‘Disrespected’ Eagles’ defense outshines vaunted Broncos’ D

USA Today Images

‘Disrespected’ Eagles’ defense outshines vaunted Broncos’ D

The Eagles reached a new low Sunday. The 226 yards of offense by the Denver Broncos is the lowest total allowed by the Eagles' defense this season.

The Broncos entered Week 9 with the top-ranked defense in the NFL, and a reputation as arguably the best unit in the league. But the only dominant defense that showed up at Lincoln Financial Field was the Eagles' in a lopsided 51-23 victory (see breakdown)

You think they wanted to make a statement?

"They always don't give us the credit, but we have to go out there and keep putting people on notice that the Eagles are new and improved," Eagles defensive end Brandon Graham said.

No doubt about it.

“We're obviously a defense that's kind of on the rise when it comes to notoriety and what we're doing," Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "We're improving week in and week out, but coming into this game, all we heard about was the Broncos defense, and they're coming to our house.”

The beating was worse than the final score might indicate. It was 44-9 when the Broncos scored their first touchdown with 9:45 remaining in the fourth quarter, while their vaunted defense tacked on seven points with a fumble return for a touchdown against the Eagles' second-string offense.

Outside of garbage time, the Broncos offense managed to get in range for three field goals.

Denver finished with 14 first downs, averaged 3.8 yards per play and committed two turnovers.

“We still have a couple holes that we could fill," Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham said. "I think we had one run that got out on us a little bit — maybe like eight, nine yards — a couple pass plays.”

For the record, the Broncos' longest run went for nine yards, and that accounted for a quarter of their production on the ground — 35 yards on 19 carries. The 1.8 average per attempt was another low for the Eagles' defense in 2017.

“We knew they would have to protect their quarterback, and the only way they could do that was trying to run the ball, so we knew we had to come off the bus stopping the run," Jenkins said. "We snuffed that out very early.”

The Eagles were second to only Denver in run defense but will move into No. 1 after this performance. Opponents are gaining just 66.4 yards per game.

“We pretty much have that mentality in our mind where we know you're not going to run the ball," Bradham said. "So you might as well get ready to get one-dimensional, ready to pass the ball — and I hope you're ready for our D-line to come after you.”

A one-dimensional Broncos offense was no threat with Brock Osweiler under center. Making his first start at quarterback this season, Osweiler completed 50 percent of his passes for 5.5 yards per attempt with one touchdown, three sacks and two interceptions.

It was a scenario that's become familiar to the Eagles. Shut down the run. Build a lead. Force the other team to put the ball in the air (see observations)

"When they did have to drop back and pass, we had people in the quarterback's face," Jenkins said. "We have guys on the back end that can make plays. That always plays into our advantage when teams have to play us one-handed, and that's really been the formula all year.

"Stop the run. Make people pass the ball against us. Guys in the back end are making plays on the ball. Our front is getting pressure, getting sacks.

“If we can continue, that formula puts us in a great spot for every game.”

It was another statement by this defense and a once-maligned secondary, juxtaposed with the star-studded "No Fly Zone" in Denver that surrendered four touchdown passes (see report card).

“They talk a lot about their secondary, and they're a good group, but we felt like we've been good up to this date," Eagles safety Rodney McLeod said.

"We've been playing well, we've been getting turnovers, and so we wanted to go out there and show what we're about.”

The Eagles entered the week ranked 27th against the pass, though are likely to improve after the effort Sunday. Still, the secondary's numbers, and really the defense's numbers as a whole, don't lend the appearance of one of the NFL's best units.

“We always felt we were the top defense and we honestly felt we were a little disrespected," Bradham said. "All the talk, everybody saying they had the best defense. Every week we want to show we have the best defense, but this week there was a little bit extra fuel added to the fire.”

Slapping around an Osweiler-led Broncos offense might not change many minds. And as much as the Eagles wanted to send a message to the rest of the league, it doesn't much matter, either.

“We don't really care where people put us or rank us," Eagles defensive end Chris Long said. "We just know that if you have to play us, it's going to be a full 60-minute game and you're going to have to earn it.”

Or put another way, the Eagles have amassed an 8-1 record for the season as they head into the bye week. Every member of this defense to a man will take that over fancy-sounding nickames and national recognition.

“We are out here trying to get these wins," Graham said. "That's all we focus on.”

NFL fines Carson Wentz for low hit on DeMarcus Lawrence

USA Today Images

NFL fines Carson Wentz for low hit on DeMarcus Lawrence

Carson Wentz helped the Eagles pick up another big win last Sunday, but his wallet is a little lighter after it. 

Wentz was fined $9,115 for a low hit on Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence in the fourth quarter Sunday. 

The low block came after Zach Ertz fumbled the ball before he crossed the goal line on a two-point conversion attempt. The Cowboys recovered the ball and started to return it the other way. Wentz was trying to Justin Durant, who was returning the ball, but Lawrence got in his way and the Eagles' quarterback went low. 

The Eagles went for two-point conversions after all four of their second-half touchdowns because kicker Jake Elliott was concussed. This was the only one they didn't convert. 

Eagles' run defense faces toughest test yet vs. Bears' attack

USA Today Images/AP Images

Eagles' run defense faces toughest test yet vs. Bears' attack

The Eagles may boast the No. 1 run defense in the NFL these days, but that ranking will be put to the test Sunday by the Chicago Bears (see matchups to watch).

“If we can’t stop the run, it’s going to be a long day,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said this week. “Let’s not get that mistaken.”

Few teams are as committed to the ground attack as the Bears, and even fewer are more productive. Since rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky became the starter in Week 5, Chicago ranks seventh in the league in rushing attempts. For the entire 2017 season, the offense is fifth with 131.8 rushing yards per game.

The Eagles are limiting opponents to nearly half that total at 71.0 yards per game. They’ve also faced only a smattering of backfields as talented as Chicago’s, if any. Plus, many offenses have abandoned the run — a strategy the Bears aren’t likely to attempt regardless of the score.

“We know they’re going to run the football,” Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham said. “They even run the football a lot of times on third-and-long. It’s something they’re going to do.

“There’s a reason why they’re fifth in the league in rushing.”

Given the nature of their passing attack, the Bears’ best shot at pulling off an upset at Lincoln Financial Field is to keep the Eagles' offense on the sideline.

“Even if it’s not getting you a whole lot," Jenkins said, "if you can slowly move the chains and control the game, I think that’s something that they’ll continue to do.”

Trubisky, selected with the second-overall pick in the draft, has begun making strides in recent weeks. He completed 60.0 percent of his passes and avoided throwing an interception in each of the last two games, both one-possession losses. In fact, the Bears haven’t lost any of Trubisky’s six starts by more than eight points, and are 2-4 since he’s taken over.

Trubisky wasn’t asked to throw the ball much in those two victories, either — a combined total of 23 pass attempts. Instead, Chicago was able to lean on running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen.

“It’s kind of like a thunder and lightning situation," Bradham said, "kind of what we had here at the beginning of the season with (LeGarrette Blount) and (Darren Sproles).”

Howard is the workhorse back and is often overlooked as one of the NFL’s bright, young stars due to the quality of his team. The 23-year-old was the runner-up to the rushing champion as a rookie in 2016 with 1,313 yards. Ten games into his second season, he’s up to 841 yards with a 4.4 average and five touchdowns.

A fourth-round pick from FCS school North Carolina AT&T in 2017, Cohen has immediately emerged as one of the league’s scariest change-of-pace/receiving backs. The 5-foot-6, 181-pound ball carrier has 537 total yards from scrimmage and leads the team with 33 receptions.

The duo is featured prominently in just about everything the Bears do on offense.

“They put both backs on the field at the same time a little bit, too,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “Sometimes it's two-back sets, sometimes it's one.

“Traditionally there's a fullback back there in two-back sets, but not so much with the Bears. They can put two guys back there. It spreads you a little bit thin. You have to be very assignment-sound. It'll test us in the run game.”

Cohen, in particular, has caused defenses some problems because, much like Sproles for the Eagles, he can line up all over the formation. Some teams have even opted to roll coverages to his area of the field, though that might be as much about Chicago’s dearth of receivers as it is respect for the 22-year-old.

Whatever the case, Jenkins doesn’t expect the Eagles to roll coverages, adding that’s not something they’ve done all season. Regardless, with three run or pass plays of 35 yards or more this season, Cohen is a home run threat — although the Eagles aren't giving up many home runs (see story).

“He’s definitely a matchup issue, and they put him all over the place,” Jenkins said. “He’s at receiver, he’s in the backfield, he’s in the slot. Everybody is going to have to hold up. Whether he’s on a linebacker or a safety or a corner, we’ve seen him make plays at every position.

“He’s running post routes on corners and making the play. Then they’re able to line up and run the ball at pretty much anybody, so we’ll have our hands full with that.”

Howard is a threat to rip off long gains on the ground as well, with three runs of 50 and over. Then Trubisky is capable of taking off, too, with 163 yards rushing.

“His ability to make plays with his legs has been a positive,” Jenkins said. “He’s a mobile guy. When all else fails, he can escape the pocket and extend the play.

“Whether it’s scrambling for a first down, or scrambling to get somebody open, that’s always tough on the defense.”

Up until last week, it was beginning to look like there may not have been a running game in the league that the Eagles needed to fear. Then the Dallas Cowboys posted 112 yards last Sunday — tied for the most the Eagles have allowed all season and the most since Week 2. And Dallas was without All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott, who is suspended.

Then again, if the Bears are only able to muster 112 yards rushing this week, the Eagles might consider that a victory in itself.

To put those numbers in perspective, exactly half of the league is allowing more than 112.0 yards rushing per game this season. In other words, the Bears are probably going to have to fare a lot better than that to knock off the Eagles.

“I think we set that bar awful high,” Schwartz said. “Some people might get a pat on the back for that.

“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.”