The Eagles Running Game Problem is Actually Three Problems
Two weeks doesn’t provide much of a sample size for NFL statistics, especially when you’ve started the season with two road games against two pretty good teams, but let’s jump into it anyway, because we’re 12.5% of the way through a schedule that only features 16 games to begin with.
Secret’s out! The Eagles running game isn’t that great.
How much of that is due to…
- …a lack of RB talent?
- …offensive line struggles?
- …and play calling imbalance?
Have we seen enough to identify the biggest issue?
The first problem isn’t helped by the second problem, which isn’t helped by the third problem, giving us the NFL equivalent of that mythological tail-eating snake, which Google tells me is called an “Ouroboros.”
If you pass the ball 50 times, you can’t find rhythm or balance. And if you can’t find rhythm or balance, you can’t successfully run block. And if you can’t successfully run block, then the running backs have nowhere to go.
It’s like a shitty football version of Reaganomics, where things are trickling in the wrong direction.
For context, here’s where the Birds currently stand in league-wide rushing statistics:
- 41 rushing attempts (24th out of 32 teams)
- 165 total rushing yards (18th)
- 82.5 yards per game (20th)
- 4 yards per attempt (12th)
- 0 touchdowns (11 NFL teams do not have a rushing score, including Dallas and NYG)
Not surprisingly, they’re in that mid-to-bottom range in most rushing categories, though they are top-half in YPA.
The first five teams in total rushing attempts (Denver, Baltimore, New England, Carolina, and Buffalo) are 8-2 this season. The Giants are dead last in most categories.
Doug Pederson said this Monday about the team’s pass/run balance, which was 75% to 25% in the 27-20 Kansas City loss:
“A lot of times, when you’re in these games like this, and you struggle to run your core runs, it becomes hard. And then you put yourself in a 2nd and 12 or a 2nd and 13, or even (take) a first down sack, then it’s hard. Now you’re going uphill. Yesterday I believe we had seven third and 10+ (situations) again. Then there were another five third and sevens. That’s unacceptable. We can’t be in that many long yardage situations in these football games. We’ve gotta focus on the run game and get the run game fixed and have a great plan going forward and commit to that. It takes pressure off your quarterback as well.”
CSN’s Reuben Frank pointed out after the press conference that the Eagles actually did better running the ball on first down (5 yards per play) vs. throwing (4.8 yards per play). The difference was mostly negligible, but Pederson insisted on throwing it anyway.
For me, the biggest issue is that I feel like they had a chance to re-establish the run game in the second half.
It did work earlier…
I pointed out in my takeaways piece that the Eagles’ third quarter touchdown drive featured a short dump-off/draw that essentially functioned as the extension of the ground game, followed by two successful running attempts. The very next call was the end zone shot for Alshon Jeffery, who reeled it in for a touchdown.
This was Wendell Smallwood’s most effective run of the day, which was a draw coming out of the shotgun:
Smallwood ran it primarily out of the shotgun and pistol at West Virginia.
On the very next play, Pederson went back to Sproles on a sweep:
Not great blocking there, but number 43 was able to squeeze through the gap for a first down.
This was a very balanced drive and easily the best series the Eagles put together after the scripted opening sequence.
For whatever reason, they got away from it afterwards, running the ball only two more times in the final 19 minutes.
This was one of those attempts, when Pederson tried the Smallwood draw play that worked on the earlier drive, this time pulling two blockers instead of one:
Derrick Johnson does a nice job of going low to blow that play up.
I don’t know if I agree with the logic that the flow of the game required 75% passing attempts. Sure, the final fourth quarter drive skews the numbers a bit since you can’t afford to run the ball during a two-minute drill, but the Eagles’ only prior touchdown drive featured a pair of successful runs. They didn’t have to abandon the ground game.
Case in point…
Kansas City didn’t exactly gash Philadelphia in the running game, finishing with 19 carries going for 112 yards and two scores.
Take away Kareem Hunt’s 53 yard touchdown and they only ran it 18 times for 59 yards.
The difference is that the Chiefs stuck with the run long enough to allow Hunt to break one off. The Eagles didn’t.
Andy Reid went 60/40 in his pass/run split.
And yeah, the offensive line did struggle
Isaac Seumalo allowed four sacks. Jason Kelce was spotty. The rest of the line was similarly underwhelming in both pass and run blocking.
So when the line isn’t opening up holes, your best bet is to make the defense miss, and Blount and Smallwood certainly aren’t going to do that.
That’s why Sproles was the natural choice to carry the ball, with his ability to hit smaller holes that don’t remain open for very long.
Pederson says that Sproles’ prominence wasn’t designed, but that the flow of game made his usage unnecessary:
“Well this (Kansas City) front is a good front. They put six, they put seven, sometimes eight guys in the box, you know? They choke your tight ends, meaning that a guy is right over top of a tight end. It’s hard to find running lanes against a defense that way. With so much man coverage, the ability to shoot the ball downfield in the passing game, I felt like that was going to be our strength in this game. That was the area I focused on. My aggressive play calling was down the field and to attack down the field. By no means specifically was it a game plan designed for Darren. Everybody had a role in this game. We just didn’t get to that role at that particular time in the game.”
Right now, Carson Wentz is the only Eagle among the NFL’s top-40 rushers in total yards. You’ll find him sandwiched between an Oakland wide receiver and a Jacksonville backup.
Sproles and LeGarrette Blount appear on page two, smushed between a couple of rookies.
It’s not great right now, but Sunday is a good opportunity to fix the running game against a Giants team that is allowing 133.5 ground yards per game.