Over the last 2 years, the Philadelphia Eagles have carved a large part of their identity on the ability to run the ball. Since head coach Nick Sirianni and quarterback Jalen Hurts took over the offense in 2021, they have run the ball more effectively than any other team in the NFL. Despite the previous successes, the Eagles’ running game can take an additional step forward in 2023 with the additions of D’Andre Swift and Rahsaad Penny.
In 2021, the Eagles led the NFL in rushing yards per game, with an average of 159.7 a contest. Jalen Hurts struggled as a passer for parts of the season, so the team shifted its offensive focus from the air to the ground. This turned their season and the franchise in general around.
After an embarrassing loss to the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 7 that dropped their record to 2-5, they went 7-3 the rest of the season and finished with a playoff berth. While on paper they had the best rushing attack in the league, their offense was not elite because of the limitations in the passing game. Hurts was still developing, DeVonta Smith was still a rookie and Jalen Reagor was, well Jalen Reagor. If the Eagles fell behind, as they did in the playoff game against Tampa Bay, it became challenging for them to win, since defenses could just stack the box at the line of scrimmage, eliminating the run and forcing the team to throw.
Building on a strong base
In 2022, the Eagles improved pretty much every aspect of their team, including the ground game. While they didn’t average as many yards per game as they did the previous season, with 147.6 per contest, the quality of the runs was better than before. The team gained fewer rushing yards but scored more rushing touchdowns, going from 25 to 32, respectively. This is like when a baseball player lowers their batting average to hit more home runs. At first glance, it may look like they weren’t as successful, but once you dig below the surface, it becomes clear that they were just more effective.
Most sports fans would take the knockout punch of an extra touchdown or home run over a few extra yards or a single that don’t lead to points. Miles Sanders and Hurts both set career highs in rushing yards and touchdowns, with complimentary pieces like Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott contributing where it was needed.
Another reason for the increased effectiveness of the running game was that the passing game was finally able to do its part in the offense. Hurts took massive strides forward as a thrower of the football, Smith looked like a former Heisman Trophy winner by the end of the year and AJ solidified himself as a top-tier receiver. Since the other half of the offense was now able to operate at an above-average rate, the running game’s effectiveness rose with fewer opportunities.
A new era for the Eagles
Despite the Eagles setting multiple offensive team records in 2022, this offense, and particularly the running game, has one more level it can reach in 2023, and with the new additions of Swift and Penny, they can get there.
While Miles Sanders rushed for over 1,200 yards, he could not be used on every down because of his inability to catch balls out of the backfield or just catch passes in general. He recorded over 500 receiving yards in his rookie year, but that number has decreased every year that followed. This reached a climax last season when he only had 20 receptions for 78 yards. Sanders was by far the running back used the most by the Eagles last season, playing about 56% of all the total offensive snaps, so the team was largely forced to scrap that section of the playbook.
With Swift now taking a large percentage of those snaps in 2023, the Eagles’ offense should be able to get even more creative than in the past. In his 3 years in Detroit, Swift averaged 560 rushing yards per season and 400 receiving yards. He has over 1,100 receiving yards and 7 receiving touchdowns in his career. Swift has an entirely different skill set to Sanders, and with his ability to catch passes out of the backfield, he adds a whole new wrinkle to an already dynamic running game and offense.
Thunder and ligntning
While Swift is still a skillful runner, he is more effective when paired with another more traditional back. He and Jamaal Williams formed a nice 1-2 punch over the last 2 years in Detroit, with Swift being the lightning and Williams being the thunder.
In Philadelphia, Swift will have another bruising runner for a partner in Rashaad Penny. The former 1st-round pick played out his rookie contract with mixed results. He has struggled with injury for most of his career, but when he’s on the field, he’s been good. For his career, he averages 5.7 yards per carry, which is significantly higher than Miles Sanders’ average of 5.0. The injuries are certainly a concern for Penny, but he has the potential to be just as good, if not better than what Sanders provided over the previous 4 seasons.
The future is bright in Philadelphia
The combination of Swift and Penny together should provide more options and effectiveness for the Eagles’ running game than in years past. The team may average even fewer rushing yards per game than they did the previous 2 years, but it should be more dangerous when it’s used.
The Eagles have the option of 2 very skilled backs, with Penny banging through the tackles or Swift bouncing to the outside or catching a pass in the backfield, at their disposal to make defenses even more scared than before.
And let’s not forget that they have Jalen Hurts, an MVP runner-up who is one of, if not the best running quarterback in the NFL. He is a complete game-breaker because he can throw the ball 50 yards or run the ball 50 yards for a touchdown at any given moment.
In a league where passing seems to be at an all-time high, the Eagles have taken a more old-school approach by making sure they can run the ball at will. The collective of running backs is more skilled than it was in previous seasons and that can lead to the final progression of the Eagles offense. A more dynamic running group leads to more options and flexibility in the future.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire