Eagles defense will face a stiff test vs. Washington

The Eagles will face Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III for the second time this season on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. (David Maialetti/Staff file photo)
The Eagles will face Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III for the second time this season on Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field. (David Maialetti/Staff file photo)
Posted: November 18, 2013

The giant, inflatable tunnel shaped like an eagle's head will rise from the southwestern corner of the end zone once again early Sunday afternoon to spit the players onto the field from its beak amid the smoke and the noise and the fight song and the cheerleaders.

Eleventh time's the charm, right?

The Eagles need a win at Lincoln Financial Field, no question, but they really need this win against the Washington Redskin Potatoes. It means nothing less than sole possession of the division lead, a winning record for the first time since opening the season by beating the Taters, and an affirmation that the last two wins on the road weren't just more scoops of fool's gold panned against teams that weren't up to the task.

It is tempting to overstate the importance of the game, because to keep things in perspective, the Eagles are not ready to win a championship yet. This isn't an all-or-nothing season for the franchise. It is a building block as Chip Kelly sorts out his roster and matches the players to his philosophy.

Still, that building process would go a lot faster with a division title this season and a taste of the playoffs, however brief or bitter. And putting that bright future on display for the home fans would certainly be a nice change of pace. The Eagles are the first team in NFL history to get this late in a season with a .500 record or better without winning a home game.

In the last four seasons, the Eagles are a combined 9-19 at home and haven't had a winning record at Stinkin' Financial since 2009. They won't have a winning record this season, either, with four losses so far and four games left. In fact, their best chance will be Sunday against the 3-6 Redskin Potatoes. The other remaining home games are against teams with winning records: Arizona, Detroit, and Chicago.

"What's the answer for us not winning at home and being 5-1 on the road?" Kelly said. "I don't know. If we knew, we'd replicate it. Do we have to take the buses and drive around for a half-hour before we go to the stadium? If that was the answer, we'd do it."

A large part of the answer for the Eagles as they hope to start winning at home and keep winning on the road depends on the continued, unexpected success of the defense, assuming it actually has been successful.

In the last six games, the defense has given up an average of just 17.5 points, but it has also given up an average of 398 net yards per game, 50 more than the league average, and enough to keep the unit ranked 31st for overall defense. So, is the defense really improved or has it been playing against teams that can't punch the ball into the end zone?

During the final six games of the season, against teams that will test the Eagles' ability to stop the run and short-pass options, we'll get that answer. What has given the Eagles the most problems this season are teams that have more than one offensive threat aside from the wide receivers. That means having a running back who also catches passes well, an effective running back and tight end combination, or having a quarterback whose running ability has to be respected.

Those teams test the ability of the Eagles linebackers to make decisions and then have the athletic ability to carry them out. In the previous six games, three of the opponents - the Giants twice and Dallas - had no real running game to stop. The other three - Tampa Bay, Oakland, and Green Bay - had no passing game to fear.

Washington, having leveled out since the opener, when quarterback Robert Griffin III was still rusty, has a significant running back in Alfred Morris, a good tight end in Jordan Reed, and the threat of Griffin taking off. After struggling on offense early in the season, the Potatoes have averaged 187 yards rushing in their last five games and 426 net yards per game in that span.

"Their scheme is challenging because you can play good defense and then overrun it when Morris cuts back and finds a lane, and you have to account for the quarterback, too," said outside linebacker Connor Barwin.

There are more tests to come. The Eagles couldn't stop Jamaal Charles of Kansas City, the second-ranked combination back in the league, allowing him 92 yards rushing and 80 yards receiving. Still on the schedule are Chicago's Matt Forte, Detroit's Reggie Bush, and Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, the fourth, sixth, and seventh-ranked combination backs in the league, respectively. If the Eagles' weakness is passes to backs out of the backfield and tight ends, and over-pursuing cutback runners, then it will be a long finish to the season, at least on the defensive side of the ball.

We'll see. Maybe the defense is better than that, and is ready to prove it. Sunday would be as good a time as any as the smoke billows, the fireworks pop, and the fans rise from their seats to believe once again.

To quote noted NFL expert Bullwinkle J. Moose: "This time, for sure."



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