Maybe running the ball effectively isn’t something the Philadelphia Eagles need to do as long as they prevent the opposition from doing it.
After shutting down arguably the NFL’s best running back, the Eagles try to hold one of the league’s most potent rushing attacks in check when they visit the Denver Broncos.
It could be an emotionally charged afternoon at Invesco Field, with this game coming three days after Broncos offensive lineman Dwayne Carswell suffered serious internal injuries in a car accident. Carswell, proclaimed out for the season by coach Mike Shanahan, underwent surgery to remove his spleen and remains hospitalized.
While Denver hopes to provide Carswell a bit of a lift by getting a win Sunday, the Eagles look to hand the Broncos their first home loss.
Coach Andy Reid’s refusal to call more rushing plays has made opposing defenses focus that much more on Donovan McNabb and the passing game, resulting in two straight unimpressive performances from the Eagles offense.
The first of those games was a 33-10 loss to Dallas in Week 5, and the bye week did not make Reid alter his gameplan because McNabb set an Eagles record with 35 completions in 54 attempts last Sunday as Philadelphia escaped with a 20-17 win over San Diego.
“You need to balance it up a little more. We are a little too heavy with the passing,” Reid said.
Philadelphia pulled off the win thanks to Quintin Mikell’s blocked field-goal attempt, which was returned 65 yards for the game-winning touchdown by Matt Ware with 2:25 to play. The Chargers drove to the Eagles’ 19 on the ensuing possession, but cornerback Sheldon Brown stripped San Diego receiver Reche Caldwell, and defensive tackle Darwin Walker recovered.
While the play on special teams saved the day, the Eagles never would have won if not for their run defense. LaDainian Tomlinson was held to a career-low seven yards on 17 carries, and had his NFL record-tying streak of games with a touchdown stopped at 18.
Philadelphia knows stopping the run will be just as critical this week, facing a Broncos team which is second in the NFL with 158.7 yards per game.
Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell make Denver the only team with two players to have rushed for at least 450 yards. Anderson tops the team with 478, and Bell has 455, including 301 on just 33 attempts in the past three games.
“Those guys run downhill and each guy presents a different challenge for us, but they both run hard and both can break tackles,” Eagles safety Brian Dawkins said. “It’s going to be a physical game. This is a team that certainly sticks behind the run.”
Philadelphia certainly doesn’t.
The Eagles offense had 10 rushing attempts last week, excluding McNabb’s scrambles and kneel-downs. Despite all of his pass attempts, McNabb threw for just 287 yards and one touchdown as he often settled for short throws.
Leading rusher Brian Westbrook had as many carries, 10, as he did receptions. Though he leads all NFL running backs with 35 catches and 367 receiving yards, Westbrook is averaging just 10.8 carries and 42.7 rushing yards per game.
In the last four games, he’s run 25 times for 52 yards and has not scored a touchdown.
“You have to run the ball, you definitely do,” McNabb said. “When you get into a rhythm you have to stay with what’s working. It’s going to get better as this season continues on. It’s only been six games.”
This might not be an ideal time for Reid to change things up.
The Broncos own the league’s fifth-best run defense, allowing 89.6 yards per game. Meanwhile, they’re 26th against the pass and their eight sacks—none in the last three games—are tied for fewest in the NFL with Cleveland.
“If you really studied the film, you’d feel pretty good about our rush,” Shanahan insisted. “Obviously, you’d want more sacks. If you studied our guys and how hard they’re working, those sacks will come.”
The Broncos blew a 23-10 lead in the fourth quarter. They’ve been outscored 68-29 in the final period this season.
“Hopefully, we’ve got the same opportunity next week,” Shanahan said. “I’m hoping that we’re up by 14, 21 points so I can find out if my words of wisdom have sunk in or not. That’s the problem I want.”
As for Carswell, Shanahan said the operation “went as well as it could possibly go.” The 33-year-old former tight end, mostly used as a backup, caught two touchdown passes playing in his hometown of Jacksonville earlier this season.
“You just pray for the best. That’s all you can do now,” Broncos offensive lineman George Foster said. “Football is secondary.”