Fletcher Cox has reached a point in his career when he’s often given the benefit of the doubt.
The Eagles defensive tackle may have only 5 1/2 sacks, but his NFL peers know that numbers hardly tell the story of his impact, and so Cox was voted to his third straight Pro Bowl.
Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz may employ a rotation-heavy front, and the plan from the start of the season may have been to decrease Cox’s snaps to keep him fresh for December and a postseason run. But when the Eagles’ best defensive player decides he wants to play more, you let him.
“I kind of control my own substitution,” Cox said. “With that being said, it’s still out of respect for [line coach] Chris [Wilson] and him knowing when I can and cannot go. When I feel like I know I need a rest, I let Destiny [Vaeao] go in.”
But with the Eagles engaged in tight games over the last month, and particularly the last two games, Cox has decided that he’ll have time to rest after the season. The 27-year old played 84.1 percent of the defensive snaps against the New York Giants and Raiders the last two weeks after playing only 68.7 percent in his first 11 games.
“In certain situations, as one of the better players on the team, I’ve got to be on the field, especially when teams are starting at midfield,” Cox said Wednesday. “I have that about me.”
In the second half of Monday night’s win, the Raiders opened five of their final eight possessions from their own 40 or better. On those five series, Oakland turned the ball over via interception, missed field goal, fumble, punt, and interception, and Cox was in the middle for most of it, creating his typical havoc.
“You always want to keep your best players fresh throughout the season,” Cox said. “Sometimes I’m always dying to go into the game, but at the same time, it’s four quarters.”
It’s also 16 games — and, in the Eagles’ case, more. Cox missed two games and part of another in October with a calf strain, so he’s had additional time to rest. But the 71 percent of snaps he has played overall in 2017 is down enough from 2016 (76 pct.), 2015 (81 pct.), and 2014 (80 pct.) to warrant notice.
“We do want to try to keep guys fresh over the course of a game and over the course of a season, but late in the season you start dealing with a lot of other things,” Schwartz said Tuesday. “But I do think that, as you get into different games and you get closer to the end than the beginning, guys like Fletch can play a few more snaps.”
Sunday’s “meaningless” game against the Cowboys should offer Schwartz the opportunity to rest regulars such as Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham, who is nursing an ankle injury. But in a little more than two weeks, the Eagles will need their best linemen as much as possible.
Cox’s presence alone forces offensive lines to alter their protections. Earlier in the season, Schwartz had schemed several ways to get his 6-foot-4, 310-pound tackle matched up against one blocker. The most prominent was having Graham, who leads the Eagles with 9 1/2 sacks, rush inside alongside Cox on passing downs.
But mostly, offenses are taking their chances doubling Cox, who, after notching all his sacks in his first nine games, has zero in his last four.
“Teams are figuring it out. They watch tape also,” Cox said. “They know if they’re lining me up over the center trying to create a one-on-one. But what most teams have done is just slide the protection. It’s just more opportunities for other guys. Just look at Chris Long.”
Long, Graham’s backup, has three sacks in his last seven games.
Some NFL executives would have never given Cox the $100 million contract he signed last offseason because, for one thing, defensive tackles are easier to double-team than edge rushers. But Cox’s ability to push the pocket back into the quarterback and create opportunities for others can be just as valuable.
“Being consistent is my whole thing,” Cox said. “The sack numbers may not show, but if you turn the tape on you always see me flying around or being able to help someone else get a sack.”
One benefit Cox has yet to receive is preferential treatment from officials. Against the Raiders, he was dubiously flagged for holding.
“That was not a [expletive] hold,” Cox said, “You see what I did the next play? The same [expletive] thing, and he didn’t call the holding penalty.”