The Eagles are 26th in run defense this season, which is a considerable ways down from last year (third), the year before (seventh), and the year before that (first).
But Jim Schwartz and his players have taken solace in the fact that a significant portion of the 133 yards a game average they’re giving up on the ground haven’t been real rushing yards.
More than 40% of those 133 yards have been accumulated by wide receivers on fancy-schmancy end-arounds, reverses, and jet sweeps, and by quarterbacks on read-options.
When the ball has been in a running back’s hands, the Eagles have been up to the task, holding them to an average of 3.4 yards per carry.
“Job No. 1 for us is being able to stop the running backs,” Eagles linebackers coach Ken Flajole said last week.
Well, on Sunday, we’re going to find out just how good the Eagles really are at Job No. 1 when they take on the Cleveland Browns and their two-headed running back monster, Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb.
Hunt and Chubb not only are the best 1-2 running combination in the NFL, they also may be the best two running backs in the league, period.
Hunt is sixth in the NFL in rushing with 633 yards and a 4.7 yards-per-carry average.
Chubb, who missed four games with a knee injury, has rushed for 461 yards and is averaging 6.1 yards per carry with five touchdowns. He has 24 rushing first downs in just 76 carries.
The Browns are fourth in rushing (159.0) and third in rush average (5.1), and there’s no trickeration in their smashmouth running philosophy. They make sure you see the punch coming.
Last week, in Chubb’s first game back from injury, the pair combined for 230 yards on 38 carries in a 10-7 win over the Houston Texans.
Earlier this season, they combined for 210 yards on 32 carries in a win over the Bengals, and 154 yards on 35 carries in a win over Washington.
“It’s our biggest challenge of the season in the run game,” Schwartz, the Eagles’ fifth-year defensive coordinator, said Tuesday. “And how well we stop the run is going to go a long way to how well we play in this game.”
The 5-foot-11, 216-pound Hunt and the 5-11, 221-pound Chubb both are exceptional yards-after-contact runners. Chubb is a violent ballcarrier who is first in the NFL in average yards after contact (4.41). Hunt is 14th (3.41). The Browns have combined for a league-high 50 runs of 10-plus yards, 41 by Hunt (24) and Chubb (17). The Eagles have given up just 16 runs of 10 yards or more to running backs in their first nine games.
“They’re both downhill runners,” Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said. “Both really good yards-after-contact guys. We have to make sure we wrap them up. We have to make sure we go out and play team football, team defense.”
“They run hard,” safety Rodney McLeod said. “We have to have population to the ball. It’s going to take more than one man to get this done. Everybody’s going to have to play their part. And we’re going to have to get a lot of hats to the ball to get those two on the ground.”
One of the best hires the Browns’ first-year coach Kevin Stefanski made was Bill Callahan. The 64-year-old Callahan is regarded as one of the top offensive line coaches in the NFL, and essentially serves as the Browns’ run-game coordinator.
“Callahan is just a great coach,” said NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger, who played 11 years in the league. “They play 12- and 22-personnel with a fullback [Andy Janovich]. They ask both of their tight ends [Austin Hooper and rookie Harrison Bryant] to block a lot, and they do. They block in tandem really well.
“Their inside three [guards Joel Batonio and Wyatt Tiller, and center J.C. Tretter] are as good as there is in the league. And those two backs are so good. They don’t go down. You’ve got to wrap them up and gang-tackle them. Otherwise they just keep running.”
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was the first pick in the 2018 draft. But he’s been mostly a game manager this season. They’re averaging the third-fewest pass attempts (28.4) and the seventh-most rushing attempts (31.0) in the league. Mayfield has thrown 10 or fewer passes in the second half of five of the Browns’ nine games.
“If they have success running the ball, they’re going to keep doing it,” Baldinger said. “They’ll play-action pass off of it a little bit. But if you don’t stop them, they’ll just stay with it. If they get 35-40 runs, they’ll have control of the game.
“I don’t think anybody can shut them down if they get 30 carries. You just can’t let them get the carries. You’ve got to play with the lead.”
Unfortunately for the Eagles, they haven’t been good at playing with the lead this season. They’ve been outscored on their first two possessions, 52-32. They’ve been outscored in the first quarter, 59-45, and in the first half, 109-88.
Quarterback Carson Wentz has thrown just two first-quarter touchdown passes and four in the first half.
The pressure will be on the Eagles’ oft-maligned linebackers. They need to step up and play well if the defense has any hope of slowing down Chubb and Hunt.
“If your run fits aren’t sound ... and it’s hard in Schwartz’s scheme just because of how he allows the defensive line to penetrate and kind of do what they want to do, it’s kind of hard to just play linebacker in that defense,” Baldinger said.
“Those backs, if they see an open gap, they’re going to hit it. They’ll expose you if you’re not tight with your run fits.”
Said second-year linebacker T.J. Edwards: “You see those guys hitting the hole 100 miles an hour and not looking to stop any time soon. Once they get through those interior run gaps, they’re out of the gate.
“So we have to do a good job of reading our keys, squeezing those gaps, and trying to make it more difficult for them. It’s a great matchup, and I think it’s one of those things where we get to go out and show who we are and move on from what happened last week [a 27-17 loss to the Giants], and just get things going again.”