In a season marked by inconsistency, the Eagles have been remarkably consistent in one category that will be vital to their success Sunday against the New York Giants when they play to clinch the NFC East title.
The offense has gone up and down with the tides of injury, and the overall defense has suffered some of the same issues, but from the very start of the season to the most recent game, almost without fail the Eagles have been very good containing opponents’ running games.
This would be a very good trend to continue in MetLife Stadium when they line up to stop … or slow down … or vaguely hamper … or just get in the way ... of running back Saquon Barkley.
The Eagles did a decent job holding down Barkley, the 2018 offensive MVP in his rookie season, when the teams played earlier this month. Barkley was still getting back into form following an ankle injury early in the season that cost him three games and was then aggravated in November.
In the first game, which the Eagles rallied to win in overtime, Barkley gained just 66 yards on 17 carries. That was somewhat typical production for Barkley this season while he regained his health. In the last two weeks, however, his output has been more like what he showed last season when he gained 1,307 yards on the ground and 2,028 all-purpose yards.
“I haven’t felt this good since the bye week,” Barkley said after the Giants beat Washington in overtime on Sunday. “When you go back and watch Philly, we run the ball really well. It’s just how the game played out. We had to go away from the run and unfortunately, we lost that game. These last two weeks we were able to stay with the run.”
Barkley gained 112 yards against Miami two weeks ago, but that was just a prelude to the Redskins game in which he set a career high with 189 rushing yards and 279 all-purpose yards. Quarterback Daniel Jones – who missed the first Eagles game – was freed up by Barkley’s performance to have a day of his own. Jones threw for 352 yards and five touchdowns, becoming the first rookie in NFL history to achieve those numbers without an interception.
“I think that’s what they envisioned when they drafted D.J. and drafted me,” Barkley said. “I think we both have the potential and the talent to play well together and open stuff up for each other.”
The Eagles will be getting their first look at Jones, but Barkley already made an impression, gaining a combined 231 yards on 26 carries in their two meetings last season.
When the Eagles were preparing for Sunday’s game against Dallas, defensive tackle Fletcher Cox was asked if Ezekiel Elliott was the most difficult runner to tackle in the league. It was a softball question and Cox could have batted it out by praising the upcoming opponent, but he just shook his head.
“Saquon Barkley,” Cox said. “Nobody’s harder to tackle than Saquon.”
The respect is well-earned, but the Eagles’ defense has done admirably this season against a fleet of the most productive running backs in the NFL. The defense is ranked third in the league against the run. That stat can be skewed if, for instance, your pass defense is lacking – well, it could be some of that – but for the most part the numbers speak for themselves.
The Eagles have faced 10 of the best 25 running backs in the league, ranked for yards gained, and only Elliott, in the first game of the year between the Eagles and Cowboys, had a breakout day (111 yards). None of the other top runners gained more than 66 yards against them, and the Eagles got their revenge on Elliott last Sunday, holding him to 47 yards on 13 carries.
“Obviously, our style of defense, we are a penetrating style of defense. [The] D-line gets up the field,” coach Doug Pederson said. “Our two tackles take a lot of double teams … so it kind of frees up our ends a little bit, and our linebackers to run and flow and fill the gaps.”
There won’t be a bigger, or more important, challenge for the run-stuffers than keeping track of Barkley with the division championship on the line Sunday afternoon.
“Yeah, it has to be the same. We have to duplicate what we’ve done the last couple weeks,” Pederson said. “My hat is off to those guys because they pride themselves in stopping the rush and, if you can do that, it gives you a chance.”
The Giants, at 4-11, are playing their last game and they know it. They are also aware of what the Eagles are playing for. Motivation comes in all forms, and the Eagles need to make sure theirs matches that of the Giants.
“It’s going to feel a lot different. I actually think it’s going to be a test,” Barkley said. “It’s something not only myself, but the team, is up for. We are playing against a team where this is a playoff game for them. We are going to get their best.”
That would be a good idea for the Eagles, who should know better than to take anything for granted this season. Their best is pretty good. It will particularly have to be in order to slow the freight train who is New York’s best chance at winning.