The Eagles' dominating win over Dallas on Sunday night pushed their record to 9-1. The last time the Eagles had a 9-1 record was in 2004, when the team last reached the Super Bowl. You can't help but think about that team as you watch the current group pile up wins and play consistently at a high level.
There are differences in the two teams, but one really stands out to me.
The 2017 team is much more physical. These Eagles own the line of scrimmage.
That wasn't the case back in 2004. That team was 31st in the league in rushing attempts. They played with the lead most of the year, but they just didn't run the ball very much. Part of that was coaching philosophy. Part of that was to protect Brian Westbrook from injury. The other problem was the offensive line. Injuries hurt the interior blockers and that line never had great chemistry.
The defense was inconsistent against the run. There were seven games where they gave up 148 or more yards on the ground. The 2004 Eagles reached the Super Bowl because they could throw the ball on offense and stop the pass on defense.
The 2017 Eagles are second in the league in rushing attempts and yards on offense. They lead the league in run defense.
The run game isn't the only way you judge how physical a team is, but it certainly gives you an indication. Running the ball and stopping the run are largely about strength and toughness. Can you block the man across from you? Can you get off a block and make the tackle?
If you think back to 2004, the Eagles lost two games when the starters played the whole way. The Steelers beat them 27-3 at midseason and the Patriots won the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh ran for 252 yards and just physically dominated the Eagles. The Patriots completely shut down the run game, limiting the Eagles to just 45 yards on the ground. New England ran for 112 yards.
The fatal flaw of the 2004 team is that they couldn't beat those teams that had big, strong offensive and defensive lines. I don't see that as an issue for the current Eagles.
The Eagles are second in the league in rushing, but let's add some context to that. There is no superstar running back. They don't rely on option plays for much of that. Jet sweeps, end arounds, and reverses have not been a factor at all. This is mostly about tough, physical runners hitting the hole and punishing tacklers.
LeGarrette Blount is somewhere in the 250-pound range. His combination of size, strength, balance, and effort makes him hard to tackle. Jay Ajayi isn't as big or strong as Blount, but he's faster, as evidenced by the runs of 46 and 71 yards in his first two games as an Eagle. Corey Clement is the "small" guy at just 212 pounds, but he runs hard. Clement isn't going to run over many defenders, but he will break arm tackles.
The beauty of the Eagles' run game is that these guys have success on base plays. This is sustainable success. If the plays are blocked well, these runners are going to get you 3 and 4 yards. They will deliver some big plays, but you can count on consistent production.
All three of the backs ran for 50 or more yards on Sunday night. They attacked the Dallas defense, over and over. The Cowboys couldn't stop them with any consistency.
Give a lot of credit to the offensive line. They didn't give up a sack and only allowed four tackles for loss. The long run by Ajayi had great blocking by the whole line. Halapoulivaati Vaitai went to the right and blocked a linebacker. Jason Kelce got upfield to block another linebacker. Brandon Brooks collapsed the defensive tackle and that gave Ajayi a clean area to run through.
Doug Pederson made it clear since coming to Philly that he prefers big, physical offensive linemen. He wants players who can manhandle the guy across from them. This line is built that way and it is playing that way. Dallas has some good defensive linemen and they made little impact in the game.
It was shocking to see Dallas run for 112 yards on the Eagles. Most teams have been held 40 to 50 yards fewer than that. There were three Alfred Morris runs that went for 54 yards. Take those out and Dallas had 24 carries for 58 yards. Those runs count so it isn't as if you can ignore them, but the point is that the Dallas run game wasn't consistently effective.
There was a third-and-1 play where defensive tackle Tim Jernigan took on a double team and held his ground. The runner had nowhere to go. Other defenders swarmed in to tackle him and end the drive. That doesn't happen with Jernigan overpowering a pair of blockers.
Defensive tackle Fletcher Cox had a play where he shed a blocker and grabbed the runner by the foot. This was in the red zone and helped to keep Dallas out of the end zone.
These plays are about power, physicality, and effort. Corey Simon and Darwin Walker didn't play that style of defensive tackle back in 2004. They were athletic and talented, but they weren't as good at doing the dirty work.
Jim Schwartz has all 11 guys on the field committed to stopping the run. Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry are terrific run defenders at defensive end. The linebackers fly around and make tackles everywhere. Even the guys in the secondary will play the run. Malcolm Jenkins is an outstanding run defender, whether in the box or out in space. This group of cornerbacks tackles well. Everyone wants to be in on every tackle. Attitude and effort are crucial on defense.
Quarterback Carson Wentz is still the star of the show and the front-runner for MVP. He was inconsistent on Sunday night. The Eagles' offensive line got going in the second half and just overpowered the Cowboys. The defense pounded on Dak Prescott all game long. He was sacked four times but took a lot more hits than that.
The Eagles didn't just beat the Cowboys, they beat them up. This is the kind of tough, physical football team you want as you head into the cold weather games of December.