The Atlanta Falcons had second and 10 on the Eagles' 48-yard line midway through the first quarter of Sunday's game, and quarterback Matt Ryan handed the ball to Michael Turner, who started the day ranked third in the NFL in rushing.

If the bruising Turner had picked up, say, 5 or 6 yards, Ryan would have had a plethora of options on third down. But Turner was smothered by Brodrick Bunkley and Trent Cole for a 3-yard loss. Faced with third and 13, the Eagles knew Ryan had to pass. They brought pressure, and Ryan's throw was intercepted by Asante Samuel.

This is an example of what a sturdy rushing defense can do, and it's what the Eagles will need more of if they are to stay in the chase for a playoff spot.

"You just hate having a team have a third and 3 or third and 4," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson said yesterday. "When you stop the run on first and second down and you force a team into third and 8, third and 9, that's what you hope for. That's what good run defense does for you - it forces them into those third-and-long situations."

Those situations also give Johnson the freedom to call blitzes.

In the first four games of the season, the Eagles allowed the fewest rushing yards in the NFL. Then the Washington Redskins and Clinton Portis gashed them for 203 yards and handed them a 23-17 defeat. In the next game, San Francisco and Frank Gore ran for 131 yards against them. The Eagles won, 40-26, but the dreadful 49ers had them on the precipice until the fourth quarter.

In those two games, Johnson said, the Eagles didn't do well at gap control - translation, clog the running lanes - and didn't tackle well.

In the 27-14 victory over the Falcons, "we really tackled well and we had a lot of people around the football," Johnson said. "We set the edge."

Turner "didn't get outside except for maybe one play," he said. "We didn't have a lot of missed tackles."

The Eagles' rushing defense, which allowed 77 yards, looked like the one that had stopped St. Louis' Steven Jackson, Pittsburgh's Willie Parker, and Chicago's Matt Forte.

In the 41-37 loss to Dallas, it held Marion Barber to 63 yards on 18 carries, but the passing game burned the Eagles. However, in the next game against the Cowboys, the Eagles will like their chances if they again wrap up Barber.

"It was nice to see the defense step up like they did against the run game and against what I thought was a good-combination team, run and pass," head coach Andy Reid said of Sunday's game. "I thought with Turner, being the back that he was, I thought the defense did a nice job."

The Eagles' rushing defense is at its best when the two tackles, Bunkley and Mike Patterson, clog the middle, forcing running backs to Cole's side. Cole, an end, leads the Eagles with six tackles for losses.

Like the offense and special teams, the Eagles' defense has been inconsistent, although it's closer to being reliable week in and week out than the other facets. Johnson said he saw signs Sunday that it would be consistent.

"I'm confident we will be," he said.

Johnson indicated that the Falcons should have been held to one touchdown rather than two. He thought the Falcons' fourth-quarter touchdown shouldn't have happened.

On the play, Ryan hit Roddy White for an 8-yard score that pulled the Falcons to within 20-14 with 3 minutes, 55 seconds to go. The touchdown was scored two plays after Ryan converted a fourth and 5 on a 6-yard pass to White.

"They had fourth down right there and we were in great position," Johnson said. "You get them into a throwing game, you've got to come up with a couple plays. That's how you become more consistent."

So far this season, rushing yards against the NFC East have come hard. The Redskins are second against the run in the NFC, the New York Giants fourth, the Eagles sixth, and the Cowboys seventh. There's little doubt the teams that continue to do the best job against the run will have a much better chance of playing in the postseason.