Eagles' Fletcher Cox raising his level of play in playoffs

Eagle defensive tackle Fletcher Cox runs off the field celebrating the Eagles victory over the Falcons in the NFC Divisional playoff game on Saturday January 13, 2018. .

Fletcher Cox was working under the hood of a race car in his native Mississippi in June 2016 when his agent called about the terms of a six-year, $103 million contract extension that would make Cox the Eagles’ highest-paid player.

From that day, the stakes were raised. Cox had an obligation to be a franchise cornerstone and the best player on the Eagles defense. He needed performances like the one he gave Saturday in the  playoff win over the Atlanta Falcons, when Cox took 90 percent of the snaps and finished with one sack, two quarterback hits, and two tackles for losses while dominating the line of scrimmage.

“I said to myself, ‘Go out and take over this game, and everybody else will follow,’ ” Cox said. “I think it kind of rubbed off.”

Coach Doug Pederson called Cox a “man on a mission.” His teammates marveled. They’ve seen excellence from Cox in ways that cannot always be appreciated unless you play with him, but he took it to  a different level in the playoffs. And he insisted he can raise his performance again  Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game.

‘That is the best I’ve seen him play,” defensive end Brandon Graham said, “and I know he’s only going to get better.”

Eagles-Vikings NFC championship: Special section preview


What is the biggest question for the Eagles heading into this game?


‘I wasn’t coming off the field’

The Eagles rotate defensive linemen to keep them fresh. Cox, however, can control his own substitutions. He honored the traditional patterns through most of the season, but his playing time started to rise late in the year.

On Saturday, the Eagles scratched Destiny Vaeao and dressed only three defensive tackles. Cox wasn’t going to come off the field as often as he did in September. He played 57 of 63 snaps, a notably high percentage for a defensive tackle but one that contributed to his dominance.

“With me taking a lot more snaps, I get in a whole lot more rhythm and I think that affected my play,” said Cox, who added: “I wasn’t coming off the field.”

Defensive tackle Beau Allen, one of the three defensive tackles along with Cox and Tim Jernigan, asked Cox how he did it. Cox smirked and told Allen he just found a way.

“Fletcher’s a big guy, and I don’t think people realize how tough that is to give that type of effort on every single snap,” Allen said of his 6-foot-4, 310-pound teammate. “He’s a warrior. I can’t say enough. Anybody who questions our team’s intensity, effort, or things like that only needs to look at Fletcher Cox’s film from last week.”

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox raises his arms against the Atlanta Falcons in a NFC Divisional Playoff game on Saturday, January 13, 2018 in Philadelphia.

Allen called Cox’s performance “unbelievable.” Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz pointed out just how much Cox did. He said that the pass-rushing production earns the most recognition, but that Cox made big-time plays in the run game and chased down wide receivers on screens. One example came on the Falcons’ final drive of the game. Even when Cox doesn’t push into the backfield, his ability to stay square to the line of scrimmage and take on double teams helps the other defenders.

“He’s done that since he’s been here, though,” Schwartz said. “I think it just was probably on a little bigger stage and it got a little bit more attention.”

‘Wrecking the game’

Before the season, Schwartz said opposing offensive coordinators begin their game planning by identifying No. 91 and asking: “How do we keep this guy from wrecking the game?”

That often creates opportunities for teammates, but when Cox plays as well as he did against the Falcons, it brings the Eagles’ fourth-ranked defense to another level.

“It sparks a fire under their ass,” Cox said. “When you got the big dog up front playing at a really high level, I think it’s contagious. You saw it. You had everyone making plays.”

One of the biggest beneficiaries is Graham, whose two best seasons came the last two years, when he has played next to Cox. Interior pressure is critical for a defense because it prevents the quarterback from stepping up into the pocket, and that helps the edge rushers. Linebackers benefit from Cox’s play because he can occupy blockers and give them space to roam. And when Cox gets the penetration that he did  Saturday, it could also force the quarterback to release the ball earlier in routes, which could help the secondary. That’s why Cox called his play contagious.

“You see him playing like that, you can tell it really means something to him,” Allen said. “It’s fun to watch as a fan of football.”

Cox admitted that Saturday’s was one of his best games, but when he reviewed the film, he saw some things he can do “way better.”

Cox wants the burden on the defensive line against the Vikings. He knows Minnesota is the top-ranked defense in the NFL with a heralded line that includes defensive end Everson Griffen and defensive tackle Linval Joseph, both of whom have Pro Bowls on their resumes. Cox, who has  made the Pro Bowl and been named second-team all-pro three times, said the Eagles line must outplay them.

“At the end of the day, it will come down to is our D-line better than theirs?” Cox said. “They’ve got a dominant D-line, we’ve got a dominant D-line. We’ll see who shows up on Sunday.”

Camera icon YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Vinny Curry stop Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman during the first-quarter in a NFC Divisional Playoff game on Saturday, January 13, 2018 in Philadelphia.

There will be opportunities for the Eagles. Graham will rush against right tackle Rashod Hill, who has started only eight games in his career. The Vikings must decide whether to give him help, but they’ll need right guard Joe Berger against Cox. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer gushed about Cox, mentioning his quickness, hands, strength, and power.

It was those qualities that compelled the Eagles to give Cox a $103 million deal and build the defense around him. Cox said he wants to be considered one of the franchise’s great defensive players, up there  with the likes of  Chuck Bednarik, Reggie White, and Brian Dawkins.

After Cox signed the contract and reached all-pro status, Graham summarized what was left for Cox to achieve: “To be a Hall of Famer. And win a championship, so we can be known forever in Philly.”

The only way to achieve either would be to keep playing as he did last week.

Get insights on the Eagles delivered straight to your inbox with Early Birds, beat writer Zach Berman’s newsletter for Eagles fans. Click here to sign up.