Ford: Eagles' D-line gets real test against Cowboys

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Eagles defensive tackles (from left) Destiny Vaeao and Fletcher Cox on the field against the Vikings on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2016.

One week after being dominated at the line of scrimmage by the Washington Redskins, the Eagles were able to do exactly the same thing in their win Sunday over the previously undefeated Minnesota Vikings.

You can discuss strategy and systems and play calls as much as you like - and all have a part of the puzzle - but there's no substitute for one set of guys knocking around the other set of guys for a good way to play football. The mystery is why the same players were so bad at it against the Redskins and so good at it against the Vikings.

"It's just the way this business works," Doug Pederson said Monday. "Sometimes, it's a struggle each week. It's the competition, the way the game goes, how you're feeling that particular day."

Two of those words make particular sense - "the competition" - especially as it pertained to the defensive line's assault on Minnesota's offensive line and, ultimately, on Sam Bradford. The former Eagles quarterback was sacked six times and took another 12 official hits. He was harassed into one interception and had the ball stripped from his hand on two of the sacks.

Bradford was playing behind a patched-up line, one in which both starting tackles are on the injured reserve list and there are backups protecting the edges. This seemed to open the door for ends Connor Barwin and Brandon Graham, who each had a sack and each spent a lot of time putting their hands on Bradford.

"We didn't block anybody. We were soft. We were overpowered," Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer said. "You kind of knew before the game that they're going to come after Bradford. I didn't go to Harvard, but I could probably figure that out."

Compared to the week before, when Washington's Kirk Cousins didn't suffer a sack and operated in a clean pocket all afternoon, it didn't look like the same Eagles line.

"It was a tough week for me. It was a tough week for a lot of guys in our room," Barwin said.

The easy conclusion is that the Eagles had their way with an inferior opposing line, and there's probably some truth there. But left tackle T.J. Clemmings, playing in place of Matt Kalil, started all 16 games at right tackle last season when Adrian Peterson rushed for 1,485 yards. So, he couldn't be that bad. And right tackle Jeremiah Sirles, who is in for Andre Smith, was the Vikings' highest rated lineman by Pro Football Focus when he made his first start two weeks ago. So, he's not nothing.

What the Vikings really lacked wasn't necessarily a line, but a running back to take the ball through whatever gaps it might happen to open. The Eagles virtually ignored the Minnesota running game, which was ranked 32nd in the league, and, aside from a Matt Asiata burst for 29 yards in the third quarter, they didn't pay for it. Taking out that one run, the Viking gained 64 yards on 26 attempts.

"We know when teams aren't able to run the ball on us, we can be a lights-out defense," tackle Fletcher Cox said. "When we can make their team one-dimensional, I don't think anybody can stop us."

True enough, but also true for every other team in the league. If a defensive line can pin its ears back and whistle straight for the quarterback without fear of being victimized by the run, then it's a very easy game. With Jim Schwartz confident enough to mix in more blitzes than usual, that added to the snowball rolling downhill.

"At the end of the day, when their starters aren't in, you have to make sure you expose areas you think are weak," Graham said. "Sometimes, they're not as weak as we think, but I felt we got after it a little bit, especially on the edge."

The test of whether this game marked a real turnaround, or merely a turnaround against a team that couldn't run the ball or withstand the pressure that came as a result, will arrive on Sunday night against the Cowboys in the tasteful Jerry Jones Pole-Dancing and Car Wash Emporium.

There is nothing weak about the Dallas offensive line, starting with tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free. It is a veteran line that has been together for a while and it has made great rushers out of DeMarco Murray, Darren McFadden and, this season, rookie Ezekiel Elliott, who leads the league with 703 yards after just six games. The Cowboys rush for an average of 161 yards per game, or roughly 90 more than the Vikings. This will not be a game in which the Eagles can ignore the run.

"I think our message is going to be the same," Graham said. "We're going to continue to keep chopping and just not worry about too much. Just do your job and do the best you can, and let it happen how it's supposed to happen."

That's what still has to be decided about the Eagles defensive line. What exactly is supposed to happen? Did the results of the last two games have more to do with the opponents than with their own efforts?

You can't convince them of that right now. After Sunday's game, you shouldn't try. They deserve the benefit of the doubt at the moment. The Cowboys will tell them the truth, though. Or maybe, just maybe, it will be the Eagles doing the talking this time.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports