The numbers weren't pretty. The Eagles allowed an average of 139 rushing yards per game in the first four weeks of the season, a disappointing collection of games punctuated by Week 4's loss to the Redskins when Washington gained 169 yards on 35 carries. Something had to give. Something did.
Once that game ended, defensive coordinator Sean McDermott made lineup changes. He inserted Moise Fokou in as the starting SAM linebacker. He bumped veteran Juqua Parker back into the starter's role at left defensive end. In the four games to follow, the Eagles allowed an average of 62 rushing yards per game.
The turnaround has been amazing, against quality backs like Frank Gore (San Francisco), Michael Turner (Atlanta) and Chris Johnson (Tennessee). And now, as the Eagles prepare again for Washington and a chance to see just how far the run defense has come.
"It has been collective effort. Everyone has picked up his game," said defensive tackle Mike Patterson. "We're just playing better, playing the way we know how to play."
It may be that simple, but then again maybe it isn't that simple. The personnel changes have helped. Fokou has been a tough, physical presence against the run. Parker has played with his usual high energy and intelligence, and he has been stout on the edge. The rise of tackle Antonio Dixon after Brodrick Bunkley was injured in San Francisco has also made a noticeable difference.
Whatever has happened, the run defense has become a great strength. The front four has been outstanding clogging running lanes and winning the battle at the line of scrimmage. Trent Cole at right end has been, as usual, a beast. Parker, underrated for his ability to play the run, has been terrific.
The linebackers are shooting gaps and tackling well and the secondary has improved greatly supporting the run.
"The front seven is getting off the ball and going after it," said WILL linebacker Ernie Sims. "Making tackles, being aggressive. Making our reads and being smart."
This is the stretch of games where the run defense will be severely tested. Washington has its issues on offense, and running the ball is a challenge with its banged-up backfield and offensive line, but the Redskins always seem to have success against the Eagles on the ground. The matchup is a tough one for the scheme and Washington's large, physical approach has been tough to handle.
One week from Sunday the Eagles meet the Giants and their balanced offensive attack. The Giants are devastating running the ball and throwing it. They are the litmus test for the Eagles. New York, at this point, is anointed as the best team in the NFC at this point.
First things first, though. Washington was a problem five weeks ago. The Eagles have done an about-face on defense since then. Do they keep it up in the prime-time game?
"The goal is to keep improving every week. I think we're seeing signs here," said safety Quintin Mikell. "Each week is a different challenge. The Redskins are rested and they are going to be a physical team out there. We have to get after them."
Dixon's play has been particularly noteworthy. He and Mike Patterson form an excellent team. Dixon's power and Patterson's quickness make for a nice twosome, to the point where Dixon is likely to keep his snap count high even when Bunkley returns to 100 percent health. Dixon is so strong inside, and he has been so quick off the ball, that the Eagles are disruptive inside.
There are many tests to go. Washington has had its struggles offensively, but the Redskins are going to try to establish a smash-mouth mentality on Monday night. The Eagles must respond by playing physical football and maintaining their gap discipline and tackling well.
This four-game streak of success is something the Eagles haven't accomplished since 1994. If the defense can continue to shut down the run, well, who out there is unbeatable? The run defense is keying things on that side of the ball, a dramatic difference from early in the season.