When the Eagles hosted the Dallas Cowboys one month ago, Jim Schwartz’s defense was ranked No. 2 in the NFL against the run. That quickly changed after Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott rushed for 151 yards against the Eagles, starting a decline that included three consecutive games in which the Eagles allowed a 100-yard rusher.
The streak stopped near the finish line on Monday night when Adrian Peterson rushed for 98 yards – 90 of which came on one carry. The Eagles held him to eight yards on his other eight carries. Chris Thompson was also limited to three yards on three carries. The game showed both ends of the spectrum of Eagles’ run defense, which will be paramount if they expect to upset the Cowboys in this weekend’s rematch.
“I was proud of the guys the way they rallied behind that and didn't let one bad play become another,” Schwartz said Wednesday.
It might be more a challenge against Elliott, who is No. 2 in the NFL with 1,150 yards. He’s been scorching since his visit to Philadelphia, with 470 rushing yards, 197 receiving yards, and five total touchdowns in four games. The Eagles now have the No. 10 run defense. Their defensive strategy will be focused on trying to contain Elliott.
“Elliott is just so strong,” Schwartz said. “He's hard to tackle one-on-one. He has enough speed that he can get to the edge and he can create big plays. But he's so strong. They are not very complicated in the run game and they don't need to be. Just sort of hand him the ball, and even if there is an extra guy, he can run through them or make them miss.
“He has also really increased his load as his career has gone on in the passing game also. He is a dangerous screen runner. You have to account for him. He's obviously one of the best backs in the league. If we're going to come out with a win, we're going to have to get him stopped.”
Defensive end Brandon Graham lauded Elliott’s patience, saying Elliott stays square at the line, waits until he gets a hole, and then bursts downhill. The key, according to Graham, will be for the Eagles to stay in their gaps and tackle him. The Eagles struggled tackling Elliott in the first meeting.
Schwartz said the Eagles look like better tacklers when they play better team defense. He identified the “individual component” of tackling and the “team component” of tackling, which comes with “knowing the other guys, knowing where everybody else is going to be, knowing when you can take a shot and when you can’t.”
“There are a lot of times where somebody might miss a tackle and you don't even notice because the next guy is there half a second later and makes the play right there,” Schwartz said.
One of the differences in Monday’s win was that the cornerbacks tackled better. When run defense is discussed, it’s often the front seven that gets the attention. But the secondary has a role in it, too, and teams had been attacking perimeter of the Eagles defense.
That’s why there might be confidence that the Eagles run defense, which was No. 1 in the NFL last season, has shown signs of improvement. It’s impossible to eliminate the 90-yard run from discussion, but Schwartz said that wasn’t one player’s mistakes. Rather, there were mistakes on all three levels, and they were identifiable and correctable.
“It's a lot easier for those guys to put mistakes behind them when they know what they were,” Schwartz said. “There was some physical nature to the mistakes, but also some execution stuff, and those are a little bit easier to put behind you.”
As much as stopping the run will be the priority on Sunday, the Eagles cannot lose sight on the rest of the Cowboys offense. Schwartz noted how Dallas is “not a one-trick pony.” Quarterback Dak Prescott has been productive, and the passing game has improved since the addition of Amari Cooper.
“So, it's one of those teams you put too much emphasis on Ezekiel Elliott, all of a sudden Cooper is making a lot of plays down the field or [Cole] Beasley is making a lot of plays on the third-down game,” Schwartz said. “If you don't account for the quarterback, he has the ability to move, even if you get everybody else covered. I think that's probably been the biggest thing that's come out of the last couple of weeks. They've been playing at an efficient level.”
Still, the game plan will start with No. 21. He was a major difference in the game one month ago, and unless the Eagles defend him better, they might finish with the same result.