Jim Schwartz is throwing out the challenge to his defense now: Prepare to bring your lunch pail and hard hat on Sunday at FirstEnergy Stadium against the Cleveland Browns and win against the Browns' no-nonsense running game approach featuring backs Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb.
"It's our biggest challenge of the season in the run game, and how well we stop the run is going to go a long way to how we play in this game," Schwartz said on Tuesday during his weekly teleconference with reporters. "They are an outstanding run team, probably the best two running backs we've faced this year. Not just the best two on a team, but the best two overall. Great balance, great power, they know what they want to do in the run game, nothing sort of takes them out of it. There's not a whole lot you can do scheme-wise that forces them to do something else.
"They're going to run. It doesn't matter what your look is, and they're going to take that attitude of, 'If you have an unblocked guy, our running back is going to try to run over him.' It's going to take everybody. It's not just the defensive linemen, it's not just the linebackers. Our corners are going to have to have an outstanding game defending the run."
Cleveland ranks fourth in the NFL averaging 159 rushing yards per game. Three times the Browns have run for more than 200 yards in a game, including last Sunday when they rang up 231 yards on the ground in heavy rain and wind to beat Houston, 10-7. In Week 2, the Browns ran for 215 yards in a win over Cincinnati. Two weeks after that, Cleveland dominated Dallas with 307 rushing yards in a victory.
In only two games this season have the Browns gained fewer than 100 yards rushing – in a loss against Pittsburgh and then in a win over Cincinnati when quarterback Baker Mayfield threw five touchdown passes.
The Browns are devastating on the ground, yes, but they have shown they are capable of gaining explosive plays in the air as well.
This Eagles defense, which has largely done well against running backs this season but has been gashed on big runs from wide receivers and quarterbacks, has a multipronged test on Saturday.
"It's going to be our biggest challenge of the year and we need to be up to that challenge," Schwartz said.
Hunt and Chubb are a dynamic and powerful 1-2 combination that has combined for 1,094 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. Both have size – Chubb is 5-11 and 227 pounds and Hunt is 5-11 and 216 pounds – and both play with that north-south, power-back approach. Cleveland will run the zone stretch play and look for the gap in the defense, and when the hole is there, the running back sticks his foot in the ground and gets up the field. Both backs gain yards after contact.
The test for the defense is to win individual battles and rally to the football. When the Eagles have been hurt defending the run this season, it's generally been by quarterbacks (Baltimore's Lamar Jackson and New York's Daniel Jones) and by wide receivers in the games against Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh. Darrell Henderson ran for 81 yards in the Rams' win in Philadelphia, the largest ground total for a running back against the Eagles this season.
Cleveland, though, has shown it's not entirely one-dimensional offensively. Mayfield has 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season. He is mobile enough to buy time with his legs and keep plays alive – Mayfield has only been sacked 12 times this year. The Browns have some gadget plays in their arsenal even with star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. sidelined with an injury – wide receiver Jarvis Landry has completed both of his passes thrown this season, one for a touchdown.
The defense started slowly on Sunday in the loss at New York, allowing touchdown drives of 85 yards and 75 yards, and Jones broke loose for a 34-yard touchdown run from a formation the Eagles recognized and were prepared for, but just didn't execute against. Schwartz, though, is hoping the season-long strong play against running backs continues on Sunday, although he knows it's going to take more than that to stop the Browns in their offensive tracks.
"I've continued to be pleased with the way our defense has stopped running backs but that's not enough," he said. "All those rushing yards count and particularly the quarterbacks. Like I said, it was disappointing that it was a play (against the Giants) that we had practiced and we had worked hard on after the first week and the very first time we ran it, we made multiple mistakes on that play and that, like I said, that caused a little bit of a chain reaction in those first two series and we were finally able to get that fire put out but it was too late."