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With season of frustration behind them, Fletcher Cox, ferocious Eagles defense ready to take on Chiefs

PHOENIX -- The Eagles' first season under defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon didn't exactly flirt with the record book.

Philadelphia finished 31st in sacks as a team, 18th in points allowed per game, and 10th in yards allowed per contest. The statistics weren't terrible, but they weren't anything like the numbers the Eagles produced in 2022.

Second in yards per game. First in passing yards per game. And first in team sacks.

The turnaround was remarkable, and a major reason why the Eagles find themselves in Phoenix, preparing to face the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVII. It didn't come without some difficulties and soul searching, though, starting with standout defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.

Cox didn't shy from voicing his frustrations early in 2021, questioning whether Gannon's scheme -- which wasn't as aggressive as Cox was accustomed to -- was best utilizing his talents. He admitted in October of 2021 that he needed to adjust to what was being asked of him, and a year later, the team's results -- including Cox's seven sacks, 14 QB hits and one forced fumble -- are undeniable.

"Just not getting in the way of my own self," Cox said Tuesday when asked how he overcame his challenges in 2021. "Obviously, I was very frustrated. I'm not ashamed to say it. I learned a lot about myself. The biggest part about that is when you learn a lot about yourself, you're able to handle those situations and not let that stuff distract you.

"Just kind of didn't know -- where did you fit in? It's one of those things where I needed to be a pro, a better pro, and accept it."

As his teammates will tell you, Cox eventually did accept his role. What was most important to the Eagles' huge jump, though, was simply not thinking too hard.

"A lot of guys were new, fresh," veteran defensive end Brandon Graham said on Wednesday. "We didn't have as much talent as we have this year. We were spending a lot of time trying to figure out how we want certain things and knowing exactly what it is that he wants. Now, we can just focus on the technique of it. That was what was the most different this year. We have a lot of guys who played under him last year and helped some of the new guys coming in, and we didn't have to spend too much time on stuff that we spent (time) on in the first (year).

"We were just playing. Now, it's more about attacking. Last year, it was kind of reading more."

The Eagles' collective shift from learning to executing has seen the team take a massive leap in sacks, so much that they're just five sacks away from resetting the single-season record as a team. It wasn't just about putting Gannon's direction into practice, though. The secondary, which included the additions of James Bradberry and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in 2022, also had something to do with it.

"I feel like everybody was winning last year," defensive tackle Javon Hargrave said on Wednesday. "If you look at it, everybody was winning their one-on-ones. I think we just tightened up on the coverage a little bit more and it gave us a chance to get home this year."

Hargrave was one of the few Eagles who thrived while the rest of the defense was still finding its footing in 2021.

Hargrave proved to be a menace last season, recording 7.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss and one forced fumble. The best season of his career to that point earned him his first Pro Bowl selection, and before long, his teammates caught up, proving -- as Graham said -- "everybody can eat."

"That's my guy," Graham said of Hargrave. "It didn't start so well with him early because he got hurt, hurt his pec the first year he got here.

"He had a bad taste in his mouth because fans was getting on him. But to see him going into his contract year and having his best season, getting double digits (in sacks) for the first time, me being right there with him getting double digits, a lot of us had some personal bests. It's been cool because all it has been is just us working well together."

Philadelphia had to feel good about its chances concerning its defensive line entering 2022. The Eagles returned Graham, Cox and Hargrave, drafted Georgia stud Jordan Davis, and signed sack machine Haason Reddick in free agency just a few months after the Temple product finished the best season of his career. Still, general manager Howie Roseman wasn't satisfied and turned to the free-agent market during the 2022 season to add more veteran depth, signing both Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph, much to the delight of Graham.

"Two great guys coming in. You got Suh and Joseph, who got some skin in the game for real," Graham said. "A lot of guys look up to them. So you couldn't ask for two (better) guys that's on the street at the time that we needed, especially up the middle. The guys definitely gravitated to them as soon as they got there.

"It was cool, because you got two plugs in the middle! Linval, good luck moving him. It's already hard enough giving him a handshake; that belly gonna bump you back!"

With the Super Bowl just days away, Cox's bursts of frustration seem as if they happened years ago. Instead of wondering why it wasn't working, he's preparing to play for a ring with a tight-knit, ferocious group of defensive linemen bent on harassing Chiefs superstar Patrick Mahomes.

"He let all that go at the end of the season last year," Hargrave said of Cox. "He's been a lot more happy this year. He's just been playing to the scheme and playing really good ball. When you're ballin', all of that goes away."

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