In a battle of strengths, Cardinals’ defense faces season’s toughest foe in Eagles’ LeSean McCoy

Nov 29, 2013, 2:02 AM | Updated: 4:26 am

TEMPE, Ariz. — When the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles meet Sunday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field, they won’t just be pitting their impressive and somewhat surprising records against one another.

No, the two playoff-hopeful squads will be matching strength against strength.

Under the direction of first-year head coach Chip Kelly, the Eagles boast the NFL’s ‘fastest show on earth,’ a spread attack that preaches conditioning, efficiency (league-worst 41 percent time of possession), gap discipline along the offensive line, an accurate quarterback, talented receivers who can exploit holes down field and versatile tight ends and running backs.

Philadelphia certainly has the latter category covered, as tailback LeSean McCoy has flourished in Kelly’s up-tempo scheme. Through 11 games, he leads the league with 1,009 rushing yards to go along with five touchdowns.

To put McCoy’s production in perspective, in 12 total games last season, the former Pro Bowler (2011) ran for just 840 yards and two touchdowns.

While the Cardinals head to the City of Brotherly Love sporting the league’s second-best run defense (81.3 yards/game), the unit’s chief architect, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, did his best to bestow all of the effusive praise on McCoy.

“I think [their offense] opens the field for him,” Bowles said. “He was a great running back before this offense. But in this offense, he’s just flourished. He’s a modern-day Barry Sanders.”

According to Cardinals defensive tackle Dan Williams, because McCoy has a lot of the same tendencies — ability to change speeds, terrific left-to-right lateral movement, strength to bounce off tackles — as Sanders, the Eagles’ zone running scheme fits him perfectly.

“It opens up a lot more holes for him,” Williams said. “He was already a good back, but now the way the wide receivers run hard every play, you don’t really know what they’re going to do. Are they going to throw a screen? There’s so much you’re trying to read that it puts him space. That’s a bad formula when LeSean McCoy is in space. He’s a very dangerous runner.

“He’s the shiftiest running back out of all the guys we’ve seen this year. You can’t stop your feet. You have to make him choose a side. A lot of guys stop their feet before they try to tackle him, and he makes them look silly in the open field.”

Silly indeed.

The fifth-year pro out of Pittsburgh has already exceeded the 100-yard mark on four separate occasions, including a season-high 184 in Philadelphia’s season opener in Washington.

If the Cardinals have anything on their side — besides the fact they’ve allowed just one running back (San Francisco 49ers’ Frank Gore in Week 7) to eclipse the 100-yard mark this season — it’s that they’ve faced McCoy in each of the last two seasons.

In back-to-back victories over Philadelphia, Arizona allowed McCoy to run for a 151 combined yards and a touchdown.

While those two performances came before Kelly’s arrival, the Cardinals, at the very least, have a blueprint for what it will take to limit McCoy’s effectiveness.

“We have to tackle him,” Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell said. “He makes a lot of guys miss tackles. If you have a good day tackling and don’t let him get yards after contact, we should be fine.”

Added first-year Cardinal Matt Shaughnessy, “The biggest challenge is for us to do our job [against McCoy]. We need to just do our job. It’s about being disciplined with your responsibilities, because he exploits teams when they make mistakes.”

Those mistakes haven’t just come in the run game.

Going into Sunday’s contest, the Eagles lead the league with 67 plays of 20 yards or more. Of those 67, 10 have been recorded by McCoy. And of those 10, five have come on pass plays.

Although he currently sits as the league’s only 1,000-yard rusher, McCoy is also seventh among running backs in receiving yards (399). Playing for a coach who loves to exploit matchups in space, McCoy has no problem serving as an additional threat during passing situations — be in on a bubble screen or lined up in the slot.

“You have to be disciplined and trust your technique when you approach him at the ankles,” Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby said. “He can make you miss in a hole. He can make you miss in space. He’s a talented running back.”

That he is.

But Arizona can also look to its own success against the likes of Reggie Bush (69 total yards), DeAngelo Williams (69 total yards), Doug Martin (61 total yards), Darren Sproles (56 total yards), Maurice Jones-Drew (35 total yards), Trent Richardson (26 total yards), Steven Jackson (13 total yards), to illustrate that it’s more than capable of prevailing in Sunday’s battle of strengths.

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