An unorthodox defensive strategy could get Philly to the Super Bowl

The Eagles' defensive line took over in Philadelphia's divisional-round playoff win against Atlanta. And it figures to be a handful this weekend for the Vikings in the NFC Championship Game. Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire

It's five days before they'll try to capture Philadelphia's first playoff victory in nearly a decade, and Eagles defensive linemen Chris Long and Beau Allen are contemplating the extraordinary moment when everything changed this season. The Atlanta Falcons and the NFC divisional playoff game await, but for now, they reminisce on the strange, unexpected reason they got here.

"That was big for us," Long says, sitting outside his locker.

"Powered up our defensive line," Allen agrees from a few lockers down.

Allen gathers his flowing, Fabio-worthy locks into a ponytail and continues: "That's really spurred us on this season."

"Yeah, we drew our power from that," Long adds, his tone serious. "Our power comes from ... the eclipse."

Sure, Long is joking, but he takes his role -- and that of his defensive unit -- seriously.

Here, in the Eagles' South Philadelphia practice facility, the locker room is long and narrow: Amid the clutter of strewn cleats and discarded towels, there's precious little open space, save for the Pop-A-Shot arcade game nestled in the back corner. But the defensive line's lockers sit right in the heart of this chaos. They're center stage, which makes sense for a unit that has been the linchpin of this team all season -- and never more so than the past five weeks since Carson Wentz, the Eagles' MVP-hopeful quarterback, went down for the season with a knee injury.

Long and Allen nod solemnly, thinking back on that afternoon in late August when, for the first time in 99 years, a total solar eclipse descended on the United States from coast to coast. They were sprung early from team meetings that day, and they went outside to the practice field armed with eclipse glasses and giddiness.

"You know how Superman gets his powers from the sun?" Allen asks. "Well, the eclipse was the origin of our powers."

At last, Long breaks. "We're all a little off," he concedes, smiling while waving away the defensive line's oddball humor.

But if the Eagles' front four doesn't derive its powers from the yellow sun of the Earth (it doesn't), it derives them from somewhere -- or at least someone -- charmed: defensive coordinator-guru Jim Schwartz. In the 2017 regular season, no team allowed fewer rushing yards per game than the Eagles (79.2), only two teams surrendered fewer rushing touchdowns (seven) and just three squads gave up fewer points per outing (18.4).

That defensive tour de force has been powered by its players up in the trenches -- Long and Allen, but especially Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox. Vinny Curry and Tim Jernigan have been major contributors, of course, and Derek Barnett and Destiny Vaeao have chipped in too. If that seems like a lot of credit to dole out, well, that's because it is. No team in the NFL spreads the defensive line wealth more than the Philadelphia Eagles.

Back in the locker room, Long and Allen continue their pingpong banter, and above them on the wall, green block letters trumpet one word. Their mission, looming overhead, is both unsubtle and ever-present: COLLABORATION.

That's what this defensive line does, after all: Collaborate obsessively.

"You could probably say that this defensive line is top five," says NFL Films producer Greg Cosell. "It just may not be seen that way by some because they don't have one guy who gets 15 sacks."

What the D-line does have instead are four players with at least five sacks in the regular season -- Graham (9.5), Cox (5.5), Long and Barnett (five apiece). Philadelphia is one of seven teams in the league to claim such an abundance of disruptors. And here's the Eagles' not-so-shameful secret: These pass-rushers extraordinaire could actually pad those numbers -- if they were on the field to actually rush the pass more.

In 2017, Graham was the lone Eagles defensive lineman to surpass the 60 percent threshold for snaps played on the season. Cox nipped at Graham's heels, playing 59 percent (though likely would have surpassed him, if not for an early-season injury). And in all, seven Eagles played at least 40 percent of snaps in 2017. That's more than any other team in the league. And while the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers each claim six who reached that benchmark, the lion's share of teams (24 in all, three-quarters of the league) put just three to five players on the field that often.

The payoff has proved profitable. The Eagles get off the field, and fast; no NFL team forced three-and-outs more regularly, at a 43.6 percent clip, nor gave opposing quarterbacks so little time in the pocket, at an average of 2.15 seconds. In the end, Philly allowed opponents on the field for a league-low time of possession per game at 27 minutes, 18 seconds.

And so a peculiar ecosystem, complete with unique customs and dialect, has emerged in South Philly. Within the walls of the practice facility, the concept of starters and backups is relegated to an antiquated notion. ("Our first and second strings on the line," Curry starts, and then stops. "Not even really second strings. Our first and second groups.") They don't feel bound by traditional labels because they don't think those labels apply.

"I just happen to be on a team with really good players," says Long, who won a Super Bowl with the New England Patriots last year but joined Philadelphia because he coveted the scheme and the system it promised. "I know I could still start somewhere. It's not like I just want to play; I want to be part of a really good defense."

And there isn't just a rotation of those groups; there's a specific brand of rotation.

"I grew up in Minnesota," Allen says. "I played hockey growing up, and one of the things our coach says is it's like a hockey rotation."

In other words, the Eagles' minutes management of their best unit, the one that has steered them in their post-Wentz world and the one that will ultimately help deliver that first playoff victory in nearly a decade over Atlanta, is practically Popovichian. It's the NFL's version of DNP-rest.

"Sometimes it's mid-series," Elijah Qualls, one of the defense's newcomers, chips in. "Sometimes, somebody has equipment malfunctions, somebody's hurt -- whatever, you just got to be ready to go."

The idea of these lumbering men, Allen at 327 pounds and Cox at 310 and even Long at 270, lithely bounding over a hockey bench would be funny except for the seriousness with which they respect their creed: Sharing is caring, at least when it comes to playing time.

Their faith could be handsomely rewarded. Consider who else took defensive line collaboration pretty seriously: Three-time Super Bowl champion Bill Walsh.

Ray Didinger, the Eagles' Pro Football Hall of Fame reporter-turned-unofficial team historian, once had the opportunity to pick Walsh's brain.

"I asked him, 'What is the single-biggest factor for winning in the NFL?" Didinger recalls.

And Walsh, offensive savant and passing-game revolutionary, took Didinger by surprise. "'Fourth-quarter pass rush," Walsh offered.

Walsh wasn't just interested in collaboration by standard-issue rotation, though. And he didn't merely shuffle his linemen through a constantly revolving door; he ushered them through when and where their strengths could be maximized.

"Amen," says Mike Giddings, president of Proscout Inc., which offers its talent scouting and consulting expertise to up to 15 NFL teams, of Walsh's philosophy. "I'm a huge believer in the seven-, eight-man wave. You look across the line of scrimmage, and the guys in the huddle are huffing and puffing. You look over at your D-line, and they got their chest out. Like, 'Hey, isn't it a nice day out here?'"

These Eagles, to hear them tell it, have enjoyed an abundance of nice days. Graham watches the clock tick down into the fourth quarter on Sundays and thinks to himself he has never been fresher. And Jernigan looks across the line and knows he has the edge.

"You look someone dead in their face, and they're gonna tell you," Jernigan says. "If they're fresh, they're running to the line. They've got bursts in between plays, coming from the huddle."

On a Sunday in December, the Rams told them. Out in Los Angeles, the Eagles' defense spent the better part of the game in a spot unfamiliar to them in 2017: under assault. Todd Gurley II had run for a season-high 7.4 yards per carry. The Rams had poured on 35 points, nearly twice the total the Eagles allowed per game the entire season. But by that last quarter, Graham detected a shift.

"We hadn't stopped them all game," Graham says now. "But at the end, we still had that same energy, and those guys were kind of just ... holding on. But we were able to make a stop, and I think it's just a credit to that rotation. Everybody was moving, flying."

That afternoon, with just over eight minutes left in the fourth quarter and the Eagles down one point and one MVP-worthy quarterback (Wentz tore the ACL in his left knee the quarter before), Long took off, cutting a midnight-green streak through the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He was a blur, really -- just a green-jerseyed flash in white pants -- but he didn't blaze through unblocked. He tangled with his blocker at the point of attack. He couldn't run the straight, short path to Rams quarterback Jared Goff, so he loped upfield, only to hang a U-turn in hot pursuit of the QB, who shuffled forward in the pocket. Long didn't merely collapse on Goff; he launched on a balletic arc toward him, looking for all the world like he was trying to master the art of the graceful belly-flop. Nearly 52 minutes into the contest and 13 games into the season, Long was able to do something -- because of this line and this system -- that was quietly startling.

He took flight.

And then, in the first month of 2018, the Eagles threw that 2017 playbook out the window.

Because they could.

The Eagles, who didn't allow one defensive lineman to surpass 65 percent of snaps for the season, cashed in their chips against the Falcons in that NFC divisional playoff game. Fletcher Cox? He played 90 percent of defensive snaps. Brandon Graham did too. Vinny Curry saw 75 percent. All three were season highs.

That's the neat trick about all this rest and relaxation via rotation. The time off doesn't just pay dividends in the fourth quarter of games; it pays dividends now, in the fourth quarter of the season.

Philadelphia can rotate less, with less potential drop-off, precisely because its D-line rotated so much in the 16 games that preceded its playoff run.

"I actually felt better than if I had been playing 90 percent of the snaps all season," Cox told NBC's Michele Tafoya during the tilt against the Falcons. "I would've been tired, beat up. Not playing at a high level. What the coaches did is helping all of us now."

It helped the Eagles when the Falcons, trailing 15-10 in the dwindling minutes of the fourth quarter, begin their 14-play, 74-yard march down the field. Three plays in, with 4:38 left, Graham found enough burst to explode past one Falcon, and then a second, and drop Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Was it freshness that propelled him there? Football isn't chemistry, so the exact alchemy -- freshness, adrenaline, sheer talent and desire -- is impossible to isolate. But consider: Four plays later, with 2:51 remaining, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan pitched the ball to Freeman again. Freeman shuffled to his right, finding daylight. And just as he looked ready to break loose, Graham stopped him for no gain, catching him by his shoestrings.

Like Long against the Rams -- like the Eagles have come to expect and trust their linemen to do in the fourth quarter of games and the fourth quarter of seasons -- Graham did something quietly startling.

He took flight.