Thursday, March 23 2023

The book on the Philadelphia Eagles has been simple and obvious all season long. The best way to compete with them — maybe even the only way — has been by running the ball through their defense. That’s their biggest weakness.

At least it was, until Sunday afternoon, when they slammed that book shut.

In what might have been their most physical and dominant performance of the season, the Eagles sent a warning to the NFL that they’ve fixed their biggest problem. They stopped Titans running back Derrick Henry cold, hammered him every chance they could, and held him to just 30 yards on 11 carries in Philadelphia’s 35-10 win. And it wasn’t like the Titans were able to pass the ball either. They had just 209 total yards and the Eagles sacked Tennessee quarterback Ryan Tannehill six times.

It was a completely dominant performance against a good, physical team that was a statement that the Eagles defense won’t be pushed around anymore.

“Attitude,” is how defensive end Brandon Graham said the Eagles flipped the script on defense. “I felt like everyone’s attitude was to stop Derrick. That’s all we kept hearing. That’s what they are going to do. They are going to run the ball, screen us and play quick ball with play action and deep shots. That’s exactly what we got, and I feel like we started from the jump with meeting them at the line and making tackles.”

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They were certainly up to the challenge against the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry, one of the biggest and most bruising backs in the NFL, not to mention the Titans offensive line. For so much of this season, the Eagles defensive front had been pushed around and they were all missing far too many tackles. They were giving up 120.7 rushing yards per game heading into the game against the Titans.

They’ve known for a long time that if they really want to make a run to the Super Bowl, that was going to have to change.

That’s why Eagles general manager Howie Roseman ran out and signed 34-year-old defensive tackle Linval Joseph and 35-year-old DT Ndamukong Suh last month. He recognized the biggest weakness on his team. And only some of that weakness had to do with the high ankle sprain that landed promising rookie DT Jordan Davis on injured reserve. Davis returned to the lineup on Sunday, but played only six defensive snaps.

It was the rest of the team that finally picked up some of the rushing defense slack.

“Honestly, I thought our D-line just ruined that game,” said Eagles linebacker T.J. Edwards. “I thought they were dominant, all across the board.”

They were, and that’s exactly how Roseman and coach Nick Sirianni envisioned this defense would work. The Eagles have always been about building through the trenches first, but it’s taken some time for things to come together on the defensive side. What they showed on Sunday was a potent rotation, especially in the middle where Davis, Joseph and Suh are joined by Fletcher Cox, Javon Hargrave and Milton Williams.

Add in Graham, Josh Sweat and even Haason Reddick coming off the edge, and it should be a dominant front.

“One of our points of emphasis was to dominate them,” Reddick told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “to go put on film and show the rest of the league that we are one of the most physical, if not the most physical team in the NFL.”

Watch as Colin finally says that he is ‘all-in’ on Jalen Hurts and the Eagles.

There will be some teams lining up to test that in the next few weeks. The Giants, whom they play on Sunday night, don’t have a physical offensive line, but in Saquon Barkley they have one of the most dangerous running backs in the NFL. After that, they go to Chicago to face Justin Fields and the Bears’ top-ranked rushing attack, which is averaging a ridiculous 189.1 yards per game on the ground.

The big test, though, will come on Christmas Eve in Dallas, where the NFC East title might not be on the line, but momentum going into the playoffs surely will be. There is no offense in the NFL clicking more than the Cowboys‘ attack right now. And their powerful offensive line, clearing holes for the 1-2 punch of running backs Ezekiel Elliott (654 rushing yards, 8 touchdowns) and Tony Pollard (852-8) is a huge reason why.

A few weeks ago, it was hard to see how the Eagles could stop an offense like that.

But now, the Eagles suddenly look different. They’ve been the best team in the NFL all season long, with a dangerous and diverse offense, one of the best secondaries in the NFL, great coaching and strong special teams. They’ve had almost everything working for them all year, except for their run defense. And they knew that was something opponents could exploit.

If they really have fixed that problem, though — if what they did to Henry and the Titans was just the start — they might actually be a team without any obvious flaws. There will be no more easy blueprint for how to beat them, no obvious plan of attack.

And if that’s true, if they really are, the Philadelphia Eagles might end up being impossible to stop.

Top stories from FOX Sports:

Ralph Vacchiano is the NFC East reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Washington Commanders, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He spent the previous six years covering the Giants and Jets for SNY TV in New York, and before that, 16 years covering the Giants and the NFL for the New York Daily News. Follow him Twitter at @RalphVacchiano.

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