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It’s hard to run on the Houston Texans, but the Eagles know they still have to try

The Texans give up 3.6 yards per carry, the lowest figure in the NFL, but if you don't try to run, you give their fearsome pass rush free rein.

Eagles running back Wendell Smallwood celebrates his third-quarter touchdown run with offensive tackle Lane Johnson and offensive guard Stefen Wisniewski (right) against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, December 16, 2018 in Los Angeles.  DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Eagles running back Wendell Smallwood celebrates his third-quarter touchdown run with offensive tackle Lane Johnson and offensive guard Stefen Wisniewski (right) against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, December 16, 2018 in Los Angeles. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff PhotographerRead moreDAVID MAIALETTI/ Staff Photographer

If you listen to, read or watch any analysis of the Eagles’ matchup against the Houston Texans Sunday, you might encounter the idea that the Eagles won’t be able to run the ball, against a team that gives up an NFL-low 3.6 yards per carry.

This is the wrong way to look at it.

Most people agree that the Eagles’ ground game was a big part of last week’s 30-23 upset of the Los Angeles Rams, right? In that game, the Eagles ran for 111 yards on 30 carries. Let’s see, that works out to, um, looks like 3.7 yards per carry?

Much of the perception of run-game success last week might be based on the three running touchdowns the Eagles scored, and the Texans have given up only eight of those all season, yet still: The Eagles’ offense only works when the other team’s defense has to account for the run game, consistently. Thirty-one passes and 30 runs last week was the most balanced the offense has been all season, and not coincidentally, Nick Foles was able to amass 270 passing yards on 24 completions – 11.3 yards per catch.

The Texans have a really good defensive front and linebacking corps, but the Eagles have a really good offensive line that is getting healthier and playing more consistently than it has all season. The run-game matchup is one the Eagles know they cannot shy away from.

“We’re going to see,” right tackle Lane Johnson said, when asked if his team can run on the Texans. “That’s going to be the big test. They’re really stout against the run. Besides [J.J.] Watt and [Jadeveon] Clowney, they’ve got good interior guys. As far as being able to win the game, we’re going to have to be able to run the ball.”

Right guard Brandon Brooks, who played his first four NFL seasons for the Texans, noted that “they’ve got some pretty good players up front, and so do we.”

The Indianapolis Colts are the only team to have beaten the 10-4 Texans since their 0-3 start. Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Friday he has spoken with Colts coach Frank Reich, Pederson’s former offensive coordinator, about the Texans, and presumably, about that 24-21 Colts victory at Houston on Dec. 9, the second encounter of the season between the AFC South opponents.

Of course, Pederson didn’t say what they discussed. The Colts gained just 50 rushing yards, on 23 carries, in that game, their longest run being a 13-yard Andrew Luck scramble, but maybe the 23 was more significant than the 50. Indianapolis didn’t abandon the run, despite averaging just 2.2 yards per carry.

In the previous Texans-Colts encounter, a 37-34 Texans victory, Luck threw 62 passes and took four sacks. He threw four touchdown passes that day, but the Colts ran just 17 times, for 41 yards, and they lost.

“We’re definitely going to try to run it,” left guard Stefen Wisniewski said. “We know they’re a good front, but if we stick with it and execute and do what we do, that’s a strength of ours.”

Last week, the Texans had to come back late to beat the Jets, 29-22. The Jets gained 90 rushing yards on 31 carries, but 35 of those came on six runs by rookie quarterback Sam Darnold.

Maddox has played Watson before

Eagles rookie corner Avonte Maddox took on Texans quarterback DeShaun Watson two years ago, on behalf of the Pitt Panthers, when Watson was quarterbacking Clemson. The unranked Panthers went into Death Valley and pulled off a 43-42 upset of the No. 2-ranked Tigers. Maddox made nine solo tackles and grabbed an interception.

“That was a good game,” Maddox said Friday. “[Watson] can make something out of nothing.”

“When you have a quarterback that can run and throw, it definitely makes the game harder. … You don’t know if he’s going to take off or if he’s going to stay behind the line and throw it to someone. You gotta go the extra mile when you’re covering someone.”

Maddox said that this week, if a defensive back is going to sneak a peek at what’s going on in the backfield, “you gotta be quick” to not lose coverage.

Injury outlook

The Eagles expect to get back middle linebacker Jordan Hicks (calf) and defensive tackle Tim Jernigan (back) for Sunday’s game. Not ready yet are corner Sidney Jones (hamstring), left guard Isaac Seumalo (pec) and of course, quarterback Carson Wentz (back). Corner Cre’von LeBlanc showed up on the injury report Friday as “questionable” with a hamstring.

Rookie offensive tackle Jordan Mailata, who went on injured reserve last week after suffering a back injury, said Friday that he, like Wentz, has a stress fracture. Mailata acknowledged that he is disappointed that he won’t appear in a regular-season game this year, as he tries to learn football from scratch. He said he has been told he will be fully healthy in about six weeks. His intention is to train with Jason Peters this offseason, he said.

Alshon’s OK

Alshon Jeffery, who caught eight passes for 160 yards last week at the Rams, missed Thursday’s practice with an illness but was able to practice fully Friday in what he described as an intense session.

Jeffery said the Eagles need to “be where our feet are” this weekend, presumably not worrying about playoff scenarios or anything other than beating Houston.