The curious case of Miles Sanders and the Philadelphia Eagles

Miles Sanders
MIAMI GARDENS, FL – DECEMBER 01: Philadelphia Eagles Running Back Miles Sanders (26) runs with ball to score a touchdown during the NFL game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Miami Dolphins at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida on December 1, 2019. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire)

It feels like only yesterday that Miles Sanders was drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft. The Philadelphia Eagles took a local kid who had drips of Saquon’s DNA coursing through his veins in the hopes that he would become their new LeSean McCoy. It’s been three years and we’re still no closer to finding out if he’s ever going to be the guy.

Where should we be critical of Miles Sanders?

There does seem to be a lot of confusion when it comes to debating Miles Sanders. People are quick to get caught up in the wrong things.

He FuMbLeS ToO MuCh – 1 fumble last year
He StRuGgLeS aS A rEcEiVeR – Isn’t used in that regard because Gainwell/Scott just do a better job
He NeEdS To StAy HeAlThY – Since 2019, only 10 running backs have started more games

Sanders is not a perfect running back. But it’s so easy to just go to areas that sound important without really examining context.

Where does he actually struggle?

Miles Sanders has struggled in two vital areas since being drafted and you could argue that neither has improved over the last three years: Pass protection & decisiveness.

It’s the latter that really stings. How many games is Sanders going to have 12 carries where 11 go for 2.1 yards and the last is an 80-yard homer that dramatically changes his rushing average and makes his production look mildly impressive?

The issue that Sanders struggles with most is hitting the hole assertively. We all know he’s explosive, but it’s useless if he is so hesitant to hit a hole that he either runs into his blocker, or tries to force everything outside due to habit and implied panic, where defenders are more than happy to smother him. It’s relatively easy to contain a back who won’t hit the hole in the B-gap. You just set the edge, let the indecisiveness take over, and clean up the 0.5 yard gain. Sure, there are odd occasions where he flashes incredible burst and agility, but it’s worth sacrificing one 60-yard dash if you can force a ton of quick three and outs because he just doesn’t hit the hole.

Numbers don’t lie

This is also re-enforced by the red zone numbers. A lot of people would be quick to argue that Sanders would have a much better stat line if he was used inside the opposing 20.

Jordan Howard was the bell-cow back inside the 20 last year with 24 carries. He amassed 76 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Sanders had 21 carries in 12 games, averaging 1.3 yards per carry and scoring 0 touchdowns.

It’s not because Howard is tougher, bigger, or stronger. It’s because he has a pre-determined route. Whatever happens, happens. Howard will lower his pads into contact if the hole fills up and drive as far as he can. It’s because he falls forward. Sanders would see a gap fill and immediately try to bounce outside, losing yardage.

The truth is that Miles Sanders has all the makings of a franchise running back. After all, his 5.66 yards per touch from scrimmage ranks fourth among all NFL backs since 2019, and that doesn’t happen by accident.

But he’s now in his contract year and surrounded by a terrific passing attack, a lethal dual-threat QB, and a committee of backs who between them, each tick a niche box that Sanders fails to. The only thing that Sanders does that is unique to this backfield, is occasionally break off a 50-yard dash. That’s it.

It’s all well and good hearing that he’s attacking this year with a new mentality. But it won’t be reflected in the endzone. The real dividends will be whether or not He can strike with assertion. Whether he can hit the hole with aggression rather than worry. Whether he can lower his pads instead of jump sideways to avoid contact. If he can put that all together, he’ll be arguably the biggest asset to this Eagles offense as his ability alone will force defenses to stay honest, because abandoning the run to defend the pass is only going to allow him to thrive even more.

It’s a make or break season for Miles Sanders. Not just because it’s his contract year, but because if he fails to take steps forward in the categories that count, he’s going to struggle to find a strong payday and a solidified future elsewhere.

Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire