IN ASSESSING the profound difference in the way the Eagles have stopped the run lately and how they were stopping it earlier in the season, you have your tangibles and you have your intangibles.
The intangibles were what defensive coordinator Sean McDermott talked about the other day, as the Birds prepared for tonight's visit with the Washington Redskins. McDermott was asked about the fact that his defense ranked 27th in the NFL against the run after the Redskins gashed them for 169 yards on the ground in a 17-12 Washington win Oct. 3. The Eagles entered this past weekend ranked 12th in that category, after faring well against San Francisco's Frank Gore, Atlanta's Michael Turner, Tennessee's Chris Johnson and Indianapolis' Donald Brown.
"Well, I think the physical play of our defensive line, No. 1, and then just our defense continuing to come together as an overall defense," McDermott said. "When you talk about run defense, it's not just the front four, it's not just the front seven, but the secondary comes into play as well."
Coming together is surely a wonderful thing, but more tangibly, McDermott installed Moise Fokou at strongside linebacker after that loss to the Redskins, and started playing Antonio Dixon more at defensive tackle. Dixon stepped in as the starter when Brodrick Bunkley suffered an elbow injury at San Francisco Oct. 10.
"That certainly helped," McDermott acknowledged.
"Dixon's playing out of his mind right now," Fokou said. "He's a beast down there in the middle. He's a powerful guy; he gets into their backfield, keeps those big guys [offensive linemen] off of us."
Defensive end Trent Cole said Dixon, obtained on waivers from the Redskins just before the 2009 season, "brings a force. He brings a lot of pressure. He messes things up for the inside, because he's a big, strong guy who can push his way through anybody."
Fokou, meanwhile, has changed the look of the linebacking unit, weakside starter Ernie Sims said.
" 'Moses' is a big, physical linebacker that can play downhill," Sims said. "That's the type of player we need on this defense, somebody who can stuff the run, but at the same time, he can help us in pass defense."
"I'm definitely not the reason," for the improvement, Fokou said. "We definitely put an emphasis on the run. We've been more aggressive on it - setting the edges, feeding everything back to the middle where we can control it."
The strange thing about the success the Redskins had running against the Eagles was that Washington doesn't have a tremendous running attack, ranking 23rd going into the weekend. Clinton Portis tore his groin against the Eagles, hasn't played since, and isn't expected to play tonight. Ryan Torain, whose 70 yards on 18 carries against the Birds were his first extensive action of the season, gained just 10 yards on nine carries in the 'Skins' most recent game, a 37-25 loss at Detroit on Halloween. Torain is expected to start tonight with a pulled hamstring.
That all raises the question of whether the run will be as big a deal tonight as it was last month. Remember, Washington got off to a 14-0 lead in that first game, which changed everything. (Marty Mornhinweg's take on the effectiveness of the Redskins' Cover 2 against his offense: "It worked well, 14 points up. We'll see" how it works this time.)
"We started slow," Fokou said.
Defensive end Darryl Tapp said he expects the 'Skins to stay with the run.
"The game plan they had worked well against us; I would expect them to do that until we show them we can stop their [running game]," Tapp said.
The Eagles said Washington's success had a lot to do with the Birds' unfamiliarity with the way the Redskins approach the run under new coach Mike Shanahan.
"It's the way they try to set new edges," Fokou said. "Moving people around, motioning - let's say you have an edge on this side, well, they might bring a receiver in motion there to crack it. And they don't really attack you at the line, they kind of zone block, which doesn't allow you to get into your gap, pretty much."
In other words, a defender might find, instead of a blocker firing at him, which he might slip around, a couple of blockers walling off an area, not letting him through.
"After you kind of understand what they're trying to do, you can figure out how to attack it," Fokou said. "We'll see if we've figured it out on Monday night."
"There were some situations where the edge just wasn't set in the first game, and it exposed us," Sims said.
The way it looked that day against the 'Skins - and on other early season occasions - was that the Eagles' smaller, speedy defense either lacked the strength or the gumption to get off blocks. Since, then the Birds have gone a long way toward proving that isn't true. Tonight they could take another important step, as the team begins a string of three successive NFC matchups. Five of the Birds' final eight games are within the NFC East, where the Eagles can grab a piece of first place with a victory tonight.
For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.
Follow him on Twitter at