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Lawlor: Defense Must Rise To Occasion

The Eagles are in Cincinnati desperately in search of a win. Losing to Green Bay on Monday night dropped the Eagles to 5-6 and hurt their playoff chances. The Eagles need to get a win on Sunday to get back to .500 and stay alive in the hunt for a Wild Card spot.

The good news is that the Bengals are struggling this year. They started the season 2-2 and have gone 1-5-1 since then, with the only win against the hapless Browns. Cincinnati was expected to be a Super Bowl contender this season, but things have gone horribly wrong. Injuries are a big factor, but they have also have just not played well in some key areas. The game of football is all about the line of scrimmage so let's start there.

Quarterback Andy Dalton started 13 games in 2015. He was sacked 20 times. In 11 games this season, he has been sacked 32 times. The Bengals' offensive line has not played well. The Bengals made only one change. At right tackle, Andre Smith left in free agency and second-year player Cedric Ogbuehi took his spot. That has not gone well. According to STATS Inc., Ogbuehi has allowed 6.5 sacks this year. He is a gifted athlete, but has struggled with technique. Center Russell Bodine has started all three years that he's been in the league, but he has struggled so much that he got benched for T.J. Johnson recently. We'll have to wait and see what the Bengals do this week.

The Eagles obviously love the thought of going against a line that is struggling. The Eagles have just one sack in the past two games and they are dying to get some big shots on the quarterback. The Bengals will focus on stopping Fletcher Cox. That means Brandon Graham should have one-on-one chances against Ogbuehi. Graham has to win those. Getting sacks would be nice, but the key is to get to Dalton and force him to throw early, move or take the sack if he tries to hold onto the ball.

Dalton might have to because his top two targets are hurt. A.J. Green is an elite receiver, but is still dealing with an injury. The Bengals aren't sure if he will be able to play again this season. He leads the team with 66 catches. Behind Green is running back Gio Bernard, with 39 catches. Bernard is on Injured Reserve. Dalton now has to get the ball to wideouts Tyler Boyd and Brandon LaFell, as well as tight end Tyler Eifert. Those are talented players, but Boyd is a rookie, LaFell is in his first year as a Bengal and Eifert has battled injuries all season. The chemistry and timing won't be as good with them as it was with Green and Bernard.

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz talked about wanting to get sacks, tackles for loss and takeaways on defense. The Eagles should have chances to get sacks this week. If the Eagles can get penetration on run plays, they can get tackles for loss. Takeaways will be more challenging. The Bengals are in the top half of the league when it comes to protecting the football. Despite the fact Dalton has been under pressure, he has only thrown six picks. If the Eagles can come up with a takeaway, that would make a huge difference.

One thing the Eagles' defense has to do is start better. The Eagles fell behind early the last couple of weeks and that put pressure on the whole team. Seattle and Green Bay were red-hot offenses that had been putting up lots of points in recent games. That's not the case with Cincinnati. In the three games since their bye week, the Bengals have averaged 15 points a game. The Eagles' defense should fare better against this group than the previous two opponents. If not, that will be a serious concern.

Last year, the Bengals allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL. This year they are 17th in scoring defense. Most of the players are the same, but safety Reggie Nelson - he was tied for the league lead in interceptions - is gone and there have been some injury issues. The Bengals aren't getting as many sacks or interceptions as they did last year. The big difference, however, is run defense. Last year, the Bengals were seventh against the run. This year, they are 28th. I think that gives you a pretty easy idea of what the Eagles need to do.

Ryan Mathews is out, but head coach Doug Pederson can still feed the ball to Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood in this game. Believe it or not, Sproles and Smallwood have the same number of carries this year (66). Smallwood has had 13 or more carries in three games. You don't want to turn him into Adrian Peterson and hand the ball off to him 34 times, but Smallwood is a back who can be somewhat of a workhorse and move the chains for you. Running the ball takes pressure off the offensive line and also helps the play-action passing game. This is a week to focus on the run and see what those guys can do.

Carson Wentz and the passing game will still have to make plays. Jordan Matthews is questionable with an ankle injury. With that in mind, it sure feels like Nelson Agholor will get back on the field this week and have a chance to show what he can do.

The Bengals have played better defense since the bye week, limiting teams to just under 19 points a game. Don't expect the Eagles to move up and down the field, scoring a ton of points. Cincinnati is 22nd in red zone defense so this is a game where the Eagles should do a better job of scoring touchdowns when they get inside the 20-yard line.

The Eagles should have a special teams advantage in this game. Bengals kicker Mike Nugent has really struggled, missing five field goals and four extra points. Cincinnati doesn't do a good job of covering punts. That could give Sproles a chance to make a big play.

This is a game the Eagles need to win. This is a game the Eagles should win. With that in mind, any time you have a team with so many new and young players, there are no guarantees. The Eagles have the better record in this game, but they need to play like the more desperate team. If they can do that, it will help them get back to .500.

Tommy Lawlor, goeagles99 on the Discussion Boards, is an amateur football scout and devoted Eagles fan. He is the Editor of

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