Eagles must stay close to New Orleans to keep running game a viable threat


Rushing attack is a big reason why Eagles have won four in a row, even though it hasn't always been fruitful

The Eagles’ offensive line wasn’t exactly opening mammoth running lanes against the Chicago Bears on Sunday. In fact, the Birds averaged just 1.8 yards per carry.

Not many teams are capable of winning with that kind of microscopic average, and that is because teams typically abandon the run when they aren’t having early success. Doug Pederson has done that this year – stopped running and started passing and passing and passing.

Not in Chicago. The Eagles coach kept dialing up running plays, as difficult as it may have been to do since the Bears did a great job stuffing them. Pederson, though, kept trying. He was committed to the run.

It’s been that way during this season-long four-game winning streak.

Against the Bears, Pederson called 23 runs, and, while many of them went nowhere except back to the line of scrimmage, he didn’t stop. That in turn prevented the Bears from forgetting about stopping the run all together to heat things up for quarterback Nick Foles.

Specifically, Khalil Mack never was able to muster much traction in the pass rush and didn’t have a sack, despite getting 12.5 of them in the regular season.

The running game wasn’t a thing of beauty against the Houston Texans, either. The Eagles averaged 2.6 yards per rush in that 32-30 win, but again, Pederson stuck with it. He called 22 runs. That kept the Texan’s pass rush at bay. J.J. Watt, who had the second highest sack total in the regular season with 16 didn’t get to Foles, either.

Same with Aaron Donald, who was the NFL’s sack leader with 20.5. Donald delivered one frighteningly high hit on Foles, but it was after the quarterback had already released the ball, and Donald wasn’t credited with a sack. They had better success on the ground in that 30-23 win, gaining 111 yards on the ground with those 30 attempts.

So that’s three pass rush experts – Mack, Watt, and Donald – with a combined total of 49 sacks who couldn’t get one against the Eagles.

Certainly some of that credit goes to the offensive line, as well as Foles’ penchant for making quick decision and getting rid of the ball in a timely manner, but sticking with the run game is also a factor.

On Monday, Pederson credited his line.

“I think they rise to the occasion,” he said. “They rise to the challenge. Every time that - or any time that we hear a lot about our opponent, especially the guys up front – and listen, you have said it. We have played a lot of really good defensive linemen this year, D-ends, D-tackles and it just seems like our guys have really embraced that opportunity and embraced the challenge and they have a great week of practice and preparation.”

He mentioned practice squad player Joe Ostman, who played the role of Mack last week and Donald three weeks ago.

“He gives us great looks and really that's where it starts,” said Pederson. “Our guys really, as I said, they do embrace it, and they rise up and do a nice job in the (Bears) game.”

Of course, it helps to not fall far behind, because then it becomes more difficult to continue to repeatedly try running the ball.

That’s what happened on the Eagles’ last visit to New Orleans.

The Saints grabbed a 24-7 lead at halftime and never looked back in a breezy 48-7 win.

The Eagles ran the ball just 12 times for 58 yards. The inability to possess the ball – the Saints won time of possession, holding the ball for 37 minutes, 34 seconds to the Eagles’ 22:26 – allowed New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees and his offensive teammates to collect a whopping 546 yards.

On Sunday, the Eagles will need to stay in striking distance of the Saints to keep the run game from having an effect. Getting a lead early would be helpful, too.

The Eagles’ first-quarter scoring was abysmal through the first 13 weeks of the season, with the offense generating just four touchdowns in the opening 15 minutes in those games. The 28 points scored in the first quarter coming out of the overtime loss in Dallas was the lowest in the league.

Since then – and after Nick Foles took over at quarterback – the Eagles have scored points in four straight first quarters for a combined total of 16 points. Not earth-shattering but better.

They will need to continue that trend as well in New Orleans.