WHEN ANDY REID was running down the attributes of first-round pick Fletcher Cox the other day, he talked about his speed and his athleticism and his impressive pass-rushing ability.
Stopping the run never really came up. Not that the kid can't do it. He can. But in the big scheme of things, his ability to stuff a ball carrier at the line of scrimmage isn't why he's an Eagle today. He's an Eagle today because he can rush the passer.
A little while later, when Reid was describing the finer qualities of his second-round pick, linebacker Mychal Kendricks, he spoke of his athletic ability, his zoom-zoom-zoom speed (he ran a 4.47 40 at the scouting combine), his ability to cover tight ends and his blitzing ability. Again, even though Kendricks will begin his career with the Eagles as a strong-side linebacker, his run-stopping prowess got nary a mention from Big Red.
That's because it's all about stopping the pass in today's NFL. Pressuring the quarterback. Forcing interceptions. Shutting down receivers.
Stopping the run? Uh, yeah, sure. That, too.
Teams are throwing the ball more than ever. Last year, just six of the league's 32 teams had less than 500 pass attempts. Twenty years ago, there were 13. And the league had just 28 teams back then.
"It is [all about the pass], yeah," Reid said. "With the college kids and the offenses that these guys are running [in college], they're throwing the football and the ball is in the air. That's eventually going to carry over to our league. You're seeing that now.
"You saw [Panthers quarterback] Cam [Newton] come out and start putting up 400-yard games as a rookie. You look at Cincinnati and their quarterback [Andy Dalton]. These quarterbacks are coming in here knowing how to throw the ball. So you'd better have guys that can move on the defensive side, that can run. Run and cover."
The Giants have won two Super Bowl titles in the last 5 years largely because of their fearsome pass rush. Last year, they finished sixth in the league in sacks per pass play, which ended up mattering a lot more than the fact that they finished 19th against the run and 23rd in yards allowed per carry.
Many people are of the opinion that the biggest reason - after those 38 turnovers - why the Eagles finished 8-8 last year was because they couldn't stop the run. While the Eagles finished 16th in the league against the run and 19th in yards allowed per carry, their run defense actually was very good the second half of the season.
They held opponents to 3.7 yards per carry in the final eight games compared to 5.0 in the first eight. After giving up nine runs of 20 yards or more in the first eight games, they gave up just two in the last eight - that memorable 40-yard touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch featuring about 15 missed tackle in the loss to Seattle, and a 28-yard run by the Redskins' Evan Royster in Week 17.
No, what did them in besides those 38 turnovers was the fact that, despite notching a league-high 50 sacks, they still managed to find a way to give up 27 touchdown passes. That was the ninth most in the league. They were one of just five teams to give up 27 or more touchdown passes and have an opponent passer rating of 85.0 or higher. The other four - Carolina, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and San Diego - had a combined record of 21-43.
Which brings us back to Cox and Kendricks. The Eagles' defensive line registered all but four of the team's sacks last season. Thirty-five came from the defensive-end position and 11 from the tackle spots.
The hope is that Cox not only will improve that last number, but also increase the number of sack opportunities for Jim Washburn's 4 x 100 wide-nine sprint relay team on the outside.
Reid and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo also are excited about using Kendricks as a blitzer off the strong side. Kendricks wasn't used as a blitzer much at Cal. But Reid thinks he will be good at it.
"You utilize your strengths," Reid said. "On the strong side, there are some things he can do that can work for you."
With tight ends playing an ever-increasing role in the passing game, defenses must have linebackers who can cover them and slow them up coming off the line of scrimmage. Next season, 11 of the Eagles' 16 games will be against teams that got 70-plus receptions from the tight-end position last year.
"In this day and age, you've seen where the safeties evolved in this league to where, if you can't cover and run, you're going to have an issue and you're going to get exploited,'' Reid said. "That's the case with your outside linebackers in a 4-3. You'd like them to have the ability to run and be athletic and make plays. I think Mychal can do that. His pass-cover skills are a strong part of his game."
Kendricks is only 5-11 1/4, but his leaping ability negates much of the size disadvantage he faces against tight ends.
"[My size] is the No. 1 issue with a lot of people," said Kendricks, who clearly is tired of being asked about it. "I just play big and shut them up that way. It's never been an issue for me, so it shouldn't be an issue for anyone else."
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