Eagles backfield still struggling to find its identity after seven games

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When Doug Pederson was first appointed as Head Coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, there was plenty of excitement about how the committee backfield would fare under his leadership. Pederson helped orchestrate a phenomenal rushing effort in the absence of Jamaal Charles last season, as Offensive Coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs. So many assumed and hoped that the versatility of Darren Sproles, elusiveness of Mathews and physicality of Barner and Smallwood would help propel the unit into a prominent threat. But nearly halfway into the season, we’ve seen quite the opposite.

It feels like the backfield is struggling to find its identity. Ryan Mathews led the charge in the season opener against the Browns before a stunning committee effort against the Steelers saw both Smallwood and Barner record their first NFL touchdowns.That level of production is yet to be repeated.

Barner and Smallwood have seen their snaps slowly dissipate over the last few weeks. Despite an injury sustained by Ryan Mathews, limiting his workload, Barner and the Rookie haven’t seen much in the way of regular rotation..causing plenty of speculation over the shape of the backfield.

Even more surprisingly, despite a light workload, Wendell Smallwood has still seen more snaps over the last few weeks than Mathews, who saw just eight snaps against the Cowboys. Making Doug Pederson’s recent comments over the starter in the backfield even more interesting.

Pederson affirmed that Mathews was still the lead back, but his minimal snaps against the Cowboys in comparison to the 81% Sproles played in would suggest otherwise. While Sproles is also used in screen looks and passing plays, the veteran rushed the ball 15 times in the overtime loss to Dallas.

Mathews is yet to see as many snaps as he did in the opener and the rotation in the backfield is nowhere near as frequent..which brings up a completely different debate. Averaging just 3.8 yards per carry, a number that is still farfetched due to some anomaly 30-yard rushes, the production just doesn’t seem to be there. In fact all four of Mathews’ touchdowns this season have come from rushes inside the five.

Sproles and Barner are both averaging over 5 yards per carry, while Wendell Smallwood has already proven his specialty by returning a 98-yard kick for a touchdown. Smallwood and Barner’s carries combined account for just two more than Darren Sproles this season. After the game against the Steelers, both Smallwood and Barner have been left on the sidelines when it’s clear that the team need a surge in momentum on the ground..until last Sunday.

Wendell Smallwood was strangely inserted into the game during the fourth quarter on Sunday for his first carry of the game and proceeded to fumble the football. The logic in putting Smallwood in for a lone carry in the fourth quarter was questionable, but something also experienced by Kenjon Barner earlier in the game.

There doesn’t appear to be a clear direction or overall shape to the backfield. One game it’s screen heavy, allowing Darren Sproles to lead the team in receiving yards, the next it’s a stunning committee effort and then the next sees the “lead back” reduced to eight snaps and a “goal line” role.

The pieces are all there..and we know just how explosive every running back can be. Sproles has proven it over the years while the power of Barner and acceleration of Smallwood have both been on display this season. But through all the high’s and low’s, the inconsistency on the ground that’s been hampered by fumbles has hurt the Offense significantly.

There’s no real rhythm to the backfield, but at the same time it isn’t unpredictable. There’s rarely a sign of flair or explosiveness more than once on the same drive..and the team very rarely interchange backs during a drive..meaning if you see Darren Sproles in the backfield, you have a vague idea of what to expect..in the same way Chip Kelly’s Offense became all too familiar for the Dallas Cowboys last year.

The Eagles backfield is stacked with potential, talent, explosiveness and versatility..but it seems that the unit is utilizing only one of these qualities per game..and until Pederson figures out the shape and direction that his backfield is heading, the ceiling will only be so high.

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