Remember when the Eagles acquired DeMarco Murray and the hype surrounding the “Three-headed monster” was unparalleled. One year later, the committee backfield is still present in Philadelphia..but looks primed to enjoy the season it failed to achieve a year ago.
Heading into week 3, the Eagles backfield looked good on paper, but lacked the consistency and versatility needed to become a threat to a Steelers Defense that appeared formidable against ground attacks. At halftime against the Bears, the Eagles had amassed just 21 rushing yards, depicting a slightly different story than the 227 yards and 3 touchdowns picked up through the opening two games. However, it was this lack of consistency partnered with a mild injury that forced Pederson to get creative against Pittsburgh and show just how dangerous this committee can be.
Ryan Mathews may have had 32 yards on nine carries against the Bears..but picked up 30 of those yards on a lone carry in the fourth quarter. Part of the reason his production stagnated so much was that Mathews was dealing with a mild injury on the same ankle he injured before the start of Training camp.
As a result, Darren Sproles saw most of the carries but struggled to make a huge impact. At halftime against the Bears, the Eagles had amassed just 21 rushing yards. After Wendell Smallwood rushed twice for 16 yards, he had actually tied for the Eagles lead in rushing yards..with none other than Carson Wentz. Something had to change if the Offense was to stay on the field anywhere near as much as it had through two games.
That’s exactly what happened. In week 2, the Steelers were able to shut down the Bengals’ ground game, holding them to just 46 yards. However, Giovani Bernard received nine catches for 100 yards and a touchdown..taking advantage of the Steelers style of Defense with plenty of short receptions..something Pederson’s West-Coast Offense would be perfect to replicate.
With Mathews injured and the Eagles wanting to exploit the short passes out of the backfield, they were left in need of a lead rusher. Insert fifth-round pick, Wendell Smallwood. Carrying the ball 17 times for 79 yards and averaging 4.6 yards per carry, Smallwood had a great game and capped it off with a touchdown.
Kenjon Barner saw 8 carries and averaged 5.3 yards per rush, accounting for 42 yards, also recording his first ever NFL touchdown. After three games, Barner has the third most runs of 14 yards or more despite only carrying the ball 14 times. The former Oregon Duck has been extremely impressive in a change of pace role, closely mirroring that of Spencer Ware last year.
Barner and Smallwood combined averaged a total of 4.9 yards per carry against the Steelers..which meant that an aging Darren Sproles could be used where he was most deadly without fatiguing as rapidly as if he would with a heavy rushing workload.
The little engine that could received for 128 yards and a touchdown on 6 receptions..meaning that the Steelers have given up 228 yards and 2 touchdowns to running backs in just two games. Pederson saw an opportunity to not just capitalize on a weakness, but to turn it into a game-changing strength.
Pederson’s creativity in getting the ball out of the backfield in unpredictable fashions not only played a crucial part in the team’s Offensive dominance, but showed a flash of just how explosive the entire unit can be..even if their lead back is in a limited role.
If the Eagles can run the game with Smallwood and Barner becoming a younger Mathews and Sproles combo, it not only keeps Sproles fresh to electrify Defenses through creative screen looks as he did on Sunday, but allows Mathews to punch it in at the goal-line when needed, just as he’s done three times already this year.
It’s this kind of efficiency that if seen a year ago, would have likely seen the Eagles perform as expected under Chip Kelly, given that Sam Bradford was 7-1 when the Eagles had 100 or more rushing yards. Chip’s arrogance and ego got the better of him as his insistency to use a lateral run game harmed the Offense more than it helped.
Carson Wentz is now 3-0 in the same statistic. Doug Pederson’s rushing attack was held to just -1 rushing yards at the end of the first quarter and both Sproles and Mathews both ended the game with negative rushing yards, but the committee backfield delivered explosively and did exactly what it was employed to do.
The West-Coast Offense thrives when there’s support on the ground..and we may have only seen a glimpse of what this unit is capable of.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports