True or False: The Eagles have one of the best defenses in the NFL against the run.
Right now, you'd have to say that is false. Last season they lost games because of their inability to stop the run, they gave up over 100 yards in each of the first 5 weeks, and the unit gave up over 130 yards 7 times.
But watching this team play in the preseason, they might not be as far away from being one of the top units in the league as you might think. To be a top defense in the NFL, you have to be able to do 2 things: stop the run and rush the passer. Last season the Eagles showed they can rush the passer. This preseason, at least so far, they are showing that they could be one of the best in the NFL at stopping the run.
Take from it what you will, but so far the Eagles defense is top 5 in the NFL this preseason in yards allowed per game. Yes, it is the preseason, and if we went overboard with the numbers Nick Foles would be an MVP candidate. But the other defenses are playing the same brand of (mostly) meaningless football. It isn't only the Eagles defense that is going against opposing offenses that aren't game planning or playing backups.
Anyone who has watched this defense knows that it still has work to do, but this unit has been down right dominant against the run. Check out these numbers through 2 preseason games.
Against the Patriots, the Eagles allowed a total of 40 yards rushing through the first 3 quarters when the first team defense was in. It took the Patriots 21 attempts to get those yards, and of the 21 attempts, the Eagles held them to a yard or less on 7 of them. Overall they held the Patriots to an average of only 1.9 yards per carry. The Eagles were not as successful against Pittsburgh, but if you take away the 33 yard run where Jaiquawn Jarrett joined the Steelers and blocked Cedric Thornton, the team allowed only 26 yards on 10 attempts. They dropped the Steelers first team offense at or behind the line 4 times.
In total, the Eagles first team defense has allowed opposing offenses only 3.3 yards per rushing attempt this preseason. Teams think they can run on the Eagles- that is clear by the 33 rushing attempts on the first team defense in 4 quarters. But so far the defense has shut the door on them. Can they keep it up?
New faces on the defense could allow them to do so.
One of the big reasons the defense has been so successful against the run thus far is the play of Fletcher Cox. The Eagles brought in Cox to clog up the middle with his big body, but he has done much more than just that. When you watch the tape of Cox, you notice that he is in the backfield on nearly every play. He is consistently blowing up plays.
Both the Patriots and the Steelers had problems blocking Cox 1 on 1- he is just too big and too strong. On plays where Cox did not bring down the ball carrier, he forced him to run into another defender. Cox has not been able to finish many plays yet, but that will come.
He also has done a great job so far of collapsing the pocket on opposing quaterbacks. Cox started to show signs of his potential up at training camp, but seeing it translate onto the field during live action is a big sign that the Eagles may have struck gold with their first round pick. Cox might already be this teams best defensive tackle.
Besides Cox, the Eagles have also gotten strong play against the run from Cedric Thornton and Mychal Kendricks. Kendricks leads the team so far with 11 tackles, and has busted up a few plays in the backfield. Thornton is not far behind Kendricks with 8 tackles so far this preseason. The Eagles were already showing steady improvement against the run as the season progressed last year. In their first 5 games, the defense allowed an average of 140 yards per game. In their last 11, they allowed an average of just under 100 per game. Add Cox, Kendricks and Thornton to this team and it is not unfair to expect a big improvement in that area this year. Derek Landri- another strong run defender- will also be seeing more time. The fact that this will also be the teams 2nd year in the Wide-9 will also help.
Over the past 5 seasons, in order to be a top 10 defense against the run, you had to give up an average of roughly 105 yards per game. The Eagles finished 16th (112 rushing yards allowed per game) against the run last year. Can they allow just 7 yards less per game and crack the top 10? They are playing like it. Their is so much talent on this defensive line, not even Juan Castillo could mess it up- and maybe that's why they don't let him near it.
If the Eagles can be better against the run this year, it will go a long way in turning those heartbreaking losses last year into big time wins.
Whether that happens remains to be seen, but so far, it is looking like the Eagles have what it takes to be much better against the run this year.
Follow Eliot Shorr-Parks on Twitter at @EliotShorrParks