Ford: Ground game? Eagles will take a run at it

Eagles Allen Barbre, Jason Peters vs Lions
Eagles' offensive guard Allen Barbre and tackle Jason Peters watch Detroit Lions' defensive end Kerry Hyder on Sunday, October 9, 2016 in Detroit.

Taking into account the shuffle at the right tackle position that took place this past week as rookie Halapoulivaati Vaitai subbed in for Lane Johnson, Eagles coach Doug Pederson said he expected to let things settle down early against Washington by running the ball somewhat more than usual.

"So that means Doug's going to throw it 70 times," Redskins coach Jay Gruden said.

Perhaps, but despite all their girth and displacement value, offensive lines are fragile things. They are Jenga puzzles that can collapse if the wrong piece is removed, or not properly replaced. The Eagles line has done a decent but not spectacular job of protecting Carson Wentz and opening holes for the running game. A step forward would be nice. A step back could be disastrous. In all probability, Pederson would settle for maintaining the status quo. Against Washington on Sunday, we'll see if Vaitai can help accomplish that.

Run-blocking is more straightforward, literally and figuratively, than pass protection, so what Pederson said, at least for the start of the game, makes sense.

"Obviously, the run game helps guys like that, especially in their first start," Pederson said. "So we lean a bit more on that maybe, but it will be monitored, obviously."

It could also be that's what the Eagles would plan even if Johnson were still around. The Redskins defense is 30th in the league for rushing yards allowed per game (130), and either last or tied for last in yards per rush (5.08), first downs per game (23.8), and opponents' third-down conversion percentage (48.39).

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The rub for the Eagles is that, regardless of who is playing on the line, they have been a middle-of-the-road running team so far. Their ranking among the league looks acceptable in total yards gained, but that was padded by having the lead for almost all of the first three weeks. They have 43 rushing plays in the first half of games this season and 74 in the second half.

Leading rusher Ryan Mathews has the lowest yards-per-carry average among the four Eagles running backs. His 146 yards is 40th among the league's rushers and his 3.3-yard average is 37th. So, Pederson will be careful not to lean so heavily on the run game that the offense falls over. Against Washington, however, with a defensive line anchored by 35-year-old nose tackle Cullen Jenkins, he'll give it a try.

"Every time you go into a football game, the emphasis has to be to stop the run, even if you're playing New England with the greatest quarterback in the history of football," Gruden said. "You try to make a team one-dimensional, but if they run the ball, their play-actions are even better, their quick game is even better, and there are matchup problems because you have to put an extra guy in the box. We're still striving to be a better run-stopping defense."

Washington has won three straight after losing its first two games and is coming off a 16-10 win over Baltimore that didn't require much of the run defense. The Ravens rushed only 19 times, and only six times after halftime, but Terrance West still gained 95 yards on 11 carries.

The Eagles should at least test things, and mixing in a carry or two for Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner, neither of whom got a touch against the Lions, would seem like a reasonable idea. The Redskins, if they do anything well, can ball-hawk in the defensive backfield, and are getting starting cornerback Bashaud Breeland back from an ankle injury. In beating the Giants and Browns to start the win streak, Washington got two fourth-quarter interceptions in the first game, a two-point win, and an interception and a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter of the second game, a nine-point win.

Given the state of the Eagles' wide receiving corps, a large dose of underneath routes to the tight ends, slot receivers, and running backs, along with a healthy number of rushes, would be a logical recipe. Not that the team should be gun-shy of stretching the field just because of what happened at the end in Detroit, but there's nothing wrong with crossing the river where it's shallow.

"What Doug does a great job of is mixing it up with formations and quick screens and the running game and zone-read, and then he takes a shot, and then it's back to the screen and then the running game, then another screen," Gruden said. "He does a great job of keeping defenses off-balance where you can't just say, 'OK, let's stop the run.' "

Of course, even if coordinator Joe Barry said that, it's likely his defense couldn't do it. At least it hasn't yet this season. So, this is an important test for an Eagles running game that is increasingly suspect. If they can't run against these guys, that would be a bad sign. There are teams coming up on the schedule good enough to make them pay for that shortcoming, even if Washington isn't one of them.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports