With or without Jordan Howard, Eagles can’t afford to abandon the run

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If there’s been one phrase that has defined this Eagles season offensively (not counting expletives), it’s ‘run the ball’. It took a few weeks to iron out, but the tandem of Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders started to rip through defenses like a hot knife through butter. Just as the duo were at their most dangerous, Howard picked up a stinger injury against his former team, the Chicago Bears. In the two games since the Eagles have not only been shorthanded at running back, but quick to throw the towel into the middle of the gameplanning ring.

This in itself is concerning. On the surface, it seems logical. Without their RB1, the Eagles were down to Miles Sanders, who has struggled with patience and vision this season, but shown great value as a receiving back, and the unproven Boston Scott. But when you take a step back, questions begin to arise.

The chart below (courtesy of CBS Sports ft a lovely red line from yours truly) shows the Eagles pass/rush ratio this season.

The team’s last two games have been the most skewed in favor of the pass since week 2, when the backfield was still striving for an identity. In every contest between weeks 3 and 9, Jordan Howard tallied double-digit carries, amassing 23 and 19 in his last two games before picking up an injury.

It’s no coincidence that in weeks 2, 6, 11, and 12, where they passed the ball significantly more than they ran it, the Eagles are 0-4. Now, it’s easy to say ‘they fell behind early so had to claw their way back into the match and pass more’, but that’s not really the case.

Week 2: Down 10-6 at halftime|One possession loss
Week 6: Down 24-10 at halftime|Yeah, this doesn’t really fit, sorry
Week 11: Leading 10-9 at halftime|One possession loss
Week 12: Down 10-3 at halftime|Two possession loss, but we all know the story

The last two weeks are especially concerning, purely because even without Jordan Howard, the team did have Jay Ajayi at their disposal. The Super Bowl 52 winner did carry the ball 6 times in week 12 and mostly saw action as a short-yardage back, while Sanders took the lion’s share of carries. Ajayi could see an increased role as he continued to get acclimated with the offense, especially if Howard does miss more time.

The Patriots defense was giving up 4.7 yards per carry going into that matchup, while the Seahawks run defense presented a tougher matchup on paper. The Pats did a great job of taking Sanders out of the passing game, and one week later, Wentz missed two extremely simple passes to the rookie, who was wide open.

But in a situation where rushing the ball has become the bread and butter of the offense, and the team then go from missing Alshon Jeffery, to all three starting wideouts and two starting offensive linemen, it’s puzzling as to why they didn’t at least try to run more.

Carson Wentz had one of the worst games of his career so far and the receivers (or lack of them) are giving no help. Miles Sanders may not be as brutish as Jordan Howard, or as efficient in putting all his eggs in one basket, making a quick decision and bursting through a hole, but if all the Eagles run with Sanders are draw/counter plays and outside zonal looks, he’ll never improve.

Whether the Eagles are with or without Jordan Howard, they simply cannot abandon the run. The defense is playing at a level we haven’t seen in a very long time and held MVP candidate Russell Wilson to 1TD, 1INT, and 200 yards worth of passing. You can’t ask for much more from a defense that has done exactly the same kind of damage to each of their last four opponents.

What we learned on Sunday was that in its current state, this offense just isn’t in a position to go toe-to-toe with many teams in the league from a scoring perspective, at least until reinforcements arrive. But if they have any hope of squeezing blood from this stone, it has to come from the running backs.

These games are very winnable and the Eagles would be doing an injustice to Carson Wentz if they don’t bend their offense around what playmakers they do have. Establishing and maintaining the run will not only keep heat off of a struggling QB, but open up those deep play-action shots fans have been craving since week one.

With five games remaining and room for error rapidly vanishing, the Eagles have to play their safest hand, and that’s ultimately running the ball.

Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

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