With offense struggling, Eagles' defense now must lead the way

Eagles defensive tackle Beau Allen loses his helmet stopping Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott in the first-quarter on Sunday, December 31, 2017 in Philadelphia.

For much of this season, the Eagles’ defense has been able to play off its offense.

Led by the Amazing & Spectacular Carson Wentz, the offense would consistently roar out of the blocks like Usain Bolt, grab an early lead and force opposing teams to tear up their offensive game plans and throw the ball more, usually much more, than they had planned.

In their first 13 games, the Eagles outscored teams 92-35 in the first quarter and 309-153 in the first three quarters. Opponents averaged a league-low 19.1 rushing attempts against them.

Since Wentz’s season-ending ACL injury against the Rams in Week 14, however, everything has changed. The Eagles aren’t jumping out to big leads and opponents aren’t revamping their game plans.

When the Eagles play their first playoff game in two weeks, the defense won’t be playing off the offense. The defense will have to lead the way.

“We know how it’s going to be [in the postseason],’’ defensive tackle Beau Allen said Sunday after the Eagles’ 6-0 loss to the Cowboys.

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“We have a mature group here. We know what we need to do and we’re really focused going into these next two weeks. That’s one thing I’m excited about. This group of guys and the time we have to prepare. We know what we need to do.’’

Camera icon MAX FAULKNER / TNS
Eagles safety Corey Graham tries to tackle Cowboys’ running back Ezekiel Elliott during the Eagles’ 6-0 loss to Dallas.

The offense struggled once again Sunday. Nick Foles, who completed just 50 percent of his attempts last week against Oakland, was just 4-for-11 for 39 yards with a bad interception in one quarter of work against the Cowboys.

The Eagles owned the league’s best third-down offense when Wentz was healthy. But in their last two games, they are just 3-for-25 on third-down conversions.

Despite giving many of their defensive regulars the day off (ends Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett, tackle Tim Jernigan, safety Rodney McLeod, cornerback Jalen Mills and linebacker Nigel Bradham) and having others just make cameo appearances (tackle Fletcher Cox, safety Malcolm Jenkins, linebacker Mychal Kendricks), the Eagles held their own against a Cowboys offense that played most of its starters, including quarterback Dak Prescott and running back Ezekiel Elliott, the entire game.

The Cowboys’ only score came on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Prescott to Brice Butler three minutes into the fourth quarter.

“A lot of guys got a lot of good work out there today,’’ McLeod said. “They did a good job holding them to six points. We didn’t get a turnover today, which would have helped us out. But overall, we’re feeling good and confident going into the postseason based on the way we’ve played these past two games overall.’’

Elliott came into the game needing 120 yards to record his second straight 1,000-yard season. He didn’t get it. But he did become the first player this season to rush for 100 yards against the Eagles, though it didn’t come easy.

Even with most of their starters watching from the bench, the Eagles held Elliott to 28 yards on 10 carries in the first half. He broke a 25-yard run on the first play of the second half and finished with 103 yards on 27 carries.

“We’ve had our rough spots at times this year,’’ said defensive end Chris Long, who was one of the few defensive regulars who played much of the game. “But for the most part, we’ve been who we are. Physical. Play with passion and emotion.

“We try to stop the run first. They ended up with over a hundred yards today [129 on 32 carries]. I wish we could have kept Zeke under a hundred. But they were committed to giving him the ball.

“This is the type of defense we need to be during the playoffs. Try to keep the points down and play physical at home here in the cold.’’

Sidney Jones, the team’s second-round rookie corner who has been sidelined all season while recovering from a ruptured Achilles, played a big chunk of the game before leg cramps forced him to the sideline.

Several other players who have played limited defensive snaps this season, including rookies Elijah Qualls and Nate Gerry and linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill and cornerback/safety Jaylen Watkins, got a chance to play a lot Sunday and did a good job.

The Cowboys had just 16 first downs and converted only five of 15 third-down opportunities. Prescott completed just 17 of 30 passes and averaged 6.0 yards per attempt.

“I definitely feel good,’’ safety Corey Graham said. “Didn’t we just play our twos against their starters and hold them to six points?

“They scored one touchdown. You don’t want to lose no matter what the situation is. But they played their starters the whole game, which is kind of funny to me.’’

Not everything is perfect for the defense. It had just one sack Sunday, giving it just nine in the last six games.

They’ve allowed 125-plus rushing yards in both of the last two games after giving up more than 100 only four times in their first 14 games.

“Our No. 1 goal on the d-line was not to let them get that 120 yards [for Elliott],’’ said Cox. “I think they did a good job of stopping them.

“The next thing was to sack the quarterback. They got some hits on him, and I think [Steven] Means got a sack, which is good.’’

Said Allen: “Just in general, it’s tough to be happy with a loss. But I’m a silver-linings kind of guy. We had a lot of guys in there that got a lot of extended time that hadn’t. Sidney Jones, [Bryan] Braman, Means, Qualls.

“It’s a big deal to play a lot of snaps like that in this league. And we had a lot of guys that battled really hard and left it all out there. So that’s one thing you have to be proud of.’’

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