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Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Cole gets second act as dominant defender

By Phil Sheridan

PHILADELPHIA -- It was a common refrain the past few years, when the Eagles' defense just wasn't the dominating force that it used to be: It didn't have a real impact player, one who had opposing offensive coaches reaching for the antacid tablets.

The past few weeks, the Eagles have had one of those players. The twist is that it's Trent Cole, who was here all along.

Cole had two sacks against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. He has five in his past four games after going eight games without one. If it had seemed that Cole, 31, was on the decline, then the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme apparently finished him off.

Trent Cole
Trent Cole had two sacks and forced a fumble against the Cardinals.
But those perceptions weren't really supported by the facts. Cole had a career-low three sacks last season, but that had more to do with the decline of the Eagles in Andy Reid's desultory final season than with Cole himself. And while he admittedly struggled with the demands of his new position, Cole's commitment to the change and his innate athleticism have paid off.

"I do think Trent has played at a high level the whole year," defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. "The sack numbers, to me, we put way too much on that. Sometimes the best rusher, the best pass rush doesn't get the sack. It gets the quarterback moved off the spot, and then a guy that might have had a horrible pass rush gets the sack. When we watch film week in and week out, who is disrupting or moving the quarterback off the spot the most, Trent is one of our leaders. He moves the quarterback off his spot."

Analytic and scouting website Profootballfocus.com named Cole the Eagles' MVP from Sunday's 24-21 win over the Cardinals. He forced a Carson Palmer fumble with a sack on the Cards' first possession. He got to Palmer again late in the game. In between, Cole was virtually unstoppable when he rushed the passer.

Watching the game again, with a focus on Cole, was telling. PFF had Cole with 29 rushes on his 71 snaps. He didn't make many plays in the run game, but that's because the Cardinals constantly ran to their right, away from Cole and defensive end Fletcher Cox.

Davis doesn't ask Cole to drop into coverage too often, but he acquitted himself well there, too. He got beat on a first-down catch by Arizona tight end Rob Housler, but he ran with Larry Fitzgerald on two plays. He set the edge on the run effectively and tied up blockers a couple of times when defensive backs blitzed from his side.

But Cole's game is getting to the quarterback, and he remains a relentless pass-rusher. Davis has been smart enough to adapt his scheme to his players' strengths. By my count, Cole lined up with his hand on the ground as a defensive end (and in two cases, as a defensive tackle) 16 times. Both of his sacks came on plays when his hand was on the ground.

Mixing in a little familiarity with the new stuff is simply good coaching, putting the player ahead of the scheme.

Pro Football Focus credited Cole with a hit and five hurries of Palmer. There were a half-dozen plays where Cole was a half-step from getting to the quarterback when the ball was released. He's getting the hang of this new defense, to say the least.

"I learned the way the 3-4 defense goes, everybody has to be disciplined," Cole said. "Everybody has to do their assignment. One mess-up can cost us the game. I think everybody is playing well together, we're learning each other. I'm getting comfortable, and my pace is speeding up. I'm playing fast."

It shows up on film enough to boost antacid sales in a few NFL cities.