighted to see its owner come home from work, the football hopped off the turf at U.S. Bank Stadium and into the hands of rookie end Derek Barnett. He caught it, almost despite himself; almost in disbelief that he now held what Tom Brady had just fumbled.
The recovery, with a little more than two minutes to play, essentially sealed the Eagles’ first Super Bowl title in the 52-year history of the game. It delivered validation to an entire region. It did what Reggie White, perhaps the greatest Eagle, could never do in Philadelphia.
It brought the Lombardi Trophy home.
Super Bowl LII was in the bag.
The play itself was a metaphor for Barnett’s rookie season: knocked aside, marginalized, but always moving forward.
He’s 6-foot-3 but he weighs just 259 pounds, which makes Barnett the lightest defensive lineman on the roster (Bryan Braman is lighter but plays only special teams). That will probably change, since Barnett also is the youngest defensive lineman. He’s a 21-year old, first-round pick who left Tennessee a year early, but already with Reggie’s sack record in his back pocket.
He isn’t identical to Reggie, who built so much of his game on pure power; but Barnett is quick, like Reggie; and he is fast, like Reggie; and he is utterly relentless, and relentlessness is what made Reggie the best in history.
The cleverest of left tackles know how to handle a player such as Barnett; to a degree, at least. They counteract the quickness and the speed by giving ground, impeding, pushing him off balance with their hands. If they get a grip on him, they stop him in his tracks.
That’s where “utterly relentless” comes in. There is no way to completely handle “utterly relentless.”
The Patriots trailed by five points with 2 minutes, 16 seconds to play. In other words, they had the Eagles right where they wanted them.
Brady has five Super Bowl rings because he has five game-winning drives in Super Bowls.
He looked likely to record a sixth. The Patriots had scored a touchdown on each of their three second-half possessions. The Eagles defensive line — so deep and talented that Barnett is not a starter — hadn’t sniffed Tom Terrific all night.
That changed on this play. It was a play that started out horribly for Barnett.
Barnett, from an upright stance, charged at left tackle Nate Solder, who is 6-8 and weighs 325 pounds. Barnett paused briefly, as if to make a move; or, perhaps, simply reconsidering his career choice. Solder simply pushed him to the ground.
Play over, right?
Not for Barnett. He collapsed to all fours but immediately sprang up and pushed back toward the line of scrimmage, where he knew Brady would be headed. Solder never reengaged.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the line, Brandon Graham had beaten right guard Shaq Mason and stripped Brady of the ball.
It hit the ground, took one happy hop to the left, then found a home in Barnett’s arms.
“It was a good bounce. Right into my hands,” Barnett said.
He smelled of the sweat and champagne that permeated the Eagles’ Super Bowl locker room, and he was downright bubbly. He’d been a part of the biggest defensive play in Eagles history. He’d won the Super Bowl as a rookie, just as safety Malcolm Jenkins had eight years before, with the Saints.
This happens every year, right?
“No, man, I know,” Barnett said, laughing, as he finally pulled off his jersey and pads. It was an hour and a half after the game. “It doesn’t happen every year.”
Jenkins returned to the playoffs twice with the Saints but waited almost a decade to get back to a Super Bowl. The Eagles might have a better chance to play next year in Atlanta, if only because there is so much talent returning and there is so much room for growth.
All seven defensive linemen who make up the core rotation are expected to return. Barnett might even start. Like most NFL players, he didn’t get to the league by watching.
“It was different for me, because I was always starting, but coming in here, I knew what was up,” Barnett said. “They picked me at No. 14. I knew I had to come in and just do my job and don’t worry. I didn’t try to go out of my frame. I wanted to just do my job.”
His job was to be a backup. That must be scary reality for the rest of the league. This defensive line led a unit that was fourth in yards and points and was No. 1 against the run.
Vinny Curry started ahead of Barnett to bolster that run defense. However, Barnett was part of a pass-rush package in which veteran Chris Long played left end; which moved Graham, the left end, to left defensive tackle; and pushed Fletcher Cox from left tackle to right; which put him beside Barnett.
They collected only 38 sacks, tied for 15th in the league, but they led the league in quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Barnett had five sacks in the regular season and added another in the NFC championship game against the Vikings.
He consistently played about 40 percent of the defensive snaps, but, considering the camaraderie and the winning, playing time didn’t matter.
“It was fun, man. Coming to work every day was fun. Everybody cracking on each other, but when we step out on the field, we work hard,” Barnett said. “All we wanted to do is win. Whatever position they put me in, I’d try to make the most out of my opportunity. I didn’t care if it was 10 plays, 15 plays.
“I’m going to be on that ball, though. I don’t care how many plays they give me.”
He insisted this attitude won’t change next season. Not if he gains 20 pounds of muscle. Not if he gets a sack per game as a backup. As a starter or sub, Barnett wants only the defense to be as good as it can be.
How good can it be?
“We can be really good,” he said. “It starts with us. We just can’t hurt ourselves. The sky’s the limit. We can be as good as we want to be.”