For the Eagles backfield, OTA’s is all about establishing an identity

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OTA’s are often a time for experimentation and creativity. A time for coaching personnel to evaluate talent on the roster and envision new ways to maximize the potential that runs deep into the heart of the team. The Philadelphia Eagles are no exception, and when it comes to their backfield, it’s arguably the most important aspect of OTA’s.

Doug Pederson and Duce Staley caught many off guard last year by experimenting with pistol formations during the program..and with an even more dynamic approach this year, the Eagles coaching staff may have even more aces up their sleeve..especially given that with such a strong group in terms of versatility, backs will have to go above and beyond to prove themselves worthy of a spot in rotation.

Competition is the name of the game for the Eagles, and although their backfield still had many question marks after the Draft, the signing of seven-year veteran LeGarrette Blount certainly eradicated plenty. The Birds’ now not only have their coveted three-down back, but an incredibly explosive and versatile group from top to bottom. From Donnel Pumphrey, to Wendell Smallwood, and Darren Sproles to Corey Clement, the Eagles have an abundance of running back talent on the depth chart. The fun part? Figuring out how to really hurt Defense with such a dynamic group of running backs…and that’s where OTA’s come in.

Pederson spoke to the media yesterday ahead of the first team practice, opening up on the steps he needs to take over the next few weeks when it comes to evaluating the backfield.

“You self-evaluate and you self-scheme what you did last year.” Pederson said when asked about splitting the backfield. “I got to find out, one, where and how LeGarrette [Blount] fits. We know what Darren [Sproles] can do. We know what Wendell [Smallwood] can do. You’ve got [RB] Donnel Pumphrey sitting there. I want to see what he can do. There are some combinations with some backs there. And then even [RB] Byron Marshall, cross-training Byron Marshall, as we’ve talked about already this spring. Utilizing a couple of those guys because they’re nifty, they’re quick. They can be a matchup issue for linebackers or safeties. I just want to check those things out. Now is the time to do that before we get too deep into training camp.”

Splitting the backfield may be a new concept for the Eagles offense, but it’s also a scary one. After just one day of practice, there were many different takeaways regarding the backfield. From Blount taking the majority of first-team snaps, as expected, to Pumphrey lining up in the slot, the tone for expecting the unexpected was set very early on..and that’s exactly what the Doctor ordered.

Carson Wentz attempted 608 passes in his rookie season, while the Eagles backfield combined for a total of 381 carries. That does not scream consistency, nor does it scream balance. The only picture that it really does paint clearly is that the Eagles simply couldn’t figure out how to maximize the potential of such an elusive and dynamic unit.
Ryan Mathews hit his stride early on, rushing for 77-yards against the Browns. But then just one week later, Darren Sproles led the team in rushing, with 40-yards. A stark contrast perhaps foreshadowing the inconsistencies that were to follow.
Against the Steelers, the Eagles arguably had their best rushing performance of the year. Both Smallwood and Barner scored their first NFL touchdowns as the committee effort completely stifled the Pittsburgh Defense, putting up 125 yards of rushing in a dominant win. Darren Sproles was used heavily in the screen game, receiving for 128 yards, a season high after the Steelers allowed Gio Bernard to do the same a week beforehand. The Eagles looked to have found the winning formula early on and it all seemed to be shaping up perfectly.
But then things started to change. Coaching decisions began to haunt the backfield and the potential started to stagnate. The Eagles didn’t have their first solo 100+ yard game from a running back until week 10’s win over Atlanta..the first of just two that year from lead rusher, Ryan Mathews.
Mathews would go from a lead back, to a goal-line rusher in the blink of an eye..while Smallwood would have a career game against Atlanta, before disappearing in the weeks that followed. Entering the Draft, one of the primary questions was if the Eagles did draft a lead back, would it be worth it? With so much newly signed talent at wide receiver, could the Eagles afford to dedicate 25+ carries per game to a single back, especially with such a dynamic group already implemented? Pederson addressed that very concern yesterday.

” Yeah, it’s hard to put a number on the actual carries because we don’t play a game for quite some time. But in LeGarrette’s defense, he’s coming in trying to learn our offense. I want to get him out there as often as I can, get him working with [QB] Carson [Wentz] as often as I can, along with [RBs] Wendell [Smallwood], Darren [Sproles] – keep working that combination. Again, evaluating that group, there are a lot of different possibilities that I see as a head coach, and really as an offensive coach going forward. [There are] some good combinations with that running back group that we can put a couple guys out there on the field at the same time. But in LeGarrette’s sense right now, [we are] just getting him caught up and up to speed with what we’re doing offensively.”

Where Blount really helps the Eagles of course, is an area where they simply struggled last year; converting on third down. The team converted third downs on the ground just 45% of the time last year, 23% less than they did under Chip Kelly just one year ago. Blount’s prowess as a dominant downhill runner who can force something out of nothing will no doubt be invaluable to an Eagles backfield that lacked that lone lone element.

The Eagles may finally have the last piece of the puzzle in LeGarrette Blount. His sheer strength and aggressive style of play alone brings a missing element to the backfield. He won’t have the same workload that was placed onto his shoulders in New England, but what he will have is a strong supporting cast who can help in numerous facets of the game. It’s figuring out just how many different ways that the committee will contribute, that makes OTA’s an incredibly exciting time.

Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

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