The Eagles are just a few days away from their season opener against divisional rivals Washington Redskins in a clash that promises to be filled with emotion. The Birds’ are coming off of five consecutive losses to the Redskins and while there are plenty of keys to the game and stars to watch on both teams, it’s the Eagles revamped backfield that may hold the keys to finally putting an end to the streak.
The Eagles run game has been anything but prolific in the last five times that the teams have met. In fact, the last time the Eagles were able to put up over 100 rushing yards in a game against the Redskins was in December of 2014. The Franchise underwent the DeMarco Murray saga and a change of heart in the front office during that time, but the one thing that remained the same in a period where nothing seemed to was a lack of rushing production.
To make matters even more interesting this time around, there’s some bad blood after the hit Darren Sproles sustained that led to a clearing of the bleachers.
“No, I mean, you go back and take a look — I know it was a tough decision, tough play, hard play.” Pederson told the media on Wednesday. “Obviously, it’s the play that the league is trying to remove from the game. I understand it’s going to happen. That’s the way it is.”
“This is an emotional game, as you know. Emotions are going to run high again. This is a division opponent. It’s a great atmosphere, really, for our guys to go into to start the season.”
As we all know by now, the Eagles revamped their backfield this offseason and found a way to keep five running backs on the roster. Headlined LeGarrette Blount, the versatile “pony package pair” of Sproles and Pumphrey will be supported by the slashing Wendell Smallwood and UDFA underdog, Corey Clement. The potential of the group is sky-high behind an offensive line that certainly ranks among the best in the league. For the Redskins, this isn’t the opening matchup they’d have hoped for.
The Redskins had a once formidable run Defense and while their secondary is strong, the run-stopping unit is anything but intimidating. The Washington outfit had an unstable offseason where Kirk Cousins was involved, but Defensive tackle was hardly a flurry of confidence throughout Training Camp.
After taking a medical break from Football, former Browns run-stopper Phil Taylor signed with the Redskins in order to bolster the unit, but a season-ending quad injury bought his preseason and hopes of a return to an abrupt close. The Redskins were back to square one.
It was surprising then that the team cut both Joey Mbu and AJ Francis who were in close competition for the job, instead giving Ziggy Hood the reins. Hood was strong in his first season for the Redskins, but he hardly demanded double teams and shouldn’t prove much in the way of a challenge for the Eagles interior guards.
The one name to watch is former Bills linebacker Zach Brown who will help to somewhat dampen the Eagles rushing fire, and there’s no doubting the potential of their first round pick, Jonathan Allen. The team’s second round pick who played alongside Allen at Bama will hope to bolster the defense, but it’s not what it was. And it’s not like years past where the Eagles are struggling to find a direction or using a downhill dominator in the wrong fashion.
“Sometimes the answer is, ‘Well, hey, we can have [RB] LeGarrette  and [RB] Wendell [Smallwood], they would both be suitable for this play.’ Sometimes there’s more than one guy and we keep that in mind.” Frank Reich told the media. “Sometimes we might play it with one and the next time we might run it with the other guy. If one guy hits it hard and good the first time, we might just let him roll with it the second time. And there’s things where, obviously, we’re using [RB] Darren [Sproles] and mixing things up like that. So it’s exciting to do, to look through. It’s not hard to do. It’s very tedious. It’s the kind of detail that you have to do in game planning to go through every play, every position, [and ask], ‘Are we best utilizing our players?’ Because ultimately it’s about players making plays, and it’s our job to put them in position to do that.”
That’s exactly the problem that the Redskins face. The Eagles backfield is no longer just a one-dimensional threat with the occasional change of pace. At any one moment, the team could pony-up with Sproles and Pumphrey, or line any of their backs up in the slot as they did with Pumphrey during the preseason.
Clement has shown his prowess to share a backfield and produce, while Smallwood’s slashing and new tenacious mentality give the Eagles some electric options behind Blount. The presence of Pumphrey should reduce the workload for Sproles, but will ensure there’s just as much explosiveness.
The Redskins may be suitably equipped to deal with Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith. They may have a speedy outside linebacker who can contain Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor, but if they insist on lining up in man-coverage, all it takes is one shifty Eagles running back to sneak out of the flat for a big play…and that’s exactly what Pederson and Reich will be looking to achieve on Sunday.
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