Through gimmicks and gadgets and some tough-guy moments from Brian Westbrook, the Eagles have averaged 94.5 rushing yards per game. They rank near the bottom of the NFL in that category, despite a 4.0-yard-per-carry average. Too often this season, the Eagles have failed on short-yardage runs and the cracks in the foundation of the running game have burst wide open to right now: The Eagles must manufacture a running game on Thursday night even with Westbrook hobbling because of knee and ankle injuries and minus Correll Buckhalter, the only halfback with any kind of size.
That the Eagles need to run, at least to present the threat of the running game, is nothing new. We've been talking about it all season. And the Eagles have continually had trouble committing at all to the ground game, even when they have had a healthy Buckhalter and a reasonably-healthy Westbrook.
It is fair to ask why, although the coaches have been asked that many times over by the Philadelphia media and have not really had answers. The offense is structured to attack in the passing game, but in the weeks of trouble of late the passing scheme has failed and the Eagles haven't had a running game on which to rely.
Thursday's challenge is multiple. Quarterback Donovan McNabb is in the spotlight, of course, given the recent past, but he can't go it alone. Even in weeks past, the Eagles could turn and give the ball to Buckhalter had they chosen, and to a somewhat-explosive Westbrook, who as recently as the Atlanta game (four games ago) was dominating.
They don't have those choices now.
So how do they play keep away from a Cardinals offense that doesn't much care for the run, either, but has such an explosive passing game that Kurt Warner and Co. have fashioned a 7-4 record by playing throwball?
"We're going to have to find a way," says Westbrook.
We'll see. How much can Westbrook really provide? If he gets 10-12 carries and contributes 70 yards of offense from the line of scrimmage, well, Westbrook should be applauded from coast to coast. He is one of the toughest players there is anywhere, and at full strength Westbrook remains one of the best players in the game. But after a game on artificial surface that beats up a healthy Westbrook for at least the next several days, how much can a banged-up Westbrook play four days later?
The Eagles are going to have to be creative here. They have little-used (16 carries, 32 yards) Lorenzo Booker available, and he is excited for the opportunity to play. What we have seen from Booker hasn't been especially impressive, but maybe what he needs is a large dose of playing time to show what he can do. Chances are, he is going to get that heaping spoonful of repetitions on Thursday night, and the Eagles have to find ways to get him into space, to allow him to use his speed and to provide a certain kind of spark in the backfield.
If Westbrook is really hobbled, the Eagles can also line up fullback Kyle Eckel as a pseudo-halfback and at least give him some carries to run it up between the tackles.
Anything to keep the Cardinals from blitzing the house and coming hard after McNabb ...
Hey, that may happen anyway. The Cardinals have a bunch of injuries of their own, so who knows what changes in scheme and use of personnel this short week is going to bring about for each team. This is a grind for the players and for the coaches. There is, as Brian Dawkins said on Tuesday, no time to dwell on Sunday's loss in Baltimore. The Eagles are desperate here, folks. Trying to win a football game.
In a game like this, the key is going to be which team sets the tempo. Arizona is the old-school UNLV of the NFL -- run and gun, fling the football all over the field with MVP candidate Warner taking charge, reborn with the Cardinals. Can the Eagles get into a shootout and hope to win? Can an offense that has scored just one touchdown in the last two games suddenly go bonkers and have everything come together just like that?
Or do the Eagles try to slow things down, move the chains, dink and dunk and control the clock?
Certainly, whatever happens, the Eagles have to run the football without some good players able to be at their best. The running game, inconsistent all season, must be given some kind of emphasis on Thursday night. One thing the Eagles don't want to do is get into a catch-up game against a Cardinals offense that doesn't stop pushing the envelope.
Do the Eagles have it in them to run, to use smoke and mirrors if necessary, to give Booker a long look, to hand off to Eckel, to dedicate themselves to the ground, even if it isn't pretty?