TRENT COLE remembers maneuvering his way around a pile of linemen, trying to find a path to the ballcarrier. Seven Eagles defenders had clashed with Seattle's offensive front at the line of scrimmage, Philadelphia's 15-yard line.
Initially, the Seahawks' first-down running attempt didn't appear as if it would amount to much of anything. Maybe a yard.
"Everybody was up and the pile was moving," Cole recalled this week of the 2011 play. "And how come this man comes popping up out of the pile with God-dang 15 people on him? Still running . . . I was like, 'Woah.'
"I'll never forget that one."
The man to whom Cole referred is Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks' 5-11, 215-pound contact-seeking, Skittles-loving running back who, in his eighth NFL season, is still producing at an elite level. Slowing him down will be a primary task for the Eagles defense in tomorrow's showdown with the defending champions, in addition to containing dual-threat quarterback Russell Wilson.
It's a chance for an encore for the Eagles' stout run defense, which in the dominant Thanksgiving win over the Cowboys held DeMarco Murray, by far the NFL's leading rusher, to a season-low 73 yards, a performance made even more impressive to those who watched Murray run all over the Bears on Thursday night.
Lynch does not have Murray numbers, but his particular skill set presents unique challenges. Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who, as a member of the Saints, played the Seahawks twice last season, said this week that Lynch is "probably the hardest tackle in football." Defensive coordinator Billy Davis said the same day that "nobody runs the ball harder."
Entering the Week 14 slate of games, Lynch's nine rushing touchdowns led the NFL, as did, according to Pro Football Focus, his 61 broken tackles. That jives with what inside linebacker Casey Matthews reiterated as the biggest challenge when facing Lynch - "bringing him down."
"He breaks a lot of tackles and he fights for those extra yards. I think that's one thing he does better than any running back in this league," Matthews said of Lynch, whose 956 rushing yards this season rank fifth. He will likely tomorrow eclipse 1,000 yards rushing in a season for the sixth time.
"You need a lot of guys at the ball bringing him down because he's tough to bring down with just one guy."
Several Eagles, such as Cole, the veteran defensive end-turned-outside linebacker, learned that the hard way back in December 2011, when Lynch rushed for 148 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-14 Eagles loss at Seattle's CenturyLink Field. Lynch's first-quarter run, the game's first touchdown, was the most memorable play of the night.
"It looked like he was down. It looked like there's no place for him to run," said Matthews, who watched the sequence from the Eagles sideline. "He got wrapped up, it seemed like by everybody, even his own linemen, and then, all of a sudden, he just broke out and ran free."
"He's definitely one of those guys you have to gang-tackle, because, most of the time, he's not going down after first contact," said safety Nate Allen, who, aside from Cole, is the only remaining starter from the Eagles defense who started in the teams' last meeting. "The more hats you get on him, the better."
Run defense has been a strength for this 9-3 Eagles team. They rank 11th in rushing yards allowed per game (107.7) and are tied for seventh in yards given up per carry (3.9). According to the website Football Outsiders and its Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) statistic, the Eagles have the eighth-best rush defense in football.
"I think it's a collective effort that starts with the D-line in the way that they put their hands on people," Davis said this week. "They strike with their hands. They've got a great understanding of controlling blocks and then shedding blocks. So when that front wall is built properly, like ours has really been built properly most of the year, then the rest of the guys fit into place after that.
"I think we've done a lot of work on the tackling aspect. When we first got here, we had to really amp that up and we put a lot of focus on it, and usually what you focus on is what you get. So I think the tackling part has really picked up."
It will have to continue that way tomorrow against Lynch, whose 587 rushing yards after contact rank second to only Murray, according to Pro Football Focus. Despite Murray's incredible season, the Seahawks still boast the league's best rushing offense. Even after Dallas' performance at Chicago on Thursday, Seattle is the only team with more than 2,000 rushing yards, Wilson accounting for 679 of them.
Lynch, Jenkins said, "actually gets stronger as the game goes on."
"The biggest thing is just getting multiple guys to the ball," the safety said. "We can't expect to fit our gaps right and then think your job is over and think the guy next to is just going to get him down by himself. It's going to be a collective effort, guys flying to the ball, getting multiple hats on him and getting him down."
Playing "team defense" will be crucial, Matthews said. The unit wants all 11 players "in the screen" at the end of a given play. That's the case no matter the opponent.
"But this week," Matthews noted, "you really need it."
The Eagles excused running back LeSean McCoy from practice yesterday for personal reasons, according to the team . . . Nick Foles (collarbone) is the only Eagles player ruled out for tomorrow's game. Tight end Trey Burton (hamstring), a limited participant in practice, is questionable. Kicker Cody Parkey (right groin) was also limited in practice but is listed as probable, as are linebacker Emmanuel Acho (groin), running back Chris Polk (ankle) and defensive end Brandon Bair (elbow), each of whom again practiced in full yesterday.