Doug Pederson believes the Eagles' offensive identity will come from playing to the strengths of his personnel.
But what about an offense without any strengths?
When asked how he’d define the team’s identity through three weeks, the head coach conceded the offense hasn’t consistently showcased what the coaching staff might have in mind.
“You’ve got to go off the strength, I think, of your quarterback, and then you build your plans around that,” Pederson said. "So obviously the identity, you want to be able to run the football, play-action pass, the QB movements, and then ... you’ve got to mix in the screens effectively in your system.
“You’ve seen the identity a little bit kind of rear its head up in these games, and then it goes back down because we haven’t been as successful on first down," he added.
The Eagles (0-2-1) haven’t done much well offensively. They’re 28th in points per game, 24th in yards per game, and have a league-worst turnover margin of minus-seven.
Nailing down an identity is about to get that much harder, too. The Birds are going into Sunday night’s road game against the San Francisco 49ers with major question marks at several offensive positions, particularly at wide receiver.
The Eagles have only two healthy receivers on the active roster. DeSean Jackson (hamstring) and Alshon Jeffery (foot) have been ruled out for Sunday, Jalen Reagor (thumb) is on injured reserve, and JJ Arcega-Whiteside (calf) is doubtful. John Hightower and Greg Ward are all that’s left on the active roster, although the team likely will call up Deontay Burnett from the practice squad and could take Quez Watkins off injured reserve for the game.
Regardless of how it shakes out, the Eagles will be playing a group filled with mostly unproven commodities on the outside yet again.
Carson Wentz carried a similarly unheralded bunch of pass catchers into the playoffs last season. But he has been uncharacteristically ineffective so far this year, ranking toward the bottom of many quarterback stats, including completion percentage above expectation, passer rating, and interceptions.
The heavy utilization of two-tight-end sets with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert was perhaps the team’s sole identity in the first three weeks and would have helped compensate for the battered wide-receiving corps, but Goedert was placed on injured reserve earlier this week with an ankle injury.
Richard Rodgers and Hakeem Butler are tasked with filling Goedert’s role. The Eagles signed Rodgers in 2018 after he averaged 30 catches a season over four years with the Green Bay Packers, but injuries kept Rodgers from finding a similar role with the Eagles. He has just three catches in the last three seasons, two of which came in the Eagles' 23-23 tie against the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday.
“I think he’s a good fit,” Pederson said. “He was a great No. 3 for us with what we wanted to do and get done. But now being elevated, I think he gives you a little more thump at the line of scrimmage in blocking situations. He’s a good short-to-intermediate route runner."
Butler, signed off the Arizona Cardinals practice squad, has yet to play in an NFL game and is making a position switch from wide receiver to tight end.
The Eagles could deploy a run-heavy attack centered around Miles Sanders, although the second-year running back was limited in practice Wednesday and Thursday with a glute injury. The 2019 second-round pick out of Penn State missed all of training camp and Week 1 with a hamstring injury.
Sanders is averaging 95 rushing yards per game this season, which is fifth in the NFL. Still, there’s likely room for him to assume a bigger role in the offense with extra carries. He’s averaging 19 carries a game, and Pederson said earlier this week that Sanders would have been given more touches against the Bengals had he not struggled with conditioning.
Regardless of his limited practice time, Sanders said he feels ready to assume the role as a featured back after being a full participant in Friday’s session.
“I feel 100%,” he said. “I feel the difference this week. Wasn’t really getting gassed out there or tired as often. I feel good, ready to go this week, and I think that’s all that matters.”
Pederson and running backs coach Duce Staley echoed Sanders' sentiment that the reins are about to come off.
“I don’t have any concerns with him moving forward," Pederson said. "We’re going to keep an eye on him, as well as we do with all our injured players, as you guys know, and make sure that we’re not putting them at risk.”
Said Staley: “When you look back, of course, we all know he didn’t have a camp, but that’s an excuse and I told him that. And in our room, we don’t have excuses. We grab the bull by the horns, and we ride. We understand coming out of camp, you didn’t get a lot of plays, OK, great. So now you’ve got to pick it up and get back to where you were last year, and that’s what we want out of him.”