ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard are the Eagles’ Flash and Smash Brothers, but the running backs hadn’t been given the opportunity to use their complementary speed and power on the same play — until Sunday.
Together in the backfield, Sanders took a handoff early in the third quarter and ran behind a devastating lead block by Howard for a 65-yard touchdown burst that gave the Eagles a 17-7 lead.
“The first thing I said to Miles was, ‘You better give your other boys some love on that because Jordan’s block was sweet,” Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz said. “I had a front row view on that, and to have an explosive run like that, I mean, it’s been a while since we really broke a long touchdown run like that.”
It had been almost two years since the Eagles had a rush as long, and nearly six years since they had one as long for a touchdown. Sanders’ bolt was just the latest example of the rookie’s explosiveness. But Howard displayed his value, as well, with punishing runs on a 14-play, 83-yard drive that capped the Eagles’ much-needed 31-13 win over the Bills.
The Eagles gained 218 yards on the ground — the most of the Pederson era — and provided additional fodder for those who believe the Eagles’ formula for success should be with a run-first offense.
“It’s huge and it’s really our recipe,” said a diplomatic Wentz. “It’s how we want to be. We want to be able to run the ball. We want to be able to establish the line of scrimmage.”
But windy and rainy conditions, and the lead the Eagles would gain late in the second quarter and never surrender, likely had more to do with coach Doug Pederson’s 35-33 run-pass ratio. Howard averaged only 2.4 yards on his first 10 carries. But as the Eagles expanded their lead, Pederson kept tabbing his lead tailback.
Howard gained 74 yards on his final 14 totes, with 34 of those yards and eight of those carries coming on the 14-play drive that gobbled up 8 minutes, 17 seconds in the fourth quarter. He finished off the drive with a 3-yard touchdown for the final tally.
Pederson kept dialing up an inside zone run to the left, and his offensive line, along with tight ends Dallas Goedert and Zach Ertz, kept getting push.
“Any time you can march down the field just running the ball it’s a great feeling,” guard Brandon Brooks said. “Imposing your will, defenses can’t stop it even though they know it’s coming.”
Howard’s 23 carries were also the most for a running back in the Pederson era. The coach wants a by-committee approach, but Sanders had left with a shoulder injury, never to return. He said after the game that X-rays were negative, but further testing will be done Monday.
“X-rays were cool,” Sanders said. “I don’t know nothing else yet. But I should be fine, though, hopefully.”
If Sanders were to miss time, it would be just the latest injury setback for the Eagles. With receiver DeSean Jackson sidelined now for six games with an abdominal injury, the rookie had become the offense’s most explosive receiving weapon.
Sanders also caught three passes for 44 yards Sunday. But critics of Pederson’s pass-happy play-calling have noted that two of the Eagles’ best wins have come when they’ve run more than they’ve passed. They gained 160 yards on 33 carries in the Week 4 win over the Packers.
But the Eagles favored the run last week in Dallas, and Pederson’s most controversial decision Sunday came on third-and-4 in four-down territory. Rather than place the offense’s fate in Wentz’s hands, he called a quasi-run to receiver Nelson Agholor, who was dropped for a 5-yard loss.
“I don’t think that we’re a strictly run offense that’s going to go through the ground, and we’re not a strictly pass offense," center Jason Kelce said. "I think when you get pigeon-holed into one of those it becomes pretty easy for a defense to defend you. I think that whatever the defense is giving us on that day, we have weapons to take advantage of it.”
The Eagles didn’t turn the ball over on offense, unlike last week, when they had two on their first two possessions and four overall. That may explain their success Sunday more than anything else. But playing with the lead — the Eagles had trailed by double digits in the first half in six of their first seven games — can’t be overstated.
“It just plays to our strengths,” Brooks said.
But having a running back who can hit the home run can mask the weaknesses, especially at the receiver position. Sanders’ touchdown run came on a play the Eagles had run before with a tight end in the backfield, but they installed a new formation and personnel with two backs and no tight ends last week.
“When the play was called, it didn’t know how the linebackers were going to attack,” Howard said. “When I got up to [Bills linebacker Matt Milano], he was kind of hesitant and I just tried to block him and get to him before he got to Miles.”
Howard leveled Milano, and with Kelce taking out linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, Sanders snuck through the hole and outran safety Jordan Poyer and cornerback Levi Wallace to the pylon. It was the Eagles’ longest rush since Jay Ajayi’s 71-yarder against the Cowboys in November 2017 and the longest touchdown run since Bryce Brown’s 65-yarder in December 2013.
“It means a lot, obviously, rookie season, first rushing touchdown [being a] long one, took it to the house,” said Sanders, who also ran for a two-point conversion. “But you got to give credit to the O-line and you got to give it to that key block by Jordan.”