Ever since the Eagles moved up in the 2012 NFL Draft to snag Fletcher Cox, he has been touted as the cornerstone that the defense will be built around. In a stellar rookie season where he recorded 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble, Cox did not disappoint. The only question is, “how good can he become?” Chip Kelly has said that he already sees him as one of the best interior defenders in the whole league, and he’s just getting started.
In an offseason full of change, the defensive line was rebuilt from the ground up. Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson are gone, while Trent Cole and Brandon Graham are transitioning into 3-4 outside linebackers. Although the Eagles acquired 330 pound Isaac Sopoaga in free agency to man the middle, 2012 holdovers Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton are expected to fill out the line as the starting defensive ends.
While Fletcher Cox will most likely be the greatest point of production along the defensive line in 2013, it will not be without the help of his teammates. Whether Billy Davis ends up running a 4-3 under or a true 3-4, he will be planning ways to get Fletcher Cox as many 1-on-1 matchups as possible, where he can cause the most damage. For this to work, fellow line mates Isaac Sopoaga and Cedric Thornton will have to do a lot of the dirty work. Let’s just say there will be many double teams in their future.
Although this new-look defensive line is young, it is not short of talent. It could very well end up being the strong point of the 2013 Eagles defense. So without further ado, we will put the spotlight on the 6’4″ 310 pound Cedric Thornton, who is entering his third season after being signed as an undrafted free agent by the Eagles in 2011.
In the second preseason game against the Carolina Panthers, it is no secret that the Eagles defensive line was getting good pressure on the quarterback. It seemed as though either Cox or Thornton were in Cam Newton’s face every other play. When reviewing the film, Thornton’s play showed good improvement. When he was given an opportunity to make a play, he made it happen. Although Cedric is not known for his breakneck speed, his quickness off the ball is what really helped him to stick out on Thursday night.
On this first play, both Cox and Thornton are lined up in the B-gaps, between the guard and the tackle.
Once the ball is snapped, both Trent Cole and Connor Barwin drop back into coverage. Without Cole rushing off the edge, the offensive line is instantly able to triple-team Fletcher Cox, essentially taking him out of the play. With the RB helping out against Sopoaga in the middle, Thornton has a 1-on-1 matchup and immediately begins pushing his man back into the pocket.
Using a sheer power move, Thornton bullies his way into the pocket. He is literally holding off his man off with one arm.
Thornton is unable to take down the elusive Newton, but it doesn’t matter. Thornton’s pressure has flushed Newton out of the pocket and basically cut the field in half. ILB’s Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans’ job is to move with the flow of the play. They have their eyes on the ball at all times. As the QB is forced to roll out, they mirror him.
Kendricks and Ryans are able to take away the QB’s check down to the TE, and Newton has no choice but to throw it away. The wasted offensive play can be attributed to Thornton’s strength and ability to rupture the pocket in a hurry. If the situation arises where Cox is not able to isolate a 1-on-1 matchup and Thornton is left with a single blocker, like in this play, he needs to be able to take what is given and get to the quarterback. On this play, Thornton showed he is more than capable.
During this next play, a more favorable situation arises for the Eagles, as Thornton and Sopoaga must deal with double teams as Fletcher Cox is able to go to work on a single man. While Sopoaga is more responsible for taking up space and stuffing the run on double teams, Thornton is expected to be more active as a pass-rusher.
Panthers RT Byron Bell fails to get good position on the double team and Thornton makes him pay. Here we see some surprising quickness out of Cedric, as he dashes through the double team like a pair of closing elevator doors.
Thornton gets his hand up and is right in the face of the QB as he throws a quick screen pass to the tailback. Thornton could not have missed the ball by more than an inch, as the tape shows no sign of daylight in between his hand and the ball. Although Cedric is unable to swat the ball or sack the QB, he still gets great pressure and hurries the QB into his throw.
As the QB is forced to hurry his throw, the blocking on the screen pass fails to fully develop, and Mychal Kendricks and Patrick Chung are able to stuff the play for only a 3 yard gain.
On this final play, the Panthers are lined up showing outside zone read, with the RB just ahead of the QB in the shotgun.
The play ends up being, yes, an outside zone read, the same outside zone read that the Eagles defense has been working against in practice for weeks. The offensive line executes a kick step to the right and attempts to seal off the perimeter as Cam Newton reads Trent Cole off of the edge, giving the Panthers an extra play side blocker: advantage offense.
There is only one thing the RB must accomplish in order to exploit this advantage, win the race to the perimeter, The O-lineman does not expect Cedric Thornton to win this race in a million years, so he continues on his path to seal the corner. By now, you know what’s next. Thornton blasts through the gap and forces the RB to hesitate for just a moment.
Once the RB hesitates, it is all over. Thornton lays himself into DeAngelo Williams and throws him to the ground for a 5 yard loss as Cam Newton looks on hopelessly. The Panthers are forced to punt 2 plays later.
Every Batman has his Robin, and for Fletcher Cox, that man is Cedric Thornton. If this Eagles defensive line is going to live up to its potential this year, Cedric Thornton is going to need to take his momentum from this preseason game and turn it into consistent pressure and energy on the field for the rest of the season. If this game is a sign of things to come, we could potentially see a breakout year from the 3rd year man out of Southern Arkansas.