After multiple convincing, complete efforts early in the season, the Philadelphia Eagles look like a legitimate Super Bowl contender with top units on both sides of the ball.
However, their inability to stop the run in recent weeks is one cause for concern for a team that will look to avoid gloating about an impressive record and continue to improve their weaknesses to prepare for postseason play.
Eagles Weak on Ground
The Eagles ranked 20th in the NFL in rushing defense after Sunday’s games went final. The position doesn’t properly represent an element of the game that fluctuates significantly based on game circumstances.
After leading at halftime in their first seven games of the 2022 season, they headed to the locker room tied against the Houston Texans in Week 9. A second-half deficit forces opposing offenses to focus less on the running game, which has limited the amount of rushing attempts by opponents late in games.
Philadelphia ranks 29th in the NFL allowing 5.2 yards per carry to their opponents. The DVOA metric from Football Outsiders, which “measures a team’s efficiency by comparing success on every single play to a league average based on situation and opponent,” ranks the Eagles 22nd in run defense.
Opponents have torched the Eagles for 570 yards on the ground in the past four games for an average of 142.5 per game. The only NFL teams allowing a higher average per game for the entire season are the Texans, the Detroit Lions, and the Chicago Bears.
Their long-time kryptonite Ezekiel Elliott set season-highs with 81 yards and 6.2 yards per carry at Lincoln Financial Field in Week 6. His teammate Tony Pollard chipped in as a solid complement during the Cowboys’ second-half comeback attempt.
The Pittsburgh Steelers exceeded the 27th-ranked season average of 94.9 rushing yards with 144 rushing yards on 24 carries in Philadelphia in Week 8. They outgained their season high by 35 yards.
Rookie Dameon Pierce set a career high with 139 yards on 27 carries on Thursday. His individual number exceeded Houston’s season high in rushing yards. Their team total of 168 rushing yards topped their previous high by 37 set in Week 4 against the Los Angeles Chargers, the 29th-ranked rushing defense in the NFL.
St. Joseph’s Prep graduate and Lions running back D’Andre Swift slashed the Eagles defensive front in the season opener for 144 yards on 15 carries. Nick Sirianni insisted on light contact during training camp, and the rust showed when the defense had trouble tackling Swift all afternoon.
The problem reared its ugly head on Thursday night when Pierce shook off defenders all night in Houston.
Problems Looming for the Eagles
Jordan Davis left the Week 8 game against the Steelers with a high-ankle sprain. The rookie defensive tackle will miss at least four weeks during a tough stretch for the Eagles against potential mismatch running backs.
The 6-foot-6, 335-pound mountain had been playing only about a third of the defensive snaps each week for the Eagles. The defensive tackle rotation favored him in running situations, and his teammates already showed how much they miss him on Thursday against Pierce and the Texans.
The upcoming schedule features some of the top running backs in the NFL. After next week’s game against Washington, the Eagles will hit the road to face the Indianapolis Colts. Their starting tailback Jonathan Taylor led the NFL in rushing in 2021 by a margin of 552 yards over the second-place Nick Chubb.
The Colts find themselves in disarray, and they haven’t been able to unleash Taylor to his full potential this season. If the Eagles allow Taylor to break out despite the league’s 30th-ranked rushing offense, they’ll know they’re in real trouble.
Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans will visit the Linc on Dec. 4, the first game Davis is eligible to play following the team’s decision to place him on injured reserve. The former 2000-yard rusher looks to have returned to full health for the eighth-ranked rushing offense.
The 6-2 New York Giants have leaned on the fifth-ranked rushing offense in the NFL. Saquon Barkley has been boom or bust in 2022, but he certainly owns the ability to expose a porous defense. The Eagles will take the turnpike to North Jersey in Week 14 and return home for a matchup against the Giants on the final day of the regular season.
The last Eagles team to begin a season with an undefeated stretch of at least seven games also had issues stopping the run during the first half of year. The 2004 Eagles finished 18th in DVOA rushing defense and 16th in overall rushing defense.
They began the season with an underwhelming cast of starting linebackers with Mark Simoneau in the middle of Nate Wayne and Dhani Jones in their base defense. After four games, the weakness began to show. The Carolina Panthers ran for 158 yards in Week 6. The Cleveland Browns topped them with 165 in Week 7, and the Ravens also eclipsed the century mark with 113 in Week 8.
The glaring hole finally cost the 7-0 Eagles when the Steelers embarrassed them 27-3 behind a dominant ground game. A supposedly washed-up version of Jerome Bettis stumbled into the secondary at will for 149 yards on 33 carries. Pittsburgh ran for 252 yards as a team.
The solution came the following week. The Eagles inserted middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter into the starting lineup.
The Axe Man proved himself as the perfect solution after a two-year hiatus in Washington following Pro Bowl seasons in 2000 and 2001. The Eagles played six more regular-season games that impacted the NFC standings and held their opponents under 100 yards on the ground in five of them. They reached the Super Bowl for the second time in franchise history.
The absence of Jordan Davis cannot mean the downfall of the Eagles defense. Jonathan Gannon will now face the issue of mixing the defensive looks in the absence of his rookie tackle.
The depth of the defensive front with starting-caliber tackles Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave, serviceable reserve personnel like Milton Williams and Marlon Tuipulotu, and ends who can shuffle inside in select packages like Brandon Graham and Josh Sweat sets Gannon up with enough options for a creative approach.
While the Eagles won’t be inserting a dominant middle linebacker like the 2004 team did, they will most likely get Davis back in the lineup down the stretch and for the postseason. The reinforcement could be needed to patch up what has become a noticeable weakness of the NFL’s top team.
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez