LeSean McCoy will be in for a rough day against the Detroit Lions this Sunday. Interestingly, it was not too long ago that running backs circled the Lions game on the calendar, eager for the opportunity to shred a notoriously porous rush defense. In 2009, the Lions defense was ranked a distant 32nd in the NFL according to Football Outsiders’ team defense rankings (Football Outsiders factors out luck and random chance to isolate each team’s intrinsic capabilities).
Four years later, however, the Lions’ rush defense has become a key strength due in large part to outstanding defensive line play led by Ndamukong Suh. This year, according to Football Outsiders, Detroit has the best defensive front in the NFL. Better than the Jets. Better than the Panthers.
Last week, Suh and Co. suffocated Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate, Eddie Lacy, holding him to 16 rushing yards. The NFL’s best rush defense is only getting better.
With Detroit stuffing opposing running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage on 26 percent of rushing attempts, LeSean McCoy will have precious few opportunities to show off his inertia-defying open field direction changes and full speed spin moves. That means Nick Foles will be relied upon more than ever on Sunday.
If McCoy is rendered ineffective, Chip Kelly will be forced to place the offense completely on Nick Foles’ shoulders. This will require a level of trust that Kelly has yet to extend to his second-year signal caller.
Foles is 5-1. In his one loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Week 7, Eagles running backs were held under 60 yards rushing for the first, and only, time all season. With the running game sputtering, Foles struggled to post a 46.2 QB rating. He was pulled in favor of Matt Barkley early in the second half, losing any opportunity to operate a pass-first, hurry-up offense.
Indeed, opponents have solved the Eagles by stopping McCoy and forcing Chip Kelly into one dimensional play calling. This strategy has been effective, because without an effective ground game, Foles struggles to sustain drives.
Despite winning their last four games, the Eagles were an inefficient 17-for-50 on third downs. Though the Lions also have a 22nd ranked pass defense, they often force quarterbacks to execute in predictable third down passing situations, a scenario where Foles has not demonstrated the kind of efficiency that you would expect from a quarterback sporting a 125.2 Passer Rating.
This upcoming clash of 7-5 playoff hopefuls will present Nick Foles with a unique test. His performance will either further entrench him as the Eagles’ franchise quarterback of the future or reopen the door for his skeptics to rush back in.