They couldn’t stop Matt Jones. How are they going to stop Ezekiel Elliott?
The Eagles, who allowed the lightly regarded Redskins running back to ramble for a career-high 135 rushing yards on just 16 carries two weeks ago, now have to contend with the NFL rushing leader.
Elliott, the fourth pick out of Ohio State in this year’s draft, has 708 rushing yards, second only to Eric Dickerson (787 in 1983) by an NFL player in his first six games.
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Elliott’s been over 130 rushing yards in his last four games, which makes him one of only 11 players in NFL history with four straight 130-yard rushing games. He's also the first in six years with 150 yards from scrimmage in four straight games.
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins watched Elliott’s entire college career, since both are Ohio State graduates, and he lavished some pretty heavy praise on the 21-year-old running back.
“I don’t know what you can name that he doesn’t do well,” Jenkins said.
“He’s a back that has great vision (and) patience, he has the speed to be a home-run hitter, he’s got the physicality to run through arm tackles and finish runs. There’s not much he can’t do.”
Elliott already has 17 runs of 10 yards or more, including seven of at least 20 yards. He’s averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
The Cowboys, 5-1 with a five-game winning streak, are third in the NFL in rushing offense. The Eagles (4-2) rank 24th in the league in rushing defense, allowing a beefy 4.5 yards per carry.
After allowing 230 yards to Jones and the Redskins, the Eagles limited the Vikings to 93 rushing yards, although that was actually 23 yards over Minnesota's average.
The Eagles and Cowboys meet for the NFC East lead at 8:30 p.m. Sunday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“First things first is stopping the run, like every week, but the task is heavy this week because they’re playing so well,” Eagles middle linebacker Jordan Hicks said.
“(They have) one of the best offensive lines in the National Football League and the leading rusher in the National Football League and their offense runs through that run game, so it’s going to be on us to get downhill.
“It’s going to be huge for our gap integrity this week that we stay solid and we stay sound in our gaps and play physical. They like to push, they like to grab a hold of you and just move you and bleed you for five or 10 yards, so it’s going to be on us to stay stout at the point of attack.”
It’s tough to get a sense of where the Eagles are as a rush defense. The only teams they held significantly under their season average were the Bears and Steelers, both before the bye.
The Redskins average 94 rushing yards against the rest of the league but gained 230 against the Eagles. The Vikings averaged 71 against the rest of the league but gained 93 on Sunday.
“We getting better, we getting better,” Fletcher Cox said. “We knew last week we had to step up because of the previous two weeks that teams were really able to run the ball at will on us, so we knew we had to go into that game trying to make them one-dimensional.
“It’s not about the other team, it’s about us. As long as we focus on what we have to do and everybody hones in and plays together, it’s really not about them, it’s about us and how we accept the challenge and how we approach things.”
The Cowboys have that huge offensive line stocked with first-round picks and a record-setting running back.
And their running attack is similar to Washington’s, which is a little scary.
“It’ll be pretty much the same running attack,” Jenkins said. “That’s probably the No. 1 key coming into this game. Being in the right place on every play and then when you are in the right place, get the ball carrier down, and everybody’s got to be running to the ball. Those are things we didn’t do well [against Washington].”
Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has been brilliant, but to a great extent he’s a product of the Dallas running attack. The Cowboys want to run the ball first to set up the pass and keep defenses guessing.
In the Cowboys’ only loss — on opening day to the Giants — they threw 15 more times than they ran.
It’s the only time this year that’s happened.
During Dallas’s five-game winning streak, they’ve run 35 times more than they’ve thrown.
“It starts with the run and they’re running the ball better than anybody in the league right now, and everything else is built off of that,” Jenkins said.
“If you can’t stop the run, then they’re in 3rd-and-shorts all day and they’re converting — they’re in the top-5 in third down I believe — and then they keep running it, and so then eventually that turns into one of those games where the defense is on the field for a long time, you get tired and eventually those holes get bigger and bigger."
At this point last year, the Eagles were allowing 94 rushing yards per game. Now they're allowing 103.
At this point last year, they were allowing 3.5 yards per carry and now they're allowing 4.5 — their highest through six games since 2011.
In all, the Cowboys have a whopping 967 rushing yards, or 161 per game. If they rush for 180 on Sunday night, they'll become the first NFL team since the 1986 Falcons with 180 rushing yards in five straight games.
"If they’re able to run the ball on us, it’s going to be a long game," Cox said. "We’ve got to go in and stop the run, create negative-yardage plays — that’s what this defense is about — and make them throw the ball.
"And that gives us a chance to do what we love and that’s get after that rookie quarterback.”