The standard for defensive football in Philadelphia is the famed 1991 Eagles unit – one of the best defenses in NFL history. This year's defense could share something in common with that group: It will finish No. 1 in the NFL against the run.
The Eagles enter Sunday's regular-season finale against the Dallas Cowboys atop the NFL by limiting opponents to 75.9 rushing yards per game. The Minnesota Vikings are No. 2 with 87.1 rushing yards, and the 169 yards between the two teams makes it unlikely that the Eagles will fall in the rankings. If they stay No. 1, it will be the first time in 26 years the Eagles will have the NFL's best run defense. (The 1991 defense held opponents to 71 rushing yards per game.)
"It's an attitude," defensive tackle Tim Jernigan said. "I think this day in the age in the NFL, a lot of defensive linemen look over playing the run. A lot of guys just care about getting sacks and putting pressure on the quarterback. But I think teams that play great run defense usually are the teams that are standing in the end."
The Eagles will need their run defense most next month. All six of the projected NFC playoff teams rank in the top 10 in the NFL in rushing offense. The NFC's three Pro Bowl running backs all play for playoff teams – and it's quite possible the Eagles will face Los Angeles' Todd Gurley or New Orleans' Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara in their first playoff game.
"I do think that playoff time, the ability to stop the run can be a big thing, in particular, because we're going to be playing games here at the Linc and maybe it's nasty weather," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. "Not every game in January is ideal conditions, and sometimes it's tough to throw the ball. We've all been around games like that, and teams have to lean more on the run game. So I think it can be important going forward."
Schwartz has emphasized trying to make opponents one-dimensional. If the Eagles can force opponents to abandon the run, it allows the pass rush to shine and helps the Eagles' coverage concepts. They're much easier to play against when they allow yards on the ground.
The Eagles have not yet allowed a 100-yard rusher – Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott will test that streak Sunday – and have allowed more than 100 rushing yards in only five games this season. Three of those games have come in the last four weeks, including a season-high 137 yards against the Oakland Raiders on Monday. So the Eagles have shown vulnerability in recent weeks.
"There were some chunk runs in there," coach Doug Pederson said, "but at the end of the day, the defense made the stops when they had to."
The Raiders had three rushes for more than 15 yards; the Eagles have allowed only six total rushes of more than 15 yards in 15 games this season. Fletcher Cox said one of the keys for the Eagles rush defense has been the negative plays. The Eagles have forced 54 rushes with lost yards, excluding quarterback kneels. Only two of those rushes came against Oakland.
"In recent weeks, we haven't been quite like ourselves, but at the end of the day, it's the same 11 guys," Jernigan said. "So we know that we can do that. It's on tape. We've proven to ourselves that we can get the job done. …We'll be fine."
It sounds as if the Eagles will use veteran Dannell Ellerbe in the base defense against the run. Schwartz said Ellerbe is a "tough, inside-run defender." But most of the key players on the Eagles run defense were with the team last season, when they finished 15th in the NFL against the run. They replaced Bennie Logan with Jernigan and lost Jordan Hicks for the season in October, yet they're better this year than last year.
"The thing about this year it's the second in the year in the scheme and guys are more comfortable with each other," Cox said.
Mychal Kendricks' playing time jumped after Hicks' injury because he played in nickel situations. He has been a productive run defender and said the key for the group is understanding the scheme and entering games well prepared. He's been a part of good run defenses in six years in Philadelphia, but never a group that fits a scheme like the one the Eagles have now.
"It doesn't always happen," Kendricks said, "but it's special when it does."
It helps the Eagles' run defense that they've faced the fewest rushes in the NFL – only 305, 22 fewer than the next team and 160 fewer than the 32nd-ranked San Francisco 49ers. That makes a big difference. The Eagles rank fifth in the NFL with 3.7 yards allowed per rush, only a fraction better than the 49ers' 3.8 yards allowed per rush. Yet the 49ers allow 41 more rushing yards per game.
The reason the Eagles have faced so few rush attempts is they've often played from ahead this season – the dip in run defense in recent weeks corresponds to closer games – as well as Schwartz's hopes of forcing teams to try to pass.
They might not have the luxury of big leads in the postseason, but they're going to need their run defense to play to its ranking.