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Dominant pass rusher for Eagles still a mystery
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When the time comes Monday night for new Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis to dial up his first blitz, he might notice the hover of Brandon Graham’s shadow.

“Oh yeah, man, because I’m trying to be in that down,” Graham said this week. “I’m trying to be that guy.”
 
Who is that guy for the Eagles this season, the one Davis will summon regularly to put the opposing quarterback in the dirt and get his defense off the field? That’s kind of the big question facing this new Eagles defense going into Monday’s showdown against the Redskins, or at least one of the several areas of concern for this new group.
 
Graham, who last year finally showed glimpses of his first-round potential, put up a career-best 5.5 sacks. That number won’t keep opposing offensive coordinators awake at night, but his playing time was severely stunted until the Eagles parted way with problem child Jason Babin and then Babin’s enabler, D-line coach Jim Washburn.
 
For now, though, Graham remains a backup. The team’s move from a 4-3 scheme to the 3-4 means pass rush now comes predominantly from linebackers, but Trent Cole and Connor Barwin are ahead of Graham on the depth chart.
 
Cole, a two-time Pro Bowler who never had fewer than eight sacks for six straight seasons, took a giant step back last season. He had just three sacks and suddenly seemed vulnerable to the double teams and chips and other slow-down tactics he used to beast through. Cole turns 31 in a few weeks and faces questions about aging and career decline.

Barwin, the former Texan, tied for third in the AFC two years ago with 11.5 sacks. He managed just three last season. With first-round pick Whitney Mercilus waiting in the wings, Houston deemed Barwin expendable and let him walk.

The rest of the names are a who’s-who of promising young defensive linemen who’ve yet to showcase double-digit sack potential: Fletcher Cox, last year’s first-round pick who shared the team lead in sacks with 5.5; Vinny Curry, a second-round pick from last season who didn’t play until Week 10; and Mychal Kendricks, an inside linebacker who only this preseason had his number called consistently on pressure schemes.

Last year, the Eagles managed just 30 total sacks, good for a three-way tie for 25th in the league. This, after sharing the league lead in 2011. At one point, the Eagles went three consecutive games without one.
 
“I think we'll find out [Monday night], but I think the guys that have the history of it:  The Trent Coles, the Connor [Barwins], Brandon Grahams,” Davis said, when asked who his best pass rushers are. “I think Mychal Kendricks has a skill set for rushing a little bit. Cox, Vinny Curry. It’s kind of showed itself through their history and what the stats have shown over the last couple years. In the preseason, we had a couple nice sack games.”
 
Of those names, Curry showed the most upside this preseason. He took up permanent residence in the backfields against all four opponents. But after bulking up this offseason, he was never really considered for the open left defensive end spot opposite Cox. As of Friday, Curry didn’t have a firm grip on Davis’ vision of the pass rush.

“I definitely know what we can do. We definitely got some lethal guys that can get after the quarterback,” he said. “As far as who they’re gonna put out there … you can’t sense that.”

Given the state of their remade secondary, it’s safe to assume the Eagles aren’t going to stop many offenses if they can’t generate pressure up front. The ’Skins finished with the NFL’s second-best offense last year behind No. 2 overall pick quarterback Robert Griffin III. Their left tackle, Trent Williams, made the Pro Bowl last year.

Barwin didn’t seem to think last year’s drop-off -- for both he and Cole -- are reasons for concern.
 
“Everybody knows Trent’s going to get there,” he said. “That’s what he’s been doing for eight years. I know I’m gonna be there when they send me. I know BG can rush just as good as anyone else on this team. We’re all going to be there. You just have to wait for your opportunities. You can’t force it.”

Davis’ big dilemma is finding ways to unleash Barwin without jeopardizing his scheme by having Cole drop into coverage. For the first eight years of his career, Cole lined up at defensive end and exclusively rushed the passer with his hand in the dirt.

But as Davis explained, it’s a misconception that Cole’s responsibilities now include footraces against tight ends and slot wideouts. It’s not a vertical game for him.
 
“It's all about a 15‑[foot]-by‑15 box that they live in,” he said. “I know when you think of Trent Cole and coverage and everything and everybody thinks about dropping vertically and deep, you say, that doesn't fit, and I understand that.  So the things we'll ask them to do are in a smaller box than what you would ask other linebackers to do, if that makes any sense.”
 
Davis said his pass rush would involve several rotations, so sack opportunities for all pass rushers should be present at certain times during the game. Barwin said Davis would find the hot hand or two and ride them while they’re scorching.

Many defensive coordinators around the league already know who their go-to guys are when it’s third-and-long and time to tee off on the quarterback. Packers D-coordinator Dom Capers, who mentored Davis, knows Green Bay’s pass rush starts with Clay Matthews. Over in San Francisco, Vic Fangio looks more and more like a genius every time Aldon Smith adds another sack to the pile.
 
Graham admitted that those teams have an intimidation leg-up that the Eagles don’t yet have.

“You pretty much know the big names,” he said. “Like you say, we’re trying to make a name. We’re trying to find out who we are, and as we go we’ll see who gets there more and, you know, who will start becoming that big name [for] getting to the quarterback, who will do certain things on the defense that you just can’t teach sometimes.”