Through the opening three weeks of the season, running the ball almost looked like a chore for the Eagles. Darren Sproles was the man of the moment in week one before Miles Sanders took over, filling just about every role while Jordan Howard sat on the sideline.
There was a complete lack of rushing identity as the Birds struggled to sustain drives and offensive balance. When you partner that with two fumbles from Miles Sanders and spurts of explosiveness from Howard that were then almost ignored by the coaching staff, it led to increased levels of frustration from all angles.
But then the Eagles traveled to Green Bay.
Maybe it was just a case of settling in. After all, the Eagles have been here before.
It took the Birds’ a while to settle in Wentz’s rookie season too. Rookie Wendell Smallwood led the team in rushing against the Steelers before disappearing one week later. Perhaps the opening few games are just a time for Pederson to find a constantly evolving identity, as opposed to entering the year with a preset one as well assumed would be the case.
The Eagles rolled into Green Bay and posted 176 total rushing yards. Jordan Howard scored a hat-trick of touchdowns and powered his way to 87 yards on just 15 carries, while Miles Sanders had a career night of his own, tallying 72 yards on the ground and a longest run of 30. This, in comparison to what we saw last week, was a huge improvement.
Sanders, in particular, ran with the ball clutched higher and tighter than we were used to seeing. Ball security was a concern coming out of college, but the young bull was clinging on to the pigskin for dear life. For a rookie running back, confidence is everything and this game went a long way in boosting that. For the coaching staff however, that never wavered.
“Yeah, we obviously have a lot of confidence in Miles.” Mike Groh said. “It was great to see him have a productive game like he did, and he got us a spark there on the kickoff return. Changing field position, it really flipped the field for us and gave us a short field and we were able to turn that into a touchdown. He did a really good job of – and I think he learned coming out of the Atlanta game, can’t break everything outside. In the last two weeks you’ve seen him adjust to that and life in the NFL and the speed of the game and stick his foot in the ground and get his shoulders going towards the goal line. He has made some great runs. He has made some runs where he has had to make somebody miss in the hole and gotten extra yards, and then when the hole is there and it’s blocked efficiently, you see his burst through the hole. I think he continues to get better week-to-week.
Sanders hasn’t just improved as a rusher, either. Against the Lions, the former Nittany Lion led the team in receiving yards, catching 2 passes for 73 yards. This came as a surprise given that he had only previously caught 32 passes in 38 games during his time at Penn State. This was a massive step for Sanders, and the Eagles backfield, given that Darren Sproles will only be around until the end of the season.
But Jordan Howard didn’t want to be left out of the mix. As someone that has been criticized for a lack of pass-catching ability of his own and practically forced out of Chicago, as a result, thanks to Tarik Cohen, the former Bear has been working hard over the last two years to add some soft hands and crisp routes to his arsenal. It all came together against Green Bay, where he caught a 20-yard wheel-route touchdown pass.
“I think you have to give those guys a lot of credit.” Mike Groh went on to say. “They have worked really hard on their game. Knew that was an area they could continue to work on or improve on, whatever the case may be, and they know that they are weapons for us out there in the passing game and we are going to try to find them and utilize them out there in space or if we get a match-up that we like and they have done a great job.”
The Eagles running backs are not only high soaring in terms of confidence right now, but also versatility, which is a scary thought. The running-game almost became predictable.
Jordan Howard in the game = run up the middle.
Miles Sanders in the game = a zone run outside.
Now? I have no idea. And it’s beautiful.
It’s still early days, but this Eagles backfield is evolving into everything fans dreamed it would become.
Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports