Eagles' run defense a pleasant surprise

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Eagles' run defense a pleasant surprise

Keys to an Eagles' win over the Giants

October 25, 2013, 10:15 am
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The Eagles are one of 13 teams yet to allow a 100-yard rusher and one of only two teams yet to allow a run of 25 yards or more. (USA Today Images)

This reformed, rebuilt, re-imagined Eagles defense is gradually finding an identity. They’re still a work in progress, no question about that, but you’re starting to get a sense of what new defensive coordinator Billy Davis wants, what he likes and what kind of players he has.

And one of the pleasant surprises, at least seven games into this 2013 season, has been the Eagles’ run defense.

It’s not bad.

The Eagles are allowing just 3.85 yards per carry and 101 rushing yards per game, both the best figures – by far – for the Eagles since 2008, which happens to be the last year the Eagles won a playoff game and the last year the legendary Jim Johnson oversaw the defense.

The Eagles are one of only two NFL teams that hasn’t allowed a run of 25 yards or more (the Raiders, who the Eagles face a week from Sunday, are the other), and over the last three weeks, the Eagles have held the Giants, Buccaneers and Cowboys to an average of 74 yards per game and 3.5 yards per pop.

“I think the key has been just effort and technique and guys playing together,” said defensive end Cedric Thornton, who’s been the Eagles’ defensive MVP so far.

Granted, these aren’t running powerhouses, especially the Cowboys, without Demarco Murray, and the Giants, who have gone through a succession of backs since they released Ahmad Bradshaw.

But in recent years, it wouldn’t have mattered who the other team lined up in the backfield.

The Eagles wouldn’t have been able to stop him.

Lately, they have.

“We have a lot of guys who want to pass rush, and we know that in order to pass rush, you’ve got to stop the run and get the offense into 3rd-and-longs so we can rush the passer,” Thornton said. “In order to get into those situations, we have to stop the run first.”

“You stop the run first, you definitely are going to make the offense one-dimensional, and they’re going to have to pass, especially if you’re offense is putting up points.”

This is the first time the Eagles have held three straight opponents under 100 rushing yards in 50 games -- since the middle of the 2010 season.

They’re one of 13 teams that hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher. There’s still nine games to go, but the last time the Eagles went an entire season without allowing a 100-yard rusher was 1991.

And on Sunday, the Eagles face a Giants team ranked 28th in rushing at just 67 yards per game and 29th at 3.3 yards per carry.

The Giants’ lead tailback these days is Peyton Hillis, a one-time 1,000-yard rusher now with his fifth team in five years. He’s averaging 2.0 yards per carry since joining the Giants.

“Our scheme overall is solid against the run, and it starts with [defensive linemen] Isaac [Sopoaga], Ced and [Fletcher Cox],” middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans said.

“They set the tempo for the run game the way they unselfishly play the run. That’s what really sets it up for us. They do a good job in allowing me and Michael [Kendricks] to just flow and be able to strike and make plays.

“The better they’ve gotten at their technique, the better our run game has gotten. And I think with us as linebackers, we’ve just gotten more comfortable with where we fit, what we can and can’t do. We’ve just gotten a lot more comfortable with it, and it allows us to play faster and attack the run a little bit stronger.”

Davis credited defensive line coaches Jerry Azzinaro and Eric Chinander for the improving run defense and said the progress we’re seeing on the field is born out of good old-fashioned hard work on the practice field.

“Really, you watch them, every day we hit sleds, we work foot work and technique every day,” Davis said. “When you talk about the run game and the defensive line play, that's where it stands out, is the ability to execute the techniques we're asking them to execute.”

The Eagles have tackled well, which has been an issue the last few years, and they’ve been gap sound.

You don’t see guys in the wrong places. You don’t see guys abandoning their assignment to try to make a play and wind up allowing a bigger play.

“They’re just unselfish players,” Ryans said of the defensive line. “Some guys, as a defensive line they want to shine, they want to make all the plays, and they get away from what they’re supposed to be doing.

“These guys have been solid. We’re just coming up and assisting them and trying to get in on the tackle.”

Overall, the Eagles are 12th in the NFL in rush defense. They haven’t finished that high since 2009, when they were ninth.

“I love it when teams try to run on us,” Thornton said. “I love when it’s third-and-short or fourth-and short, whatever it is, and you know they’re going to run, and it’s just us against them. I love playing run defense. You have to if you want to be good at it.”

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