How the Philadelphia Eagles Defensive Line Embraces ‘Less Is More’
The Philadelphia Eagles enter the Super Bowl favored against a team starting the best quarterback in the NFL, in no small part because of how complete their team is – including a defensive line leading the NFL in sacks. Haason Reddick, Josh Sweat, and Javon Hargrave have all hit career highs in sacks, while Fletcher Cox is near his career high.
They did it without playing as many snaps as they have in previous years. Reddick has played four other seasons with more snaps, while Sweat played more snaps last year, and Hargrave regularly played more snaps per game in previous years.
Cox has played the fewest snaps since 2017, which is the second-fewest he’s ever played, with just his rookie season in 2012 featuring fewer. That means this 712-snap season is as much an anomaly for him as it is for everyone else.
How did the Eagles make sure all of their defensive linemen hit career highs in volume statistics while restricting their volume? Well, by restricting their volume.
The Philadelphia Eagles Are Kings of the Defensive Line Rotation
The Eagles have become well known for rotating their defensive line, and it has made sure that the few opportunities that they get are the best opportunities they’ll have.
It’s not unusual to see a defensive line rotation in the NFL – it happens fairly frequently. But the Eagles do it much more than most, with 12 defensive linemen playing at least 15 snaps a game and 10 playing at least 20 snaps a game. Seven of them are playing at least 25 snaps. In terms of defensive line diversity, they rank sixth in the NFL in the number of defensive linemen playing significant snaps.
The Eagles rank 26th in snaps per game from their snap count leader along the defensive line, with Haason Reddick earning 48.0 snaps per game.
“It’s really been one of our secret sauces,” said defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon. “I do think that’s one of the major one of the reasons that we had the production that we had this year is because guys are playing less snaps, they’re fresher, they go in and they can compete at a high level.”
“I learned from a young age you want those big guys. That’s the biggest advantage you have – the D-Line versus the O-Line – and you want them as fresh as they can be.”
The Philadelphia Eagles Know That Defensive Line Rotation Works
There is some evidence that this works. When looking at all defensive linemen who have played at least seven games in both halves of the season, we can see that pressure rate generally drops a slight amount in the second half of the season. Those who play 50 or fewer snaps per game see their average pressure rate drop by about half a percent. Those who play more see their pressure rate drop three times as much.
That might not seem like very much. But if we keep in mind that the average pressure rate in the second half of the season for the top snap-getters on the defensive line is only 10.8 percent, it’s easy to see that the difference can be very meaningful in a game.
On a four-person pass rush, this can translate to a big difference. If all four members of a pass-rushing unit can generate a pressure rate of 10.0 percent, that means they’ll, in aggregate, create pressure on 34.4 percent of snaps. If they can generate a pressure rate of 11.5 percent, that means the four-person pocket pressure on average is 38.7 percent. If they can only individually put up a pressure rate of 8.5 percent, that means their aggregate pressure rate is just 29.9 percent.
|Individual Pressure Rate||Four-Person Pressure Rate|
Finding those small edges can mean quite a bit. For context, the average four-person pressure rate in the NFL is 33.3 percent. The highest pressure rate on four-person pass rushes belongs to the Steelers at 38.0 percent, and the lowest belongs to the Falcons at 27.9 percent. The 1.5 percent individual swing is worth the difference between the top pressure unit in the NFL and the worst pressure unit in the league.
That might be why the Eagles rank fifth in the NFL in four-person pressure rate and second in the NFL in total pressure rate.
“We have a role for all those guys that are up on gameday and they embrace that role – they all want to play; it’s hard to take them off the field because they all want to play,” said Gannon. “But they do a good job with knowing who we want in in certain situations and when they go in to give 100% effort and do their job because they know it really helps the defense.”
All-Decade defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said that the defensive line is not characterized by first and second units. “There’s no first group and second group, there’s Alpha and Bravo,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing, the rotation is really good. I think in the postseason I may have played 65 snaps in two games, which is big.”
Cox credits the coaching staff, including defensive line coach Tracy Rocker. “Coach makes sure that he’s rotating people at the right times, doing whatever type of possession they’re in. And guys have accepted that we all know our role.”
Haason Reddick agreed. “Being a part of a pass rush where everybody gets the chance to eat, that’s the best thing,” he said. “It causes no problems. Everybody gets their chance. Everybody gets the chance to get their stats up. Everybody gets their chance to make an impact at the end of the day. When you have a D-line like we have, it’s crazy. All it takes is for one person to make a play and then the energy amongst everybody is just rolling.”
Keeping everyone fresh has its role, but it’s important that the second group of players are just as talented. There’s not much use in rotating a defensive line if four of the defenders across the line can’t produce.
But the Eagles rotation is talented. Behind the top four in terms of snap count along the line are a group of four players that could start for most teams. After Reddick and Sweat are Brandon Graham and Robert Quinn, who have both been high-level starters for over a decade before 2022.
Along the interior, behind the Hargrave and Cox, are Marlon Tuipulotu, Milton Williams, Ndamukong Suh, Linval Joseph, and Jordan Davis, all of whom have played starting-quality football.
The Philadelphia Eagles Defensive Line Knows the Downsides — And Overcomes Them
There are some challenges with this approach, too. The first is that it’s difficult for these defenders to get into a rhythm or play the kind of football we’re used to seeing from 1000-snap regulars like Maxx Crosby, Aaron Donald, Micah Parsons, Christian Wilkins, and Danielle Hunter.
They often use their early-game snaps to set up their late-game moves, like pushing to the outside to set up a spin move inside or ripping on pass rushes early to chop later on.
“It was tough at first,” said Graham – who used to play that many snaps earlier in his career. “But I think it was just because I was more in my head about ‘man, I didn’t have the reps’ and all that stuff. But when I started having more mental reps and more, looking at how Haason [Reddick] rushing a certain guy that I’m gonna be rushing, then looking at the other side, looking at Sweaty [Josh Sweat] and seeing when he’s beating them all. It’s like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna try this, I’m gonna do this.’ So you kind of have a cheat sheet a little bit because you see the guys beat them in front of you.”
As Graham and the coaches have mentioned before, this allows them time on the sideline to study their opponents – much more than most defensive linemen can. “We’re problem solvers out there,” Graham said. “When I’m on the sideline just watching, it’s cool to hear some of the stuff they come back on the sideline and tell you about certain guys.”
Knowing how individual offensive linemen approach certain types of pass rush can be invaluable to exploiting them throughout the game. They can bounce ideas off of each other and workshop during games what will be most effective.
“Any time you meet with each other it gives you an edge,” Davis said. “We’re all trying to figure out tendencies, anything to do with the snap count, the way the offensive line is set, anything.”
Cox mentioned that they can replace that sense of rhythm and timing with reps. “We practice it all the time and we’re fresh, right. That’s what I appreciate about it because it helps keep you mobilized and doesn’t beat up the body as much. You’re always ready to go. So for us, it’s always working on our craft every day we go out and working on everything we need to do.”
The second disadvantage to this kind of approach is that a less talented unit can be caught out in the no-huddle. If the offense finds that there’s a matchup with a particular defensive line rotation that they like, they might be able to exploit it again and again with the same kind of run-blocking or pass-blocking throughout a drive.
When offenses go no-huddle and don’t substitute their own players, the defense doesn’t have an opportunity to rotate in their guys. By the end of the drive, they can be tired. Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker doesn’t see that as too big of a problem.
“Everybody has some type of tempo and we played with that throughout the year,” said Rocker. “And as we go one, we make adjustments to make sure we have the right people out there. We expect teams to that.”
The Eagles have built a team with many strengths and few weaknesses. But the critical matchup might be how they can rush the passer and bring an escape artist to the ground. And the secret sauce to that matchup is a rotation of starters, Alpha and Bravo.