February 10, 2023
In the leadup to the NFC Championship Game against San Francisco, Eagles defensive linemen heard all week about how the 49ers had the best defense in the NFL. And, well, they took it personally.
"It blows my mind how we come into any game and we’re not considered the best defensive line or defense on the field," said Josh Sweat on Thursday during Super Bowl media interviews.
On the Niners' first drive of the game, Haason Reddick landed a shot on the arm of starting quarterback Brock Purdy, causing a fumble, and knocking Purdy out of the game. He also all but ended the Niners' second drive with a sack of Purdy's replacement, Josh Johnson, during which he was almost able to to wrestle the ball away on the way to the ground.
But wasn't just Reddick. Eagles defensive linemen tore the Niners' offensive line apart all day in their individual matchups, as Purdy and Johnson were being harassed on nearly every pass play.
On the Niners' first drive of the second half, Ndamukong Suh hit Johnson, whose head bounced off the turf. He would be evaluated for a head injury and his day was over. Because San Francisco didn't have a third quarterback active for that game, Purdy had to come back in, except he couldn't throw as a result of his elbow injury.
If you were watching at home and you were a fan of any team other than the Eagles, it became extremely boring to watch thereafter. The Niners called running plays the rest of the way because that's all they could do. On the other side of the ball with a healthy lead, the Eagles' offense mostly called run plays, knowing that was all they needed to do to salt away their trip to the Super Bowl.
A common phrase associated with great pass rushers is that they can "wreck the game," meaning they can make a big play or two and change the outcome. That day the Eagles' defensive line quite literally wrecked the game for any non-Eagles fan watching at home. In the aftermath, the losers were left to whine about how it was never a fair fight, unwilling to acknowledge how thoroughly they were dominated by the Eagles' pass rush.
Inflicted injuries aside, what happened in the NFC Championship Game was nothing new, as Eagles defensive linemen pounded quarterbacks all season. They finished with 70 sacks during the regular season, and added eight more during the playoffs. If they can sack Patrick Mahomes five times on Sunday, they will have the all-time record for most sacks in a season (playoffs included), a record currently held by the Chicago Bears, who had 82 sacks in 1984.
The Eagles were also the first team in NFL history to have four players with double-digit sacks during the regular season. Reddick had 16 (plus 5 forced fumbles), while Josh Sweat, Brandon Graham, and Javon Hargrave each had 11. Fletcher Cox had 7.
"You got four different guys in double digits, first time ever. And then even Fletch, he was close," said Graham.
And yet, individual recognition for Eagles D-linemen was scarce. Reddick made the Pro Bowl, but was not named First-Team All-Pro nor he was among the three finalists for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
"I don’t feel like we’ve been getting the respect that we deserve this year," Reddick said. "A lot of people have been talking about us, but not the way you would think for a team that has 70 sacks in the regular season, and we’re up to 78, and then we need a couple more to beat the Bears’ record between the regular season and postseason. Especially in this era [of offensively-slanted football] you would have thought that that would have gained more attention."
Hargrave, Sweat, and Graham were named Pro Bowl alternates, with Hargrave being the most egregious snub of the three.
"I think that’s just kind of my story, always being the underdog, kinda overlooked. And I think that’s what make me what I am today," Hargrave said.
"I made it last year but not this year," said Sweat. "And I was way better this year."
The Eagles were perhaps overlooked for Pro Bowl recognition because voting begins in mid-November for some odd reason, and the Eagles saved their best for the end of the season, as they had a staggering 42 sacks in December and January.
"I don’t think there should be frontrunners for an award when you have a whole season," said Reddick. "You don’t want your players to be their best at the beginning of the year. You want to be best in December and January. That’s when you want your players to be their best because that’s when it counts the most."
Cox and Sweat offered a different explanation.
"We all feel disrespected, because it’s Philly. Nobody respects the city of Philadelphia when it comes to sports," said Cox.
"I just think people don’t like Eagles players," said Sweat.
Of course, if sufficient recognition hasn't come by now, it won't ever come if the Eagles lose in the Super Bowl on Sunday.
"We got to go finish the deal in order for people to notice, but at the end of the day I just love the way that we played together this year," said Graham.
"If we don’t win, everything we’ve done this year will be forgotten. It’ll just get swept under the rug. So we have to get it done," said Sweat.
"If we go out there, play the same type of ball that we’ve been playing all year and display that on Sunday on the biggest stage, they’ll have to respect us and we’ll go down as one of the best D-lines in modern NFL history," said Reddick.
"We all feel disrespected and we just need to finish," said Cox.
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