No NFL defensive lineman spent more time in close proximity to the quarterback last season than Brandon Graham.
According to Pro Football Focus’ reasonably reliable data, the Eagles defensive end had 83 total quarterback pressures in 2016 – 5½ sacks (they rounded it off to 6), 17 hits and 60 hurries.
His 5½ sacks only put him in a tie for 53rd with the Browns’ Emmanuel Ogbah, the Broncos’ Derek Wolfe, the Dolphins’ Andre Branch and the Bucs’ Noah Spence.
But his total pressures and his 77 hits and hurries were the most by any 4-3 or 3-4 end or tackle.
Close is only supposed to count in horseshoes and hand grenades. But it also counts in football, where pressure often can make a quarterback do some silly things, including throw the ball to somebody in a different uniform, like Kirk Cousins did Sunday when Eagles middle linebacker Jordan Hicks got in his face via an “A’’ gap blitz.
Still, sacks tend to be drive-stoppers and game-changers more often than pressure, and are a much more persuasive statistic on a resume than hits or hurries when it comes time to get your employer to pay the piper.
Graham, who will be a month shy of his 31st birthday when he is eligible to become a free agent in March of 2019, and would love to get one last big payday before they lower the curtain on his career, understands that.
“I’m trying to make those boys into sacks this year because that’ll impact the game even more,’’ the Eagles defensive end said.
Graham, who has never had more than 6½ sacks in a season (2015) since the Eagles selected him in the first round of the 2010 draft, took a big step in that direction Sunday. He had two sacks, four hurries and two tackles for losses in the Eagles’ 30-17 win over Washington.
Redskins right tackle Morgan Moses hasn’t had his lunch eaten like that since he was in elementary school.
Graham let Moses know early on that he was going to be in for a long afternoon. On the second play of the game, the Redskins tried running the ball to Moses’ side.
Graham shot between Moses and tight end Jordan Reed and dropped the ballcarrier, Chris Thompson, for a 1-yard loss.
Two plays later, the Redskins went to his side again. Linebacker Nigel Bradham turned the play inside and Graham, who had lined up on Moses’ right shoulder, powered his way into the backfield and stopped Rob Kelley for a 1-yard loss.
He notched his two sacks in the game’s final two minutes, including one that produced the game-clinching touchdown when he sped around Moses and hit Cousin’s arm just as he was about to throw. Or, if you’re a Redskins fan, just as he was throwing.
The officials ruled it was the former. Graham knocked the ball out of Cousins’ hand, and Graham’s defensive line buddy, Fletcher Cox, picked it up and rumbled 20 yards into the end zone.
Game, set, match.
In all, Graham and the Eagles’ defense sacked Cousins four times and hurried him much of the day, sometimes with blitzes, but often with a four-man rush.
“I was surprised they didn’t slide our way a little more than they did,’’ said Graham, referring to the left side of the Eagles’ defense, where Graham and Cox made nuisances of themselves all afternoon.
“They usually leave Trent [Williams, the Redskins’ Pro Bowl left tackle] out on an island a lot. They pay the big boy on the left and that’s who they usually leave alone.
“But they left Moses out on an island Sunday because he’s been playing good. But we were just battling. That’s what it’s all about. One-on-ones. It was just a better day for me Sunday.’’
The Eagles are going to need another big day from Graham and the rest of the Eagles’ defensive line on Sunday to beat the 1-0 Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium.
You may have seen the Chiefs’ offense dismantle the defending Super Bowl-champion Patriots last week. Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, who makes Cousins look like a slowpoke when it comes to getting the ball out quickly, threw for four touchdowns and completed 80 percent of his throws against the Patriots.
“We just need to keep reading our keys and play what we see and trust it,’’ Graham said. Eventually, [in the] third-fourth quarter, we’ll be in a good spot. Hopefully we’re leading at that point. When we’re leading, that’s when a lot of good stuff happens.’’
Entering his eighth NFL season and his second in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s wide-nine scheme, Graham, who has just 31 career sacks, is hoping his close-but-no-cigar days are over. He wants his first double-digit-sack season in the worst way.
Watching him Sunday, he was playing faster and more confident than ever. He was hitting Moses and guard Brandon Scherff with a variety of moves, including a much-improved spin move. On his second sack, he went to one knee as he was turning the edge on Moses and still got Cousins.
“Second year in the system, I know exactly where I need to be; I know exactly how they want things to fit,’’ Graham said. “In Year 2, I’m playing a lot faster because I really understand where I need to be.’’
Graham has made an impression on rookie first-round defensive end Derek Barnett, both on the field and in the meeting room.
“He just comes to work every day with the right attitude,’’ Barnett said. “He does what he does in games at practice. The way you practice is the way you play. He brings it every day.’’