The injury to Darren Sproles has sent repurcissions throughout the Eagles roster. After carrying five running backs into the regular season, the Eagles are down to just three. A breakout game against the Giants which saw the unit rush for 171 yards showed plenty of encouraging signs, but the loss to Sproles raises some interesting questions.
Against the Chiefs, it was the little engine that could who dominated the Lions share of carries, rushing 10 times for 48 yards in the absence of LeGarrette Blount. If for whatever reason Blount struggles to get going, the Eagles will be forced to turn to either UDFA Corey Clement, or more prominently their second year running back, Wendell Smallwood.
“There’s no doubt Wendell is going to have an increased role.” Frank Reich told reporters on Tuesday. “Like you said, he’s the guy on — I think all the guys have some 3rd down ability, but Wendell has really improved in that area. He’s showed natural aptitude for it early, both from a protection standpoint and from a route-running standpoint. I’m not sure you can ever replace 43 in that regard. He’s just a unique player, but [I] feel good about Wendell and him stepping up.”
The West Virginia product was drafted in the fifth round of last year’s NFL Draft and would go on to record 312 yards and a touchdown on 77 carries, before suffering an injury that would cut his rookie season short. From a situational back, to a change-of-pace rusher, and even the leader of the pack at times, Smallwood experienced it all in 2016. Many wondered just how Smallwood was viewed by the Eagles coaching staff, especially after the drafting of Donell Pumphrey and signing of LeGarrette Blount. A strong offseason very rapidly changed minds however.
As Training Camp progressed and the hype surrounding Corey Clement began to rise, a rusher who meets his tackles head on began to emerge. Smallwood spoke of how Duce Staley told him to push through tackles as opposed to rushing to avoid them, leading the young slasher to lower his head and drive the ball forward. The elusive and quick-cutting style we saw in year one appears to have been replaced with an aggressive dog-like mentality that carried into preseason.
Despite an injury setback, Smallwood would carry the ball 4 times for 28 yards in preseason. A small workload, but enough to show that he has the rapid physical style needed in this Offense. As the regular season rolled around, Smallwood began to see a few more touches.
Most recently, he rushed for 71 yards on 12 carries against the Giants. While his rushing style saw everything embodied in preseason carry over where it matters most, what really stood out was his pass blocking. Something that previously seemed to allude his game, Smallwood made some crucial blocks including a brilliant effort on a third down effort that enabled Wentz to scramble and find Nelson Agholor for a big gain.
“He did a great job.” Reich said. “There were two or three times in that game where — Spags [Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo] runs very complicated blitzes, a lot of different looks, Wendell did a particularly good job on several of them. So there’s always — there’s still one or two, still maybe one little snafu, but those things can be corrected and have a lot of confidence in him. I know [QB] Carson [Wentz] has a lot of confidence because as a quarterback it’s important to be standing back there and knowing with everybody moving around that this guy is going to get the right guy, and there’s a high degree of confidence in Wendell in that regard.”
Smallwood appears to be a far more complete back than in his rookie year. Progression here is the key, and it’s something that can be seen every time the running back touches the ball. A reception in each of his last three games has seen Smallwood begin to really find his niche in this Offense, and with Sproles gone and the stakes rising, that niche could well lead to a major cog in Pederson’s west-coast system, and a stage for Smallwood to shine that he’s been craving since the offseason.
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