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Miles Sanders, a rookie running back, has become the Eagles’ most dangerous deep threat

Sanders, who wasn't used much as a pass-catcher at Penn State, already has five catches of 30 or more yards for the Eagles.

Running back Miles Sanders has become a deep threat in the Eagles' passing game.
Running back Miles Sanders has become a deep threat in the Eagles' passing game.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Miles Sanders has the second-most rushing yards on the Eagles, which isn’t a big surprise. What is a surprise is that the rookie is third on the team in receiving yards and second in yards per catch.

Sanders has 219 receiving yards on 13 catches. That’s four more yards than Alshon Jeffery. Sanders’ 16.8-yards-per-catch average is nearly eight yards more per catch than Jeffery’s career-low 9.0.

Sanders has five catches of 30 or more yards. Just two players in the entire NFL have more – Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver D.J. Chark, who has seven, and Houston Texans wide receiver and Roman Catholic High product Will Fuller, who has six. But Fuller has 33 catches and Chark has 30. Sanders has 13.

“For real?’’ a surprised Sanders asked when I told him that only two other players in the entire league had more 30-plus-yard catches than him.

Sanders, whom the Eagles took in the second round in April, caught just 24 passes last year at Penn State. Most of them were passes in the flat or screens.

“Not a whole lot down the field,’’ he said. “Not many deep.’’

In six games with the Eagles, Sanders has been targeted 18 times. Five have been throws behind the line of scrimmage, seven have been 0-to-10-yard throws, two have been 11-to-19-yard throws, and four have been 20-plus-yard throws.

All four deep balls to him have been caught, for 44, 40, 32 (for a touchdown against the Vikings), and 30 yards. His fifth 30-plus-yard completion came on a catch-and-run off a 13-yard wheel route.

On his 32-yard touchdown against the Vikings, Sanders took advantage of a coverage mismatch against linebacker Eric Kendricks.

“It’s been pretty easy,’’ Sanders said of being integrated so quickly into the passing game. “They’re making it kind of easy for me. Not really having to read coverage or anything. Just me matching up on linebackers.’’

Offensive coordinator Mike Groh said the Eagles never had any doubt that Sanders could be a productive pass-catcher at this level.

“I don’t think we’re surprised by his development as a receiver,’’ he said. “We did our due diligence on him when he came out of Penn State, and we felt like he was going to be a really good pass-catcher out of the backfield.’’

Sanders also has quickly mastered the art of blitz-pickup and pass-blocking. He already has had some blocks that have gotten rave reviews from his teammates and coaches during tape review.

Running backs coach Duce Staley keeps his praise to a minimum, Sanders said. “He tells me he likes it,’’ he said. “But he’s so hard on me and wants so much out of me, that he doesn’t tell me a whole lot of good things. Which I like.’’

Cox still sackless

It’s hard to say how many sacks Fletcher Cox would have right now if Malik Jackson hadn’t gotten hurt. But it probably would have been more than zero, which is what he has right now.

A year ago, Cox managed to record 3½ sacks and 11 quarterback hits in the Eagles’ first six games with Destiny Vaeao and Haloti Ngata each starting three games alongside him.

But a year ago, Cox wasn’t coming off of a major foot injury that kept him on the shelf until the week before the start of the season.

“He ain’t got any sacks yet, but I’m telling you, he’s right there,’’ insisted Cox’s next-door neighbor in the Eagles’ locker room, defensive end Brandon Graham.

“I’ve told him, ‘Don’t worry, man. I know how you feel. I’ve been there. They’re going to come, and when they come, they ain’t going to stop.’ He just needs to keep on going and not get frustrated. He’s going to be all right.’’

The Eagles defense needs Cox to get right in the worst way. He’s the straw that stirs its drink. Take out that 10-sack aberration against the Jets and the Eagles have just four sacks in five games. They’re not going to the playoffs with that kind of anemic pass-rush production.

“It has to start with Fletcher,’’ said NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger. “I don’t care if he’s being double-teamed or not. They’re paying him $100 million. They pay Aaron Donald that [same kind of] money. You’ve got to beat double-teams.’’

Cox doesn’t disagree.

“We’ve got to stop making excuses and just fight through it,’’ he said Thursday. “That has to start with me. I have to be better. I know I will be better. I’ve been getting better every week.’’

Cox did a good job against the run in last week’s loss to the Vikings, finishing with five tackles. But he didn’t have a sack and had just one hit on quarterback Kirk Cousins. Through six games, he has just four quarterback hits to go with those zero sacks. Through six games last year, he had 11 hits in addition to 3½ sacks.

Yes, the Vikings used a lot of max-protection last Sunday, often keeping the tight end in as a sixth blocker. Yes, they moved the pocket a lot. And yes, Cousins often got the ball out quickly.

But many other times, he hung on to it, and still had plenty of time to throw. He was under pressure on just nine of 31 drop-backs, according to Pro Football Focus.

“Four touchdown passes are four touchdown passes,’’ Baldinger said. “And you don’t get pressure on any of them? That’s not a good sign.’’

Everybody on the Eagles’ defensive line needs to pick up his pass-rush game, but especially Cox.

“He hasn’t been [the same player as last year],’’ Baldinger said. “I’ve seen him on the ground and on his back. I’ve seen him pushed around more than I’ve ever seen him pushed around.

“Now, I don’t know what his injury specifically was. Clearly it was something significant. Sometimes a foot injury can take a lot out of you and take a while to come back.

“But so far, he doesn’t look like the same dominant interior player that he’s been, that they’re paying him to be.’’

Cox doesn’t have an array of pass-rush moves. He relies primarily on his power.

“There’s not many guys like him that can be just as powerful in the fourth quarter as they are in the first quarter,’’ Baldinger said. He’s always had that.

“But he’s not producing right now and he knows it. He has to play better. You have to have interior pressure for Barnett or Brandon Graham or [Josh] Sweat or any of those guys that they have right now rushing from the edge to really be effective. You have to get pressure in the middle, and they’re not getting any.’’

The Eagles should get defensive tackle Tim Jernigan back in a few weeks. He’s been out since Week 2 with a broken bone in his foot.

Jernigan is a little bit more of an interior pass-rush threat than Hassan Ridgeway and Akeem Spence. But he’s not really going to have any effect on the double teams that Cox is seeing.

There’s a good possibility the Eagles will add an interior pass-rusher before the Oct. 29 trade deadline. They are believed to have some interest in Jets defensive lineman Leonard Williams. But it will come down to Jets general manager Joe Douglas’ asking price.

Williams is in the option year of his rookie contract. He can become an unrestricted free agent after the season.

If the cost isn’t onerous, the Eagles might be willing to acquire him as a half-season rental and then let him go and get a compensatory draft pick for him.

“Leonard’s a little stiff,’’ Baldinger said. “He doesn’t have Fletch’s kind of power. He’s never produced like a top-six player. [He was the sixth overall pick in the 2015 draft.]

“But he would help. He’s better than anybody else they have there now opposite Fletcher. Any interior pressure right now would help the cornerback situation.’’

Figuring the Eagles

-- The Eagles continued to use a heavy dose of 12-personnel Sunday. They went with their one running back, two tight end, two wide receiver package on 30 of 65 plays. Carson Wentz completed 13 of 18 passes for 216 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception with 12-personnel. He was just 13-for-22 for 92 yards with 11-personnel (1RB, 1TE, 3WR). The Eagles used 12-personnel on 52.2 percent of their offensive plays in the last three games. Wentz has a 102.1 passer rating with 12-personnel and 89.5 with 11-personnel. He has a 57.9 completion percentage and is averaging just 6.3 yards per attempt with 11-personnel this season.

-- While Wentz has had more success throwing out of 12-personnel packages, the Eagles have been more effective running the ball out of 11. In the last three games, Jordan Howard averaged 6.6 yards per carry in 11-personnel and 3.6 in 12.

-- In last Sunday’s loss to the Vikings, the Eagles had four third-and-2 situations. They ran once and passed three times. For the season, they’ve had eight third-and-2′s and have passed on six of those eight. Meanwhile, in Indianapolis, where former Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich is the head coach, the Colts have run the ball on all six of their third-and-2 situations in the first six games. Just sayin’.

-- The Cowboys and Eagles have two of the top three third-down offenses in the league. The Cowboys are second behind Houston with a 50.8 success rate. The Eagles are third (50.0). Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott has only an 85.4 passer rating on third down, though, compared with Carson Wentz’s 106.9. Prescott has completed just 58.7 percent of his third-down throws. He was 13-for-20 in the Cowboys’ first three games (65.0), but was 14-for-26 (53.8) in their three-game slide.

-- The Eagles already have given up seven pass plays of 40 or more yards. That’s the second most in the league. Only Green Bay has allowed more (8). Last year, the Eagles allowed just six 40-plus pass plays the entire season. They gave up 10 in ’17 and 13 in ’16.

-- The Eagles have gone for it on fourth down 12 times in the first six games. They’ve converted just four of them. Last year, they were 14-for-23 on fourth down.