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September 24, 2018

Eagles run defense is best in the NFL: 'We'd rather them beat us in the air'

Eagles NFL
0924_Barnett_Bradham_USAT Eric Hartline/USA Today Sports

The Eagles' rush defense has been the best in the NFL for the last two seasons.

If you take away Andrew Luck's 33-yard scramble in the Eagles' Week 3 win over the Colts, the Birds' defense allowed just 35 yards on the ground — an impressive mark to be sure.

Through the Eagles' first three games, they have allowed the fewest rushing yards, 185, of any team that has played in three games thus far and the lowest yards per game, 61.7 yards.

Stopping the run is the engine that sets up the rest of the Eagles defensive game plan. Here's how defensive end Brandon Graham explains it.

"We are prideful men," he said Sunday, after the Eagles held the Colts to just three rushing first downs. "We don't want to go out there and get ran on. We'd rather them beat us in the air if that's what it's gotta be. We try not to let them be balanced, running the ball lets them be balanced. It's a lot of stuff people try and throw at us, but I think we do a good job of rallying to the ball and filling the gaps."

Graham's analysis is spot on when looking at the Eagles' opponents run-to-pass ratio. In their three games thus far, the Eagles have seen the Colts, Buccaneers and Falcons throw the ball nearly 70 percent of the time, second most in the NFL.

"I think the biggest thing for us," Fletcher Cox said, "in this defense is we know that if we stop the run we can go and rush the quarterback. Guys have done a great job... we all know that."

The Super Bowl winning squad last year followed the same blueprint. They allowed just 1,267 yards on the ground, least in the league, with just seven rushing touchdowns, tied for the fewest. And by shutting down the ground game, they made opponents completely one dimensional.

 Team 2017 Opponent Pass Ratio
 Eagles66.2%
 Panthers62.8%
 Titans62.2%


As seen in the chart above, the Eagles faced fewer runs and more passes than any other defense — which tests their secondary but also creates a big advantage in time of possession, like the 40:20 Philly held the ball for against Indianapolis on Sunday.

Players can't even remember the last time a 100-yard rusher showed up their defense. 

"It's been a minute," Graham said.

It was actually Ezekiel Elliott back in Week 17 last year, in a meaningless game that saw most first-teamers sit out — which is probably why Graham doesn't remember it. Prior to that, ironically, the last 100-yard rusher was Matt Jones on October 16th of 2016, Doug Pederson's fifth game as head coach. Jones, of course, was a member of the Eagles in training camp but did not make the team's final roster.

It's clear that Jim Schwartz has emphasized stopping the run as the catalyst for everything in his defense. And the results are proven — which is why the team spends so much time on the practice field and in the meeting rooms focusing on doing so.

"It's leadership on the team," Derek Barnett said when asked why the team was so good against the run. "The older guys hold us accountable in practice and make us learn fast. We hang out hat on stopping the run."

In Week 4 the Eagles face the Titans, a team dedicated to the run (98 attempts over three games for 366 yards) but not particularly proficient at it (just 3.7 yards per carry and a single touchdown).


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