Eagles-49ers: Run defense could be decisive in intriguing match-up
The Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers are each looking to move to 2-0 – and run defense could be the decisive factor.
Going into the 2021 season, few observers had the Philadelphia Eagles as NFC East favorites. After they dispatched the Atlanta Falcons 32-6 in Week 1, it is fair to wonder whether the last team to beat Tom Brady in a Super Bowl were underestimated.
Yet Philadelphia's second game under new head coach Nick Sirianni is likely to be significantly tougher than their first, which came against a Falcons team caught in transition with Atlanta fighting the prospect of a rebuild staring them in the face.
In Week 2, the Eagles face the San Francisco 49ers, seen by many as Super Bowl contenders, a status vindicated by the first 55 minutes of their performance in a victory on the road against the Detroit Lions.
The Niners led 38-10 and 41-17 at Ford Field, but the final margin of victory was a much tighter 41-33 as the Lions staged a late rally after San Francisco had brought in its backups on defense with the game seemingly in hand.
Philadelphia may see that as a reason to be confident they can move the ball on San Francisco. However, the Eagles' defense must be wary of a Niners offense that exploded for 8.04 yards per play in the opener, exploiting a weakness that was all too apparent in the Atlanta game.
While the Eagles' defensive line dominated matters when it came to rushing the passer, it was consistently moved off the ball in the run game, the Falcons averaging 4.77 yards per carry, the eighth-best mark in the NFL in Week 1.
San Francisco was slightly behind that average with 4.68 as the Kyle Shanahan offense, notoriously ultra-friendly to running backs, allowed sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell to rush for 104 yards and a touchdown after starter Raheem Mostert went down with a knee injury.
The ground game is pivotal to the 49ers' success on offense as it sets up a play-action passing attack that arguably does a better job of opening the middle of the field than any other in the NFL.
Atlanta found early success against Philadelphia in that area too, as the Eagles linebackers played aggressively in getting downhill to guard the threat of the run, and it is fair to assume Shanahan and the Niners will do a far superior job of taking advantage of such openings than the Falcons did during their dismal showing.
Mostert out for season
Mostert is now out for the season having elected to undergo surgery on his knee but that does not lessen the need for the Eagles to slow down Mitchell, whose yards after contact per attempt average of 3.15 was second only to his team-mate's 7.5 on two carries in Week 1. Rookie third-round back Trey Sermon will be active for Week 2; his 2.77 yards after contact per attempt for Ohio State were sixth in the Power 5 last year.
By the same token, San Francisco must have a keen focus on stopping Philadelphia's ground game, which was third in the league with 5.58 yards per carry last week, after the 49ers' run defense put on a disappointing display versus Detroit.
Indeed, the Lions averaged 4.83 yards per attempt (seventh-most in the league) as the absence of Javon Kinlaw from the defensive line proved telling for the 49ers.
Kinlaw has practiced in a limited capacity this week and his presence as a defender who can soak up double teams on the interior of the line should serve as a boost to DeMeco Ryans' group.
Yet there will still need to be improvements from the players behind the line for San Francisco to stiffen its run defense, the Niners' linebackers having had clear issues plugging the wrong gaps in the win over the Lions.
Should they fail to make those strides, that will make life harder on a defense that has historically struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks on the zone-read plays that Jalen Hurts and the Eagles will look to attack them with on Sunday.
It's a passing league and two fearsome sets of pass rushers and a collection of exciting receiving options will surely have plenty of bearing on how this intriguing NFC matchup plays out. But, in the end, it is a game that may come down to which defense can stem the tide on the ground
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