The Eagles held Alfred Morris -- who ran for 1,613 yards last year -- to 45 rushing yards in the season opener. (USA Today Images)
After the Eagles’ gave up their third preseason run of 50 yards or more in the Jacksonville game, DeMeco Ryans smiled and said, hey, don’t worry about it.
“That’s what preseason’s for,” the Eagles’ veteran middle linebacker said at the time. “The mistakes we made are fixable. Honestly, I think we’ll be fine against the run.”
So far, so good.
The Eagles held the Redskins’ vaunted rushing attack to 74 yards Monday night, the 'Skins’ fewest rushing yards in their last 23 games.
By removing Alfred Morris and ball control from the Redskins’ offensive arsenal, the Eagles went a long way toward controlling the game.
“It was just sound,” Ryans said. “Everybody did what they were supposed to do. Nobody tried to do too much, guys played sound, tackled well, it was huge for us. We continue to do that, we can have a special defense.”
Considering the Redskins led the NFL with 169 rushing yards per game last year and the Eagles ranked 22nd in rush defense at 126 per game, it was quite a performance.
For the sake of comparison, Morris last year rushed for 76 and 91 yards in the Redskins’ two wins over the Eagles.
“The plan going in was to take care of the running game, which is really what they’re built off of, and I thought the guys did a great job of executing the plan,” Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis said.
“That’s an outstanding offense, and the running game and play-action passing game is really what they’re built on.”
Morris, second in the NFL to Adrian Peterson last year with 1,613 rushing yards, was just 12 for 45, a 3.8 average. Robert Griffin III, who ran for more than 800 yards last year, appeared far from 100 percent moving around and scrambled for just 24 yards.
The last time the 'Skins were held under 75 rushing yards in a game was Nov. 20, 2011, when they had 60 in a loss to the Cowboys.
“The outside backers did a great job of setting the edges and keeping the ball from getting outside and the inside defensive linemen and backers and safeties were really gap sound, and that was our emphasis going in,” Davis said. “The guys executed and good results happened.”
What makes the Eagles’ run defense performance so encouraging is that this was the first NFL game in a 3-4 for Trent Cole, Mychal Kendricks, Cedric Thornton and Fletcher Cox -- more than half the Eagles’ starting front seven.
Morris’s 45 yards were a career low. And to get an idea just how well the Redskins have run the ball historically against the Eagles at home, their 74 yards were their fourth-fewest in Washington against the Eagles since 1983.
“The positive part was about 11 guys answering the bell and doing their job,” linebacker Connor Barwin said. “Everybody knew what they had to do and nobody was playing outside the scheme. We did what we were supposed to do to stop the run, and we stopped it.
“Now we have a whole new situation this week, and we’ve got to get the same thing, 11 guys locked in to stop that offense, which obviously is a lot different than Washington’s.”
The Chargers, who face the Eagles at the Linc Sunday afternoon, are a vastly different offense than the Redskins, but they do have two former 1,000-yard rushers in Ryan Mathews and former Eagle Ronnie Brown.
Unlike Washington, the Chargers want to throw first, but if the Eagles can slow down San Diego’s running game, they can make Philip Rivers and the Chargers’ high-powered passing game that much less effective.
“They have two great running backs over there, Mathews and Brown,” Thornton said. “We’re definitely just focusing on stopping them from running and trying to get Mr. Rivers to throw us some interceptions.”
The Eagles haven’t had a top-10 defense since 2009, when they were ranked ninth in Sean McDermott’s first year as defensive coordinator. Their last top-five run defense was in 2008, Jim Johnson’s last year as defensive coordinator and –- not coincidentally -- the last season the Eagles won a playoff game.
“All the top defenses there’s ever been in the league have stuffed the run and created turnovers,” Ryans said. “That’s the making of a special defense. You’ve got to stop the run every week. It doesn’t change week-to-week. No matter who you’re playing or what they run, stopping the run is going to be first.”
Can the Eagles be that type of defense? Maybe. But they certainly have a long way to go.
This was just one game, and the Eagles started out last year pretty good against the run as well, limiting Trent Richardson to 39 yards on 19 carries in the opener in Cleveland.
But with a bunch of promising young defensive linemen and improved linebackers, the potential is there.
“I think we definitely have the skill set and athletic ability to be really good,” Thornton said. “We’re definitely pursuing to be great against the run and trying to get teams to pass on us. We have a great opportunity to be great.”