Around the Eagles, finding things to be concerned about is a tough task these days. At 9-1, on an eight-game winning streak, with an average victory margin of 26.3 points over the past three outings, any criticism involves the picking of nits.
Literal nitpicking is really laborious, by the way, because lice eggs glue themselves to individual hair follicles. Even the finest-toothed combs tend not to do the trick.
The professional sports reporter's toolbox leans more heavily toward jackhammers and blowtorches. Either of which probably would do the job against nits, albeit while inflicting a bit of collateral damage.
Anyhow, here's the thing: The Eagles maintained their status as the No. 1 defense against the run in the NFL, in the wake of Sunday night's victory over Dallas. Even though they gave up 112 rushing yards, significantly more than their 71.0 average. Even though Dallas lead back Alfred Morris gained 91 yards on 17 carries, 5.4 yards per carry, and would have been the first opponent to notch a 100-yard rushing performance against the Eagles this season had his team not fallen so far behind that Morris got his final carry with more than 19 minutes left in the game.
"It was one or two plays that popped, we could clean up. It wasn't anything to panic about," defensive tackle Tim Jernigan said Tuesday. He added that he expects opponents to look at the running success the Cowboys had on the edges and try to mimic it, because there were no huge flaws elsechicago-bears0where to dissect.
"It was really more on our edges. There were some things that we can play a little bit better. I think we set that bar awful high," Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said Tuesday. "There are some teams in the league that — what did we give up, 110, 112 [yards]? I think some people might get a pat on the back for that.
"I think it's a tribute to the players in the locker room that that's a poor performance for them, and they consider it a poor performance. Sometimes that goes a long way to keeping you focused."
The Dallas game reiterated an important point about that No.1 -against-the-run stat: The Eagles also have faced the fewest rushing attempts of any team in the NFL – 193 in 10 games, which you probably would never have guessed works out to 19.3 per game. The 3.7 yards per carry they allow on average is actually fifth-best in the league. The defense benefits from the fact that Carson Wentz usually puts the opponent in a situation where it has to pass.
If you really wanted to work hard to find something to give you pause heading into this week's visit from the 3-7 Chicago Bears, that's about as good as it gets: Chicago, trying to coax along rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, absolutely sticks with the run, regardless. Two-hundred-ninety carries so far, 29 per game, for 1,318 yards, 4.5 yards per carry.
Jordan Howard, drafted when Eagles personnel chief Joe Douglas worked in Chicago, is third in the NFL with 841 rushing yards on 192 carries, 4.4 yards per carry. Rookie Tarik Cohen has another 273 on 64 carries.
"They put both backs on the field at the same time a little bit … Sometimes it's two-back sets, sometimes it's one," Schwartz said. "Traditionally there's a fullback back there in two-back sets, but not so much with the Bears. They can put two [actual runners] back there. It spreads you a little bit thin. You have to be very assignment sound. It'll test us in the run game. "
Schwartz talked a good bit about tackling on Tuesday, which is an important facet of the run-defense conversation. Unlike the Cowboys, the Eagles did not give up a 71-yard run Sunday night. The longest Dallas run went 22 yards, which wasn't exactly a game-breaker, in a game in which the Eagles did not give up a touchdown.
Jernigan and the guys up front have strong, aggressive linebackers, safeties and corners behind them, all of whom tackle well.
"It's always good to have guys you know are going to fight [along] with you, you don't have guys that only play the pass … It feels good to know that there are 11 guys out there that are ready to go to war with you," Jernigan said. "You can always win with that."
"I think the key part of it was that we didn't turn those [runs] into touchdowns," Schwartz said. "Defensively, if you can keep touchdowns off the board — like the first drive of the game, they're already in field-goal range [thanks to Ryan Switzer's 61-yard return of the short opening kickoff], we're able to go out and get a three-and-out. We really can't control the three points that go on the board, but we can control [whether there's a touchdown].
"When it all comes down to it, our job is to keep points off the board … However you do that, takeaways, third-down stops, fourth-down stops, whatever it is, forcing punts — keeping points off the board is the name of the game, and I think they did a good job of doing that."
Indeed, the Eagles are giving up 18.8 points per game (seventh-fewest in the NFL), and the 32 points per game they're scoring is the NFL's highest mark. They are the only team in the league that has scored more than 20 in every game this season. So we'll put away the magnifying glass and comb for a bit.