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Jerry Sullivan: Philly has deep, devastating D line

BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — At this late date, with Tom Brady still rolling along at age 40 and polishing his credentials as the greatest quarterback of all time, opposing coaches have come to accept that there's no single way to stop him.

Most will also acknowledge that one tactic is almost certain to fail: If you blitz Brady, if you send extra pass rushers in an attempt to take him down or throw him out of his passing rhythm, he will make you pay. He'll cut your defense to tatters like a tired old leisure suit.

Two teams have beaten New England in seven Super Bowls during the Brady-Bill Belichick era. Those were Tom Coughlin's Giants teams of 2007 and 2011, which used deep, talented and ferocious defensive lines to rattle Brady and hold the Pats more than two touchdowns below their scoring average in both games.

They did it primarily with a four-man pass rush, and by rotating defensive linemen. And that plays right to the strength of a formidable Eagles defense that will attempt to do the same thing on Sunday evening in Super Bowl LII.

The Eagles finished fourth in the NFL in total defense and scoring defense and first against the run under coordinator Jim Schwartz, whose Bills defense was fourth overall and first in sacks in his one season in Buffalo in 2014.

The Eagles created pressure on a league-leading 41 percent of pass attempts this season, highest in the NFL according to analysis by Pro Football Focus. They were only 15th in sacks with 38, but pressure isn't solely measured in takedowns. They did it largely with four men, too.

"If we've got to blitz, then we've got a problem," said Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. "At the end of the day, it's going to comes down to those four guys up front, us being able to get after the quarterback with four and not having Jim blitz."

Schwartz rotates his linemen to devastating effect. Eight of the linemen played at least 22 percent of snaps in the regular season. Defensive end Brandon Graham played 65 percent of the time and led the team with 9.5 sacks. Somehow, he wasn't selected to the NFC's Pro Bowl roster.

Defensive ends Derek Barnett and Chris Long, who is back in the Super Bowl after winning a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots a year ago, had five sacks apiece. They combined for 70 QB pressures – off the bench.

Backup defensive tackle Beau Allen played nearly as much (41 percent of defensive snaps) as starter Tim Jernigan (48 percent). Jernigan and defensive end Vinny Curry each had eight tackles for loss.

"We are a really deep defensive line," said Allen, who grew up in Minnetonka, a suburb of Minneapolis. "We play a lot of guys; we rotate a lot. To oversimplify it a little bit, when you rotate that much, guys can play as hard as they can and get out and get fresh bodies in there without much of a dropoff.

"We're a deep crew, a really good crew, and more important we're a really close, tight-knit position group. We've played a lot of games together and we all like each other and I think that shows up on tape."

Schwartz actually blitzed more than normal this season. But in nine of his 10 years as a coordinator or head coach from 2006-16, his teams ranked in the bottom five of the NFL in blitz percentage. He rarely sends an extra rusher against veteran quarterbacks who know how to get rid of the ball. You know, like Tom Brady.

"It's funny, no matter where you go people want to see blitz. That's every fan in the stands answer," said Schwartz. "They're not saying you actually have to blitz seven guys or six guys. What they're saying is you have to pressure the quarterback, and I think that's probably the No. 1 thing in the passing game.

"If you give any NFL quarterback time to read the defense, time to set his feet, time to make an accurate throw, you're not going to look good defensively.  But if you take away those things – you take away his ability to set his feet and you take away his ability to go to a second read or make a good decision – you're going to have some success."

Do it with four men and it gives an immeasurable boost to the pass coverage. There are fewer man-to-man situations for Brady to exploit, more defenders to help out with a matchup nightmare like tight end Rob Gronkowski, who cleared concussion protocol Thursday.

Schwartz said it's not brain surgery. He gives his players a simple plan and asks them to stick with it.

"It's going to come down to their O line against our D line," said Cox. "We're not doing anything out of the ordinary. We're just doing the things that got us here. When you try to get off track and try something new, that's when you get caught."

Cox, who has made All-Pro second team three years in a row, is the axis of the defensive front, a dynamic tackle who can stuff the run but also make big plays in the backfield. According to Pro Football Focus, Cox was second in the NFL among tackles in interior pressures to the Bengals' Geno Atkins.

The Eagles moved up to draft Cox at 12th overall in 2012. It was a steal. He has been compared with other versatile tackles who have played for Schwartz over the years, such as Ndamukong Suh, Albert Haynesworth and Marcell Dareus.

"All those guys are similar in that they're not one-trick ponies," Schwartz said of Cox, Philly's top-paid player at $11.5 million a year. "Fletch is not just a run stopper; he's not just a pass rusher. He can do it all."

Cox, who is 6-4, 310 pounds, could be the best defender on the field Sunday. But it's relentless depth from a rotating front four that makes the Eagles a real test for Brady and the Pats, one that brings back bad memories of those Giants fronts.

"I don't know, man," said Long. "Those D lines in New York were really, really good. I think we've got a pretty good group. But at the end of the day, we got to go out and execute. That's a tall, tall task to frustrate Tom, but we'll give it a shot."

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