Les Bowen: Eagles believe that with work, they can run and stop the run

The Eagles defense will have their hands full with San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
The Eagles defense will have their hands full with San Francisco 49ers running back Frank Gore. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma) (Matt Mullin)
Posted: October 07, 2010

THE RUNNING game isn't often a focal point around Andy Reid's Eagles. Perhaps you've noticed.

This week has been an exception, though. Sunday's 17-12 loss to the Redskins led to an extended emphasis on the offense being able to run productively, to combat the cover-2 scheme Washington used so effectively, and on the defense being able to stop the run, as the Eagles prepare to face the 49ers and two-time Pro Bowl back Frank Gore on Sunday night in San Francisco.

There are huge questions about the Eagles' abilities to do either.

Their defense is ranked 27th against the run, and tends to give up huge chunks of yardage early in games. The offense, under Reid, always has run grudgingly, when forced to do so by opponents shutting down the pass. The Eagles rank 11th in NFL rushing through 4 weeks, but their top two rushers, Michael Vick and LeSean McCoy, have rib-related injuries. Vick is extremely unlikely to play, McCoy might or might not. Together, they have 460 of the Eagles' 527 rushing yards, and 76 of the 95 carries.

Let's examine the defense first. Coordinator Sean McDermott recalled similar concerns being raised after the Birds got pushed around in Pittsburgh in 2004 (a 27-3 loss in which the Steelers ran the ball 56 times for 252 yards) and against the Giants in 2008 (a 36-31 loss in which New York ground out 219 yards on 45 carries). Maybe McDermott picked those examples because both years, the defense got itself together for an extended playoff run, to the Super Bowl in 2004 and to the NFC Championship Game in 2008.

"It's not a problem that we haven't gone through before, and we're going to get it fixed, No. 1," McDermott said. "And No. 2 is, in the run game specifically, it comes down to technique and toughness, so we can work on both of those, and we're working on them this week.

"The toughness part is about attitude, and either you have it inside or you don't. From a technique standpoint, you can work on technique with or without pads, and that's what we're doing this week . . . this is a throwing league, but, at the same time, you can't have an offense running the ball down your throat."

Weakside linebacker Ernie Sims was asked yesterday about the probability that the defense will see a lot of Gore, given the Redskins' 169 rushing yards on 35 carries last week.

"I ain't worried about that. We're working on it every day," Sims said. "We had a hell of a practice [Wednesday], full pads, just working on first and second downs. Today, we're going to do the same thing."

Rookie defensive end Brandon Graham was drafted in the first round to create pass-rush pressure, but now he's expected to step up his play against the run; McDermott often uses Graham, listed at 6-2, 268, inside at tackle, where he is profoundly undersized.

"We go over it in practice, and then in the game, it shouldn't take us until the second half to start stopping stuff," Graham said.

Graham said he played inside some early in his career at Michigan, and doesn't feel lost there, even playing the run.

Offensively, the line has struggled with penalties and consistency. After Kevin Kolb came in for Vick on Sunday, he was criticized for throwing underneath almost exclusively; the Eagles, down 14-0 early, ran just 25 times.

Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was asked yesterday how you keep safeties from playing super deep, negating the big-play potential of DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, as the Redskins did last week.

"Well, you run the football, and then you've got to hit all underneath guys, and you've got to drive down the field, in many cases, two or three times. We had a couple of long drives [against Washington]. We've just got to be better that way," he said.

There seems to be a decent chance that McCoy will try to play, though he hasn't practiced. It's unclear how effective he can be with a cracked rib.

"He's day-to-day," Mornhinweg said. "He's a tough guy, now. I'll tell you what, you put the film on in that second half [after the injury], you would have never thought that he had any type of injury at all. Tough guy. Give him credit for that. He played hard. He played physical, even when he was banged up just a bit there.

"I think Mike Bell's an outstanding back. He's ready to go. We also have a couple other guys [special teamers Eldra Buckley and Joique Bell] that I don't want to get into quite yet, personnelwise, but they'll be ready to go, as well."

Bell, who has gained just 20 yards on a dozen carries, has declined to speak with reporters this week, saying he wants to focus on the game. Mornhinweg was asked why Bell - a solid role player for the Super Bowl champion Saints last season - has been so ineffective. Mornhinweg said a carry here and a carry there hasn't been enough for Bell to get into a rhythm.

"Mike Bell's the type of guy that he'll get better as the game goes on," Mornhinweg said.

Offensive tackle Jason Peters put the running game in the context of creating a more aggressive persona for the offense, something that was talked about a lot after the Washington loss.

"That's how you establish your physicalness, in the run game," Peters said. "You can also be physical in the pass, but you can't be too physical because they'll 'ole' you, try to go around you. That's where you establish it, in the run."

For more Eagles coverage and opinion, read the Daily News' Eagles blog, Eagletarian, at www.eagletarian.com.

Follow him on Twitter at

http://twitter.com/LesBowen.

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