The Philadelphia Eagles are 8-1 with the NFC’s one-seed, but all anybody wants to talk about is the thing that is falling apart.
In this case, it’s about more than the standard Philly sports fatalism.
The Eagles’ run defense has become a disaster, every team facing the Eagles knows about it, and every team facing the Eagles is going to hit that particular wound with everything they have. The Washington Commanders certainly reinforced that last Monday night. In handing the Eagles their first loss of the 2022 season, Washington ran 49 times for 152 yards and two touchdowns. Those trying to extract positives from the game might say that, hey, Philadelphia’s defense allowed just 3.1 yards per carry, which really isn’t the point. When your opponent knows that it can go all 1978 Marv Levy Wing-T on you, and you’re really not prepared to deal with it, that’s a big problem.
“If a team is going to run the ball on first and second down, first and second down, first and second down, and try to get it to third-and-short, we have to do something to combat that,” defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon said Thursday. “That’s what we’re working on and that’s what we’ll do.
Our own Laurie Fitzpatrick recently got into all the problems with that run defense, which currently ranks 28th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metrics. Whether it’s penetrators who need to be gap-stoppers, a lack of discipline in gap maintenance, or the simple fact that first-round rookie Jordan Davis is out with ankle injury, things are not working.
So, the Eagles did what they do — they went out and tried with all aggression to solve the problem. This week, they signed two veteran defensive tackles in Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh. Neither player had a snap in the 2022 season, but both have proven to be stellar run defenders in recent years.
“He’s a really good player against the run,” Gannon said of Joseph. “His attitude is right. His character is great. He practices extremely hard. He is diligent. He kind of fits right into what we do and how he wants to play and what he wants to do, and I think it’ll help us.”
The Suh signing happened after Gannon’s presser, so we didn’t get his thoughts on that one. But overall, it’s clear that Gannon, head coach Nick Sirianni, and general manager Howie Roseman — not to mention everyone else in the building — hopes that these two veteran Band-Aid contracts will reinforce something that desperately needs reinforcement.
We have no 2022 tape on Joseph and Suh, but 2021 tape does reveal some positives.
Linval Joseph: Wrecking things from the inside
(Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)
In May, 2021, I wrote a piece about the best pass-rusher from every gap from the 2020 season, and Joseph, then with the Los Angeles Chargers, was my choice from the 2i spot — the inside shoulder of the offensive guard.
The 2i lineman generally has a one-gap role, as he’s aligned to the inside shoulder of the offensive guard. If he’s double-teamed, which will happen often, it may be his role to soak up blockers so that other defenders can make plays. If you can penetrate from that alignment and through the double-team, as Joseph did here against the Buccaneers in Week 4 with center Ryan Jensen and left guard Ali Marpet (a fairly impressive duo), you can make Tom Brady nervous with what has been that rare Kryptonite throughout his career — interior pressure. Joseph didn’t have any sacks from the 2i alignment last season, but nobody had more total pressures than his 14.
Moving to the 2021 season for the Chargers, and purely from a run defense standpoint, Joseph had 26 solo tackles and 29 assists on 294 run defense snaps. He had three tackles for loss, no missed tackles, and 28 stops (per Sports Info Solutions).
When the Chargers met the Eagles in Week 9 last season, Joseph had eight solo tackles and one assist, aligned primarily at nose tackle. Right guard Jack Driscoll had no chance against Joseph (No. 98) on this three-yard gain by running back Boston Scott early in the first quarter — once Joseph hit it with his mammoth frame, it was time to move on to the next play.
And if you want to see what a guy this big this fast looks like? Ask center Jason Kelce, who got himself walked back to the pocket halfway through the second quarter. Then, ask Jalen Hurts, who had to leave the pocket with Joseph on the hoof right after him. Not bad for a 6-foot-4, 329-pound interior plugger. Joseph can still be more than that in a rotation.
You guys, I might have spotted the play from last season that had the Eagles thinking about Linval Joseph, and how he might help their defensive front. pic.twitter.com/Vo0D766gUq
— Doug Farrar ✍ (@NFL_DougFarrar) November 18, 2022
Ndamukong Suh: Doing for the Eagles what he once did to them.
(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)
For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season, as a run defender from nose tackle to outside the guards, Suh had 16 solo tackles and 19 assists in 209 run defense snaps. He created seven tackles for loss, had a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and his run tackles prevented first downs 24 times. He also had just one broken tackle, and 18 stops.
The Buccaneers faced the Eagles twice last season — once in Week 6 and once in the wild-card round of the playoffs — and Suh presented problems for Philly’s rushing attack in both instances. The standout play came with 6:41 left in the Week 6 game, as the Eagles were trying to get into the end zone, down 28-14. Suh (No. 93), playing nose tackle, just zapped center Jason Kelce and left guard Landon Dickerson to bring running back Miles Sanders down for a one-yard loss.
But when Suh is on point and aware of what’s going on around him, he has the potential to have an impact, especially to either shoulder of the guards.
How will this work?
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
The Eagles love to throw five-man fronts at opposing offenses, both in base and nickel packages. In those instances, it’s easy to imagine Joseph as the nose tackle, and Suh as one of the ends. When the Eagles move to four-man fronts, Joseph can go head-over the center, or shade to one side. In those cases, Suh could do nicely as a three-tech disruptor.
This is where I think that Joseph could have the bigger impact, both figuratively and literally. There’s a specific reason the team selected Davis with the 13th pick in the 2022 draft. They understood that when you have a defensive tackle who can not only press the pocket, but do so at “man-and-a-half” width, it allows you to be a lot freer with your fronts and coverages. You don’t have to sell out to try and stop the run.
In Weeks 1-8, the Eagles lined up with stacked boxes on just 13% of their defensive snaps. Over the last two weeks, with Davis out, they’ve upped that rate to 33% out of necessity.
Gannon and his staff will hopefully have Joseph and Suh to use this Sunday against the Colts and their Jonathan Taylor-led rushing attack. Last Sunday, Taylor beat the brakes off the Las Vegas Raiders’ defense, gaining 147 yards and scoring a touchdown on 22 carries.
Losing to Jeff Saturday would be an embarrassment for the Eagles, but that’s not the overarching point. The Eagles must shore up their run defense by any means necessary, and in Suh and Joseph, they have two available veterans who look like the kinds of players who can help get that done.