All week, Malcolm Jenkins and other members of the Eagles' defense heard the chatter. They heard about Von Miller, and Chris Harris, and Aqib Talib, and the No Fly Zone, and the nightmares that all of these things were supposed to induce in their teammates on the opposite side of the football. There was an easy inference to make, and the Eagles milked it for all of the motivational power it was worth.
"They're coming into our house," Jenkins said, putting an emphasis on the word, "our." "It was one of those things where we felt like it was an opportunity for us to make a statement."
Well, consider it stated. Even on a day when the Eagles' offense racked up 51 points and 419 yards against one of the most accomplished defenses in recent NFL history, it was impossible to overlook the sheer dominance Jim Schwartz's unit imposed on a hapless Broncos offense. While the headline was undoubtedly the Eagles' relentless pressure on an overwhelmed Brock Osweiler — they sacked him three times, picked him off twice, and probably could have added at least one or two more of both — the foundation for the performance was laid with their success in stopping the run on first and second down.
In a 51-23 win that further bolstered the Eagles case as the NFC's leading Super Bowl contender, a dominant front seven limited Denver to just 35 yards on 19 rushing attempts, an average of a measly 1.8 yards per play. It was the seventh straight game that the Eagles held an opponent under 95 yards rushing, and the eighth game in nine games total, the lone exception a Week 2 loss to the Chiefs in which Kareem Hunt carried 13 times for 81 yards and Kansas City totaled 112 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.
"We knew they would have to protect their quarterback and the only way they could do that was to try to run the ball," Jenkins said. "So we knew we'd have to come off the bus stopping the run."
Their success in doing so has been one of the more under-the-radar reasons for the Eagles' 8-1 start. They entered the game allowing just 3.8 yards per carry, the ninth-best mark among NFL defenses. Their 70.4 rushing yards allowed per game was the best mark in the league, just ahead of the Broncos' 72.9.
One of the pivotal sequences in this one came midway through the second quarter, when a 30-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders helped move the Broncos deep inside Eagles territory, where Denver eventually found itself with a first-and-goal on the Eagles' 5-yard line. Trailing 24-6, the Broncos had a chance to make it a two-possession game heading into halftime. Not ideal, but the closest thing to offensive momentum that they'd achieved to that point. But the Eagles put the clamps down, stopping C.J. Anderson on first and second down for a net of negative yardage, setting up a third-down pass from the 6-yard line that fell incomplete and forced the Broncos to settle for their third field goal.
On a Broncos possession that began at their own 8-yard line late in the first quarter, the Eagles stuffed Denver on three straight running plays for zero, minus-2 and minus-1 yard (one of which was wiped out by an offside penalty).
"When you know it's a run, we're calling it out," defensive end Brandon Graham said. "So if we see it, we just trust it and go with it. Sometimes it's play-action, but at least we have the mindset of 'This is a power play or this is a trap play.' Usually, that's what people run in certain situations."
Graham pointed to a Jamaal Charles run early in the fourth quarter on first-and-goal from the Eagles' 2 that Mychal Kendricks stuffed for a minimal gain.
"That's because people were yelling, 'Trap! Trap! Trap!," Graham said. "That's why we're so good against the run, because everybody is reading their keys and trusting their game preparation. It's paying off because we know what is coming."
The Eagles success in stopping the run on first down has helped make them one of the most dangerous third-down defenses in the league, particularly against below-average quarterbacks like Osweiler and C.J. Beathard, against whom they'd spent the previous Sunday teeing off. Osweiler and the Denver offense converted just three of their 13 third-down attempts. On the opposite side of the ball, the Eagles rushed for 197 yards on 37 carries against the Broncos' vaunted defense.
"They always don't give us credit," Graham said, "but we have to go out there and keep putting people on notice that the Eagles are new and improved."
In doing so, they are getting harder and harder to ignore.
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