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Defensive Line Must Rise to Challenge of Slowing Tom Brady

It's been a spotty year for the Eagles' front four, in which the team has invested the most financially, but the unit must play its best game of the season to advance
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What to do about Brady?

You can’t blitz him. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback with seven Super Bowl rings will carve you up.

The Eagles aren’t much into the blitz, anyway. Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon has dialed up blitzes just 16.4% percent of the time, the second-fewest times in the league.

You can’t really disguise looks, because Brady has seen it all in his 22 NFL years.

The Eagles might try a little something on that front when they see Brady for a second time this season on Sunday in an NFC wildcard playoff game.

"I think Tom has seen it all and when you have that much experience you have to do just a little bit more as a defensive unit to try and create some indecision, right?” said safety Rodney McLeod on Thursday. “…We're going to have to execute at a high-level cause that offense executes at a very high level because of him so we're going to have to do our best at creating indecision and then just really competing.”

You can’t move Brandon Graham from defensive end to defensive tackle as the Eagles did in Super Bowl LII to force a game-changing strip-sack fumble as Graham did. Graham has been out since Week 2 with a torn Achilles.

Maybe you can do something opposite of that and move Fletcher Cox from defensive tackle to defensive end, sort of a change-up look that the Gannon went with a few times during the regular season.

There will be a scheme with an emphasis on trying to limit Brady’s damage.

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“Get him out of his comfort zone a little bit,” said Gannon. “He typically has success versus most people, but I do think that we got to be able to get him a little bit out of rhythm with the different tools that we have to do that.”

What it will come down to is pretty basic, really, and that will be the reliance on the defensive line to pressure Brady with four rushers.

It’s been a slog this season in an area where the Eagles have invested most of their salary cap. They have invested nearly $49 million in the defensive line, per Spotrac.com.

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The Eagles have just 29 sacks this season, a steep decline from 49 in one less game a season ago. The 29 sacks are next to last in the NFL.

Josh Sweat and Javon Hargrave tied for the team lead in sacks this season, both hitting their career-highs at 7.5. Sweat, however, did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday. Illness was listed as the reason.

Of course, it’s a not a be-all, end-all statistic that leads to success. The Eagles had 49 sacks in 2020 but won just four games.

Against Brady, though, pressure is key.

Milton Williams at practice on Jan. 13, 2022

Rookie Milton Wiliams has come on strong late in the season.

“We maybe started (the season) a little slow,” said Cox. “As the season goes on, everybody gets better. I think here later, we’ve been rushing really good as a group and taking advantage as a group rushing in third-and-long or whatever situation is presented to us. Just rushing as a group collectively and holding each other accountable is always the biggest thing when it comes to rushing any quarterback no matter who it is.”

The Eagles may not always meet at the quarterback, but they have generated enough pressures this season to be noteworthy.

They have 75 hurries, which is 11th best in the NFL.

“They’re good upfront, we’re good up front,” said Cox, talking about the Bucs’ offensive line and the Eagles’ defensive line. “I think it will come down to what team can execute, what side of the ball can execute the most. Our biggest thing is when we played them earlier in the year, they’re a different team now and we’re a different team. We found our identity as the season went down. I’m really excited about it. I know it’s a good matchup.”

One difference is the development of Milton Williams. 

The rookie played a season-low 13 snaps in their first meeting with Tampa on Oct. 14. He has been active lately, with 13 tackles and a sack in the Eagles’ last six games, and he has been cross-trained at both end and tackle, so maybe another monkey wrench Gannon can deploy.

It would certainly help the cause if Derek Barnett were to find a way to make an impact. In what will likely be his final season in Philadelphia, he has just two sacks, a career-low. Even in 2018, when he played just six games due to injury, he had 2.5.

“When we came out of that game (against Tampa in the season’s first meeting) after we evaluated it on that Friday, we looked and saw things that we could have done a better job with,” said Gannon. “After game-planning these last couple days here, we know that it’s very hard to get to him but feel like we're up for the challenge and got some things that we're going to try to do.”

Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles or www.eaglemaven.com and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.