The Eagles’ rushing attack has come under scrutiny early on this season after a few lacklustre performances that didn’t quite have the ilk of last year’s NFL champs. Even before losing Jay Ajayi for the season to a torn ACL, there was speculation in Philadelphia about the possibility of adding a new runner to the backfield rotation. The Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell and a familiar face in the Bills’ LeSean McCoy have been noted as likely trade targets for Howie Roseman. With the trade deadline right around the corner, if a move is to be made, it will have to be in the next two weeks. Despite struggling with a nagging quad injury, Corey Clement has confidence in the state of the current backfield lead by himself, Wendell Smallwood and perhaps a sprinkle of 2018 UDFA Josh Adams. After speaking to Roseman before the Thursday night clash with the New York Giants, urging him to have confidence in he and his fellow running backs, Clement echoed his sentiments in the post game interview.
“This game was definitely a test for us, to see do we need to get somebody,” said Clement. “I talked to Howie before the game — you have to have confidence in our room.” To which Roseman replied: “make me believe [it].”
While his performance won’t raise too many eyebrows — Clement finished the game with 11 carries for 43 yards and 3 receptions for 26 yards — he was solid in pass protection, and made the most of his opportunities despite reportedly being on a snap count. Making the most of his opportunities has been Clement’s modus operandi during his time with the Eagles. He’s got a motor that won’t quit, surprising strength and slipperiness in the open field and doesn’t make many mistakes. His urgency is evident when he gets the ball, and he won’t take plays off. So far, however, he hasn’t proven he has what it takes to be a number one back in the NFL, despite what some eager Eagles’ fans had hoped following his playoff performance. With all that in mind, he’s clambering for an opportunity to prove the doubters wrong. He may just get his wish.
In the past, the Eagles have shown a reluctance to solve inside problems with outside solutions. While they did make a move for Jay Ajayi halfway through the season last year, I believe the front office saw this as an opportunity to buy low, not as a remedy to a problem. Similarly, the trade sending Jordan Matthews away for Ronald Darby had more to do with giving Nelson Agholor an opportunity in the slot than needing immediate corner help; clearly the Bills got the short end of the stick on that one. After losing Jordan Hicks, Jason Peters and Carson Wentz to injuries last season, Doug Pederson instead turned to in-house solutions and scheme-adjustments. I see this trend continuing. Additionally, my colleague Liam Jenkins smartly mentioned that, with the trade deadline closing in, it is even less likely that the Eagles are able to bring a newly-acquired back up to speed because the Eagles have to travel to London to play the Jacksonville Jaguars in two weeks time. Despite the hullabaloo, there’s still hope the running game can return to its former 2017 glory.
First, we have to consider what was working last season. Below is a comparison of rushing stats from this year and last. It is worth noting that before the Giants game — a game in which the Eagles ran out the clock for a significant portion of the game — the team’s yards per carry average was 4.4, which would put them in 8th in the NFL. The immediate difference is the willingness to run the ball.
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Understandably, being without their top running back for most of this young season and struck by injuries early, the Eagles’ offence moved away from the run schematically. So much so that Carson Wentz was asked to throw the ball 50 times in the overtime loss to Tennessee. While it is great to see our QB pumping out MVP-like numbers once again, he is clearly still getting back to form — he has seen an increase in QBR of almost ten points every game this season. Make no mistake, the running game is not the focal point of this offence. However, it does facilitate the passing game more than most schemes across the NFL. It is well known that the Eagles are tough to face in Philadelphia. It is no coincidence that we run the ball 5% more frequently at home than on the road. Gone are the days of 2017 when Pederson dialled up a run on third and long.
Jay Ajayi felt so passionate about the lack of run calls, he publicly spoke up about it following a loss to the Vikings at home — a game in which Pederson called only 17 run plays. Despite Minnesota’s formidable front seven, the Birds still managed 4.8 yards per carry. Some may consider it a result of promoting former receivers coach Mike Groh to offensive coordinator. Interestingly enough, the two teams that lead the league in pass play percentage are led by former Philadelphia coaches Frank Reich (now head coach in Indianapolis) and John DeFilippo (now the OC in Minnesota). Therefore, the lack of faith in the rushing attack is a tad head-scratching, especially after Duce Staley’s promotion which included an increased involvement in play design.
We can probably chalk it up to a lack of faith in Wendell Smallwood, but the coaching brass has liked him enough to keep him around this long. It is becoming evident that they have never envisioned him as a bell-cow runner. One has to appreciate the grit and poise he’s displayed in the last few weeks, but with Smallwood what you see is what you get. He’s an undersized runner with below average athleticism, a little wiggle, bad hands and questionable decision making. He runs hard and takes his craft very seriously, but he doesn’t often create yards for himself and won’t make many people miss. This brings us to the second big difference between 2017 and today.
The Eagles need big plays in the run game. The worry is that with the loss of Ajayi, the premise of an explosive rushing attack might dissolve. However, as talented of a rusher as Ajayi is, he only accounted for four plays of 20 yards or more in his time with the Eagles last season and only six all season. It was in fact LeGarrette Blount who led the team with seven runs of 20 plus yards. Both men are imposing, tackle-breaking machines, with Blount having an edge in the weight department. What stands out with Blount’s game in contrast to Ajayi’s is his patience and willingness to stay behind his blocks. Throughout his career, Jay has been criticised for his all-or-nothing run style — often resulting in plays for a loss or missed opportunities for short gains. He hits the hole with authority, but also sometimes with reckless abandon, looking to bounce outside early. This doesn’t always lend to an inside zone running scheme. To his credit, he seemed to have worked on this area of his game in the brief glimpses we were able to see of him this season.
If Corey Clement is to succeed as RB1 in this offense, he will have to be the picture of patience. The big runs will come. Clement hasn’t exactly made this his strong suit so far in his professional career. Nonetheless, this is often a problem with young rushers and it’s something he will have time to correct in his second season. He did show glimpses in college, but made most of his money bouncing runs to the outside. You can see examples of his patience in and around the goal line at 1:52 and 2:40. So far, Clement has been able to make all the adjustments the Eagles have asked him to make, going from a bigger, bruising back at Wisconsin to a nimble, pass-catching third down back. This will be yet another test for the young runningback.
Another factor in the Eagles’ success running the ball last season was Carson Wentz’ ability to escape the pocket and make plays with his legs. It will take some time for him to recoup this efficiency following a pretty hefty injury and a lengthy recovery process. Below are his rushing stats from the last two seasons. The same could be said for the return of Darren Sproles. In his last healthy season, 2016, he totalled 438 yards on the ground on 94 carries for an average of 4.7 yards a pop. It is likely we will never see that Sproles again, but there is a real possibility he will provide a boost when he returns.
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The rushing attack will also be aided by the involvement of receivers in the passing game — opening up the middle of the field. So far this season the Eagles wide receivers have only gotten 41.35% of the team’s targets and 39.88% of the team’s receptions. This should change with Alshon Jeffery easing back into his role and Nelson Agholor and Wentz continuing to work on their chemistry. Particularly, Agholor’s field stretching ability will be needed to improve the run game. Against the Giants, he totalled three receptions and 91 yards for a whopping 30.3 yards per reception. The team will need more of this going forward, and should have some success next week when they welcome a Carolina secondary allowing over 250 passing yards a game.
Conclusively, if the Eagles are able to maintain the 4.4 yards per carry they held going into the Thursday night game and Pederson dials up the run to the tune of 29.6 rushes a game last season, Philadelphia would average 130.24 yards per game (8th in the NFL). Despite facing a rash of explosive defenses over the coming weeks — Panthers, Jaguars, Rams, Texans — the coaching staff has to have faith in the run. If the Eagles are to make a trade for a new runningback, it would more likely be a bigger back, not a Bell or a McCoy. Names like C.J. Anderson, Jordan Howard or Christine Michael could come up in conversation. There is also the possibility that Roseman looks to add a runner with experience in Pederson’s scheme like the Cheifs’ Spencer Ware. In all likelihood, Eagles fans will have to look forward to the possibility of Clement proving doubters, and Howie, wrong.
Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports