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Expect the Cardinals to load up against the run

If there's a lesson for the Cardinals to learn from the New York Giants' defensive game plan in last week's 27-0 loss to the Eagles, it is that LeSean McCoy and the Eagles' ground attack are still potent against even or minus-one numbers in the box.

Eagles running back LeSean McCoy. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Eagles running back LeSean McCoy. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

If there's a lesson for the Cardinals to learn from the New York Giants' defensive game plan in last week's 27-0 loss to the Eagles, it is that LeSean McCoy and the Eagles' ground attack are still potent against even or minus-one numbers in the box.

Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell chose, for the most part, to keep his safeties in coverage, and the Eagles made him pay. McCoy rushed for 149 yards, and a collective sigh of relief seemed to emanate from the Eagles' locker room afterward. The running-game woes appeared to have been cured.

It wouldn't be accurate to say the ground success was strictly a product of Fewell's head-scratching decision. McCoy ran with authority. The offensive line opened up myriad lanes. And Chip Kelly and his assistants devised an effective game plan that had wrinkles and Nick Foles handing off more from under center than usual.

But what was Fewell thinking?

Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles won't make the same mistake. He will watch film of the first six games and come to the easy conclusion that loading the box and forcing Nick Foles and the passing game to beat Arizona will be the best way to slow the Eagles offense.

Defenses tried this at times last season, but Foles made them suffer through the air. This year . . . not so much. But last season wasn't all roses, and for most of the second half of the Eagles' win over the Cardinals in December, Foles was neutralized.

There were extenuating circumstances, of course. The Eagles were up, 24-7, and trying to kill the clock. But Foles couldn't get anything going against a relentless pass rush. Down the stretch, he completed just 1 of 7 passes for 9 yards and was sacked three times, but the Eagles survived, 24-21.

The 5-1 Cardinals return much of the same personnel and have the NFL's top-ranked run defense, but their pass defense - at least statistically (31st) - hasn't been as stout as it was in 2013. Kelly offered his theory.

"The Cardinals offense is so good," he said Tuesday, "they've been up in almost every game they've played, so people at the end of the game have to throw the ball more than they have to run the ball."

Arizona's offense is ranked 28th in total yards but is tied for 14th in points per game. Nonetheless, if the Eagles want to keep their running game rolling for another week, they will have to do it against one of the best 3-4 base defenses in the league.

"I think their scheme is somewhat unique in terms of getting in and out of fronts," Kelly said. "They run a lot of different looks on the defensive side of the ball, so they can confuse you a little bit."

Although the Eagles have struggled to run against odd-man fronts, Kelly said that the Cardinals sometimes use two- or four-man fronts on base downs. But they still will crowd the box and bring a safety down because cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie can be singled up on receivers.

"We've seen it on film," Eagles center David Molk said.

Generally, though, Arizona employs the same base look up front: three down linemen and two stand-up outside linebackers on the edges. Kelly has said before that he prefers a 3-4 because more run gaps are filled with five men on the line. It's also the ideal scheme to slow some of the Eagles' favorite running plays.

"You have guys two-gapping, and a big part of our game is the inside zone," tackle Lane Johnson said. "A lot of the 3-4s have big bodies there that can close up gaps and you don't get as many vertical voids up to the linebacker."

The Eagles don't necessarily need to have success on the ground to win. Kelly has shown that he can counter and call an air strike. But he prefers balance, and the Eagles still will attempt to establish the run even with regular offensive linemen Jason Kelce and Evan Mathis out for another week.

"The run game's always good," Molk said. "But just like any play ever written in football, it asks for a certain look, and that's when it's successful. When you get a look that's built to prevent that, it's hard. Every play is going to be hard, every yard is going to be hard."

If that's the case Sunday in Arizona, Foles and the passing game will have to take advantage of one-on-one opportunities in the secondary. Foles has cut down on last season's high number of sacks, but the argument could be made that he has overcompensated and forced throws. His interception rate is 29th among starting quarterbacks.

"I want to eliminate turnovers," said Foles, who also has three fumbles. "That's a big thing I'm focusing on. You never want to turn over the ball."

If there was an Eagles player who benefited most from the bye week, aside from those on the injury list, it may have been Foles, who was suffering from a bruised left shoulder.

"Body feels really good," he said. "Left shoulder's feeling great."

He's going to need it. He may have to carry the offense for another week - or more.