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The Pass Rush: This offseason’s #1 priority

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It was quite obvious to me that the lack of a pass rush on the Eagle’s part last year was their downfall defensively last year. In all honesty, had they had the kind of pass rush they had in 04/05 this team with all of it’s injuries still could have been in the playoff hunt. In 04/05 the Eagles had 47 sacks as a team(the same amount as this year’s champs, the Steelers, had) good for 2nd most in the NFL and they go to a superbowl, this year they have 29 and they go 6-10.

Prior to the 05/06 season the Eagles lost 3 keys to their pass rush for various reasons. The often injured Derrick Burgess left in free agency and went on to lead the entire NFL in sacks. The #15 pick in the draft, DE Jerome McDougle(who had also had injury problems) was shot in the chest in a carjacking. He had been penciled in as the team’s starting RE and was a big reason that the team saw less of a need to resign Burgess. Finally, former #6 overall pick and pro bowler DT Corey Simon was cut just before the season after he held out of training camp. Turned out that he was completely out of shape and did absolutely nothing for the Colts(0 sacks) who signed him as a free agent, still he amassed 32 sacks in his time with the Eagles and was very good at creating pressure up the middle. DE Hugh Douglas also retired.

So right off the bat, every legitimate pass rusher on the team not named Kearse(who had a disspointing 7.5 sacks himself) was gone. DT Darwin Walker has had as many as 7.5 sacks in a year but he was only able to play in 13 games and was slowed by nagging injuries all year. As a result, teams picked apart the Eagles pro bowl secondary seemingly with ease. It’s pretty much a given in football that good pass rushes = good secondaries. The Eagles are proof of that. The 04/05 team has 47 sacks and they send 3/4ths of their secondary to the pro bowl. The 05/06 team can’t pressure the passer and only Brian Dawkins makes it, mostly on reputation. Pro Bowlers Michael Lewis & Lito Sheppard were made to look especially bad as WRs had ample time to run their routes and stretch the field.. The problem is that in today’s NFL there are no shut down corners, the rules prevent that. Dbs are forced to cover guys without touching them, so every moment a WR has to run free puts him at distinct advantage. Plus, all too often we saw Jim Johnson have to sneak up Michael Lewis or Brian Dawkins to blitz in an attempt to create the pressure the front 4 wasn’t getting… That left the Cbs with no help over the top, making them susceptible to the big play. Every DB in the pro bowl, except Champ Bailey, came from a team with more sacks than the Eagles. The Eagles were 21st against the pass this past year, and all but 2 of teams ahead of them had less sacks as a team.

The lack of a pass rush hurt the run game as well. Lbs had to blitz more, which all too often meant that the RB ran right by them… An effective pass rush allows your LBs to sit back and react to the run more, something they can’t do if they are always called on to create pressure.

So what did the Eagles do about it? First and foremost they signed defensive end Darren Howard from the Saints for a reported $30 million dollars. In 6 years, he’s totaled 44.5 sacks. Including a pair of 11 sack seasons. Last year he played only 12 games(he claims he was sat the last 4 games due to a spat with management) and had just 3.5 sacks. He was considered the top DE in free agency.

They are also relying on the development of two rookies from last year that showed some decent promise in getting to the QB. Trent Cole, a 5th round pick, had 5 sacks in his rookie year(4th among all rookies) and was named NFC defensive rookie of the month in November. The problem with him was that all 5 of his sacks came in that month. His production declined as the year wore on. However, it is not uncommon for a 1st year guy to hit what is called “the rookie wall”. In college, these guys only play 12 games. So in December and January, NFL rookies are playing more games than they ever have and often wear down. Usually by year 2, this is not an issue.

The other rookie that showed promise was DT Mike Patterson. He was tied for lead among rookie DTs in sacks. He was also tied for 6th in sacks and 6th in tackles in the NFC. He also hit his own rookie wall, as all of his sacks came prior to December.

Many mock drafts also have the Eagles keying in on top DT prospects Haloti Ngata from Oregon & Broderick Bunkley form Florida State.

So, considering how important the pass rush and the moves the Eagles made… Just how good can it be this year? By taking each defensive starters’ sack totals from the last 2 years(and some key backups like Cole) and averaging them to come up with a reasonable idea of what they could do this year… I’ve come to the conclusion that 40-45 sacks is a reasonable expectation for this Eagles’ defense. If everyone stays healthy and plays to form, this should by all accounts make for a devastating pass rush… which is good news because the simple fact is, that teams who pressure the passer make the playoffs.

This year’s NFC playoff teams? Panthers 45 sacks, Bears 41, Giants 41, Bucs 36, Washington 35 and the NFC Champion Seahawks led the NFL with 50.

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