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August 27, 2022

What the preseason tells us about the Eagles' pass rush

Forget the abhorrent final score. Forget Reid Sinnett turning in a performance that would make 2005 Mike McMahon cringe. My biggest takeaway from the Eagles' preseason finale is one single play.

On the Dolphins' second offensive drive, one where the Fins were still inexplicably using their first-teamers against the back of the Birds' roster, reserve SAM linebacker Patrick Johnson used a rip through move on Miami starting right tackle Austin Jackson. Johnson kept his pursuit going on mobile quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, as the QB tried to roll out of the pocket, but Johnson crushed him for the Eagles' first sack of the entire preseason.

Watch it here:

This obviously isn't a situation where a lone play has completely changed the trajectory of the Eagles' season and Johnson's career. It does, however, perfectly exemplify Johnson's encouraging summer in his second pro season. Johnson has likely solidified a roster spot with his play and our Eagles beat writer Jimmy Kempski has Johnson on the squad in his most recent 53-man roster projection.

Johnson is a fit for the SAM LB role in defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon's defense. It's a position that years would've had Johnson labeled as a "tweener," but as a stand-up pass rusher with linebacker athletic traits, he's an ideal fit to backup new free agent signee Haason Reddick.

It all speaks to the depth of this pass rush and how Howie Roseman has continuously built through the trenches and kept up a two-decade hallmark of the organization.

Johnson, a 2021 seventh-round pick out of Tulane, suited up in all 17 games last year, but was mostly a special-teamer, only playing 10 percent of the Birds' defensive snaps (via pro-football-reference). With Genard Avery and Ryan Kerrigan now gone, two guys less equipped skillset wise for that SAM role, Johnson will see his playing time jump in 2022.

"He's doing a good job," defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said back on August 18, noting Johnson's ability to play against both the run and pass. "He's been violent the last couple weeks with playing in the run game. When those guys get singled, we expect if the ball comes to them, if they’re getting a blocker, they need to hit the ball. 

He's shown really good rush ability and he's a natural in pass coverage. When we ask him to drop a little bit, he has no issues with dropping."

Johnson might end up being a quality second-team rusher in this league, an outcome any team would take from a seventh-rounder. If that depth at SAM is good, just look at this whole defensive line and pass-rushing machine.

I'm sure general managers would be thrilled if their starting defensive tackles were Jordan Davis and Milton Williams, young players poised for long careers in this league. Yeah, they're only the No. 3 and No. 4 guys in Philadelphia because they're playing behind a Pro Bowler in Javon Hargrave and a former All-Pro in Fletcher Cox.

At defensive end, franchise legend Brandon Graham is returning from an Achilles tear and has looked like his old self during training camp. Josh Sweat is coming off his first Pro Bowl selection and is just 25. Derek Barnett, no matter how maddening he is for Eagles fans, remains a fine choice as DE3, provided he's not cheap-shotting dudes and picking up personal fouls in the process. Tarron Jackson, another Day 3 pick in 2021 like Johnson, has stood out in the preseason too.

If it sounded like I undersold Reddick earlier without listing off his accomplishments, it wasn't intentional. Reddick has recorded double-digt sacks in each of the last two years (23.5 total). No Eagle has had 10 or more sacks in back-to-back seasons since Trent Cole from 2009-2011. Before Cole, it would be former Pro Bowler William Fuller, who had 13 sacks in both 1995 and 1996 (via Stathead).

Perhaps Reddick's number dip a bit because there are so many talented guys to throw out there, but his impact will not be nullified.

The Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2017 because they had a prolific passing, an elite offensive line and the mind-blowing play of Nick Foles, sure. The deciding moment of the Super Bowl, however, was Graham's strip sack on Tom Brady. Just as that d-line did all season long, those players rotated, stayed fresh and dominated late in games as opponents tried to throw their way back into it. It was maginifed on the biggest stage of American sports.

The TL;DR version of this article isn't "Patrick Johnson will strip sack Josh Allen in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl." It's that in an otherwise meaningless game, the Eagles' pass-rushing depth is overwhelmingly clear and Gannon has no excuses for this not to be a top-10 defense in the NFL.

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