In the absence of quarterback Carson Wentz, it's fair to say the best, and perhaps most important, player on the field for the Eagles on Thursday night will be a 6-foot-4, 310-pound wrecking crew in the middle of the defensive line.
Fletcher Cox opens the new season with several specific goals for the team, and with one lofty personal goal: He wants to be named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. It's probable that the Atlanta Falcons, who come to town to kick off the regular-season schedule, would be willing to lend him a few votes.
When the Eagles started last postseason, also against the Falcons, Cox might have had the best game of his entire career, which is saying something. Maybe it was just that the stakes were higher than usual, but he dominated so completely that Cox wasn't just the defensive player of the game. He was the player of the game.
Cox was on the field for 90 percent of the Eagles' defensive snaps, sometimes simply refusing to come off the field, and he collected one sack, two quarterback hits and two tackles for losses. A bigger factor than those numbers, however, was his sheer presence, and the amount of attention Atlanta was forced to devote to him. That made it possible for the rest of the defense to have its way. In all, Matt Ryan took three sacks and 11 quarterback hits, and the Falcons were tackled for a loss eight times. Atlanta, a top-10 offense, managed just 281 net yards.
"I always think the defensive line is the spark of this team. I'm not afraid to say it," Cox said this week. "When we come out on fire, everybody looks on us and is like, 'All right. These guys are ready to go.' That kind of makes them up their games a little bit, which is always fun."
As it turned out in the Eagles' 15-10 win, they needed every single one of their stops, particularly the ones that came in the Falcons' final drive. That's because the Eagles' offense struggled as well and could never gain any separation.
It's always dangerous to predict how a game will shake out, but the Thursday opener against the same Falcons looks to be a possible replay in which defense will decide the outcome. Atlanta has to be kept in check again because the Eagles' offense is missing so many skill players at the top of the depth chart, including the franchise quarterback, that the offense could struggle to score. Maybe it won't turn out that way, and maybe the scuffling that took place during the exhibition season was a mirage, but the offense appears to be stretched thin.
"I want to make sure my first sentence is included: I don't think they're stretched," defensive end Chris Long said. "I understand why people would [think] that sort of stuff, but they looked great this week. I don't anticipate that we're going to have to bail them out. It might come out that way — that's football. Last year, we played great on defense when the offense was not at their best in games like Oakland and Atlanta. Then, that group really bailed us out in the Super Bowl. Hopefully, we can pick each other up again this year."
The Super Bowl is the last, best memory of meaningful football for this team, and while the defensive players didn't have to accept the championship rings behind their backs, the final game was not their finest three hours. New England set Super Bowl records for passing yards (505), net yards (613) and points in a losing effort (33).
If that taste lingers for the defense, Thursday night is an opportunity to erase it. Cox wants to be the one who leads the way.
"I've just got to go out and be myself … just go out and embrace every opportunity I get, especially in the pass game," Cox said. "If I get a one-on-one, I've got to win. Find ways to get Mike [Bennett] one-on-ones or Brandon [Graham] one-on-ones. Just play team football."
Team football, and drawing double-team attention, help win football games, but it doesn't help win awards such as Defensive Player of the Year. Eleven of the last 20 players to earn that title were linemen, but only two were tackles, and none of them had a fewer-than-double-digit sack total. Cox had 5.5 sacks in 2017. That's a testament to how much opposing offenses keyed on him.