Why Eagles believe Jay Ajayi won't spoil 'established culture'

Dave Zangaro | NBC Sports Philadelphia

Why Eagles believe Jay Ajayi won't spoil 'established culture'

The Packers were 8-3 in late November 1996 but had lost their last two games when they claimed troubled wide receiver Andre Rison off waivers from the Jaguars.

Rison, who had been a four-time Pro Bowl wide receiver much earlier in his career, had been dogged for years by off-the-field issues and when he joined the Packers that fall, they were his fourth team in under a year.

There were those who felt it was a bad fit, that Rison would ruin the Packers' chemistry. But with Rison in the fold, the Packers closed out the regular season with five straight wins before beating the pre-Tom Brady Patriots in the Super Bowl.

Doug Pederson was on that Packers' team, and he said that experience with Rison — who he didn't mention by name — goes a long way toward his comfort level bringing in Jay Ajayi this week.

Rison wound up playing only five regular-season games for the Packers before finishing his career with the Chiefs and Raiders, but he did catch two TDs in the postseason that year, including a 54-yard TD from Brett Favre just three minutes into Super Bowl XXXI in New Orleans.

"Everybody’s got a past, everybody’s got a past," Pederson said Wednesday, one day after the Eagles traded a fourth-round pick to the Dolphins for the former Pro Bowl running back.

"I was in a situation where we brought in a player and there were reports of character issues and all kinds of things, and you know what? The guys rallied around him, and there was not one issue whatsoever with this player, and we went on to win a Super Bowl."

There have been numerous anonymous reports floating out of Miami in the last few days about Ajayi and his negative effect on the Dolphins' locker room. One report said it was Ajayi's inability to fit into the Dolphins' culture that led to the team shipping him.

But Pederson and Carson Wentz both said Wednesday they're comfortable with the addition.

"I got a chance to speak with Jay, texted him yesterday, he seems like he'll be a great fit for this team, a great fit for this locker room," Wentz said. "I don't foresee any issues with that. …

"You never want to kind of mess with the mojo so to speak, but this move I don't think anyone's concerned about. And we have such good leadership, such good veterans, that if there is any of that, it'll get squished real quick.

"The beautiful part of this team, this locker room, we have a lot of guys, a lot of leadership. We have older guys, younger guys, we just have a lot of guys, a lot of mature individuals who just want to win.

"The usual leaders, the captains, are the guys that jump out, but we have a handful of other guys who'll make sure to keep this train rolling."

Pederson echoed what Howie Roseman said Tuesday, that the Eagles wouldn't have made this move if they weren't confident in Ajayi's ability to fit into the Eagles' culture.

“Listen," Pederson said. "In this business, nobody’s perfect. Even coaches. I stand up here not being perfect.

"But, you know, we’re getting a really good person off the football field as well as on. …

"I can’t speculate what happened in South Florida. But I trust the guys on this team to handle players."

How will the 24-year-old Ajayi handle being in a running back rotation? How will he handle Pederson's carefully crafted team-first culture? How will he deal with a game where he only gets a few carries?

"We’ve established a culture on how we do things around here, so I implore (the players) to just embrace it and to bring him in," Pederson said.

"I had a conversation with him and you’ve got to be open and honest and say, 'This is how we do things around here,' and welcome him in and get him up to speed."

Pederson said the Eagles did their due diligence in regard to investigating Ajayi's background before they made the trade.

The Eagles are 7-1 with a six-game winning streak, but anybody who was around here in 2004 and 2005 knows the dramatic effect — both positive and negative — that one player can have on a talented team.

How can the Eagles be so sure about Ajayi?

“You can reach out to the (Dolphins) coaching staff and then just ask them, 'How was he in the building? How was he in the locker room? Game day?'" Pederson said. "And you can get a lot of your answers solved right there.

"And you can go back and read your reports. If you evaluated him coming out (of college), you can go back and read and see what he was like then and see if things have changed.

"But you just have to pick up a phone and call people who’ve been around him."

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

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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.”

Eagles' Dannell Ellerbe, Will Beatty playing catch-up with new team

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Eagles' Dannell Ellerbe, Will Beatty playing catch-up with new team

After signing with the Eagles about a week and a half ago, Will Beatty has been working hard to catch up. 

He's learning a new offense, new terminology, new teammates. 

And a new building. 

"I'm still trying to figure out where everything is here," Beatty said. "A lot of the doors here are not labeled, so it's like 'where does this door lead?'"

Eventually, the 32-year-old offensive tackle finds where he's going. For the most part, he just tries to follow his teammates. When he's the only player around, he begins to worry and checks the schedule to make sure he's not missing something. 

Beatty isn't alone. He was brought in last week a day after the Eagles signed veteran linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. Both players are veterans over 30. Both players have won a Super Bowl. And both are playing catch-up. 

How has it been going? 

"Really good," head coach Doug Pederson said. "In both cases, picking up the offense with Will and the defense with Dannell. Dannell has probably gotten a couple of reps with our defense in the past couple of weeks. Both of them are doing really, really well."

While Ellerbe has gotten some practice reps, don't expect him to have a role with the defense just yet. Pederson on Friday morning said Ellerbe's role is still to get comfortable with the defense. 

While Jim Schwartz said Ellerbe was going to learn all three linebacker positions, Ellerbe has been focusing more on MIKE and SAM. The former Saint said he likes to learn the entire concept of the defense. The biggest hurdle is learning the new terminology. 

"I've been sitting out since OTAs, so it's been a while," Ellerbe said. "It's like riding a bike. Just repetition."

Both players were inactive against the Cowboys, less than a week after their arrivals. It is yet to be seen if either will have roles down the stretch. 

When Beatty eventually finds his way to the practice field, he has been working with the Eagles' second-team offense, which means he's going against the Eagles' first-team defense every day. That's a good way to shake off some rust. 

For now, second-year player Joe Walker has been playing the MIKE position in the Eagles' base defense. If Ellerbe were to ever get on the field, it would likely be in that spot. But Walker has been playing OK since Jordan Hicks went down. 

During meetings, Beatty pretty much stays quiet when he has questions. He writes down what he doesn't understand and then brings it to offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland afterward so he doesn't slow down the entire group. It's basically like seeing a teacher after class for extra help. 

One of the tough parts about joining a team in the middle of the season is everyone is already settled into a routine. Beatty and Ellerbe are working just to catch up. 

"It's a little different, but would much rather be doing this than anything else," Beatty said. "This is a great organization. Everyone welcomed me with open arms."