Connor Barwin spent four seasons as one of the Philadelphia Eagles’ top defenders and made the Pro Bowl in 2014 before becoming a salary-cap casualty in March. But neither side held any hard feelings. In fact, Barwin was prepared to sell his buddy on playing in Philly less than a month later.
Chris Long needed a job after winning last year’s Super Bowl with the New England Patriots. So he spoke to Barwin and did what anyone would do – he cold-called the Eagles, landed a contract, then donated his salary to charity and played the entire regular season for free.
That unconventional process has Long preparing to face his former team in Super Bowl LII, with an assist going to Barwin. And the reality is, not much of the Eagles’ run to the NFC title has been what most would call normal.
We began noting this in Part I of this two-part series that focused on the offensive side of the ball. We’ll now take a deep look into how Philadelphia’s defense overcame injuries of its own and relied on some unexpectedly solid performances to become one of the top units in the league.
There’s no overlooking Long, who’s made major contributions to a defensive line group that goes seven deep with everyone playing a specific role – from the veteran Long down to rookie Derek Barnett. The reserve pair contributed to two of the most important and momentum-swinging plays in the Eagles’ 38-7 rout of Minnesota in the NFC championship game.
Long reached Case Keenum in the first quarter and hit his arm as he threw, leading to a wobbly duck that Patrick Robinson returned 50 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 7. Then in the second, Barnett strip-sacked Keenum at the Eagles’ 16-yard line before Long recovered the fumble, leading to Nick Foles’ 53-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery and a 21-7 lead.
Getting to the quarterback is more than just recording a sack. It’s part of the reason the Eagles also finished with one of the league’s best pass defenses, which we’ll get to in a minute. And the depth of the defensive line became a true asset following the offseason release of Barwin, a standout linebacker who recorded 26.5 sacks over his final three seasons with the Eagles.
Brandon Graham recorded a team-high in sacks, but Fletcher Cox finished with the best percentage of pressures per rush opportunity at 11.7 percent, which is nearly two percentage points above the league average for a defensive tackle.
STATS X-Info data ranked Cox as the NFL’s second-best pass-rushing tackle behind only the Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald. Graham ranked as the No. 3 edge run-stuffer and Timmy Jernigan as the No. 3 defensive tackle stuffing the run. Those rankings aren’t made by placing some arbitrary number that supposedly rates performance. It takes a complicated propriety model STATS developed combining multiple advanced metrics to arrive at those conclusions.
Among the variables in run-stuff rating is how often a certain player is able to redirect an obvious run design and cause a running play to bust. In the case of Cox’s pass-rusher ranking, STATS takes into account that not every dropback presents a rush opportunity.
The play above shows Keenum releasing the ball in only 1.9 seconds, which falls under the threshold for QB release time to count as a rush opportunity for the opponent. This did not count as a rush opportunity in STATS’ data.
This play, however, did count as a rush opportunity for Philadelphia, and Keenum was able to get a pass off. The completion came during the Vikings’ opening drive that concluded with linebacker Najee Goode getting beat for a touchdown. But a third-string player getting burned shouldn’t be viewed as a total failure given the unique situation he was in.
Jordan Hicks, who called the defensive signals and directed the unit, originally was supposed to be in that spot, but he tore his right Achilles on Oct. 23 after having five interceptions in 2016. The Eagles signed former Baltimore Ravens starter Dannell Ellerbe as a replacement, but he suffered a hamstring injury and sat out the NFC title game.
Even despite missing Hicks, a playmaker who is excellent in pass coverage, for a majority of the season, the Eagles still finished with the lowest burn percentage in the NFL thanks to a deep defensive backfield and solid linebacker core that combined to tie for fourth in the league with 19 interceptions.
STATS X-Info calculates a burn against a targeted defender when the opposing player makes a catch. Eagles defenders were burned only 42.07 percent of the time during the regular season. That number, however, takes into account much more than a simple reception conceded at any point in the game.
STATS’ model again factors in a multitude of advanced metrics, including game situation. Burns and passing yards against – as well as the lack of burns and yards against – during, say, a one-possession game in the second quarter are weighted more in the STATS model than any that occur during a 21-point fourth-quarter blowout, for example. This allows for the numbers to balance, rather than a player being penalized for allowing a catch when the situation calls for the defense to sag off or when the offense is throwing at will to make up a large deficit.
Veteran safety Corey Graham intercepted Keenum in such a situation in the fourth quarter of the NFC title game, helping bring the Eagles to within one victory of their first championship since 1960. Graham signed a one-year deal with the Eagles prior to the season after Buffalo cut him, accepting a backup role after starting every game the previous two seasons with the Bills.
Carefully piecing together this Eagles team brought together a unique combination of talent. It’s still a tough sell on some considering Philadelphia is preparing to play its third straight postseason game as the underdog. But everyone has been accepting of their role, and they’re one victory away from the ultimate reward.