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Alfred Morris averaged 4.0 yards per carry against the Eagles and 4.9 against the rest of the league. (USA Today Images)
We’ve talked so much about the Eagles’ rebuilt secondary after last year’s disastrous pass defense, it’s easy to forget that the Eagles couldn’t really stop the run last year either.
And bring on the Redskins, who led the NFL in rushing in 2012.
Although the focus this past week has been on how the Eagles will deal with Robert Griffin III on Monday night, the matchup between the Redskins’ power running game and the Eagles’ rebuilt front seven might be a more important one.
The Redskins led the NFL with 169 rushing yards per game last year, a franchise record and the most by an NFC team in six years. More than 800 of those yards came courtesy of Griffin, but Alfred Morris ran for more than 1,600 yards, third-most ever by a rookie.
The Eagles, meanwhile, allowed the 10th-most rushing yards in the NFL a year ago and followed that this preseason by giving up a league-worst 654 rushing yards in four preseason games, including three runs of 50 yards or more -- two of them against the starters.
The Redskins want to run the ball to protect Griffin III, who’s coming off knee surgery, and to keep the potentially explosive Chip Kelly offense off the field.
It would be a shock if the 'Skins don’t run the ball 35 to 40 times. It’s up to the Eagles to show they can stop it.
“I feel like they’ll run it a lot, and I feel like it’s not a challenge,” Eagles defensive end Cedric Thornton said. “We have one of the best running backs in the NFL. We go up against him every day in practice and we went against him every day in training camp, so I feel like it’s not a great challenge. We go against [LeSean McCoy], I think we should be prepared.”
The Eagles actually did an OK job on Morris last year, limiting him to 76 yards on 20 carries in the first meeting and 91 yards on 22 carries in the rematch.
He averaged 4.0 against the Eagles and 4.9 against everybody else. Griffin III ran 12 times for 84 yards in the first meeting but just twice for four yards in the rematch -- by then he was already hobbled with the knee injury that would eventually sideline him.
But things are different now. The Eagles are trying to run a 3-4 front without a complete array of 3-4 personnel.
It showed in the preseason, when opposing teams averaged 5.3 yards against the Eagles.
“This offense is built on the run,” Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis said of the 'Skins. “They were the No. 1 rushing team in the NFL [last year] and a lot of it was RG3's rushing, but Morris had an unbelievable year. He's a hard, downhill runner, and what is there is what he gets. He gets what that blocking scheme gives him and then some, because he's such a downhill runner.
“It all starts with their run game. We have to stop their run game to have a good game.”
The Eagles didn’t stop very many running games last year. They allowed at least 100 rushing yards in their last 12 games, holding only the Cowboys and Panthers under 120. They were 1-9 when allowing at least 120 yards and 3-3 when they allowed less than 120.
If the Redskins surpass 100 rushing yards Monday night, it will be the first time the Eagles have given up 100 rushing yards in 13 straight games since a 15-game stretch over the 1983 and 1984 seasons.
The 'Skins have run for 120 or more yards in 19 of their last 20 games going back to late in 2011.
“We gave up some big runs in the preseason, but I don’t think it was anything that’s not fixable,” linebacker DeMeco Ryans said. “That’s why it’s the preseason, you go out and work on things and get better, and I feel like we got better each week as a run defense. I’m looking forward to seeing how we do.”
The Eagles and Redskins open the season at 7 p.m. Monday night at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
It will be the first career game for Kelly and the 293rd career game for Mike Shanahan.
In addition to lots of Morris, expect the Redskins to throw a generous helping of Roy Helu and possibly Evan Royster at the Eagles as well.
Helu had 157 rushing yards and a 5.8 average in the preseason and Royster had 121 yards and a 4.8 average.
One of Royster’s two career 100-yard games was a 113-yard effort against the Eagles on New Year’s Day 2012.
“I’ve definitely seen progress,” Thornton said of the Eagles’ run defense. "Every day we go out there and get better, so I think we’ll be more prepared than we were in the first preseason game, than we were in the second preseason game, than we were in the third preseason game. I think we’ll be better this Monday night.
“I’ve been seeing great things in practice, so I’m expecting great things in the game.”