Doug Pederson isn’t normally keen on giving answers to the test. And even when the Eagles coach has responded to questions about personnel with seemingly factual information – like, for instance, when he said that Sidney Jones would start at cornerback in Week 1 – the opposite has happened.
Things change, of course, which is why it was surprising to hear Pederson say Monday that running back Jordan Howard would receive more carries than Miles Sanders in the future.
“I think moving forward, it’s kind of going that way,” Pederson said. “But again, I can’t sit here and tell you if Miles has a hot hand one day that he gets more touches. But right now that’s kind of the trend.”
Pederson is correct in that Howard has been receiving more handoffs over the last several weeks. After averaging 7 carries in the first two games, behind Sanders’ 10.5, Howard has been averaging 13 rushes to Sanders’ 11 over the last three games.
But should there be even greater disparity? Howard is averaging 4.7 yards per carry to Sanders’ 3.6, but he’s also done a better job of avoiding negative-yard runs. Sanders has eight negative-yard runs, while Howard has only two.
The rookie is more explosive and thus has a greater chance of breaking off longer runs. He had a 30-yard tote vs. the Packers, which is the Eagles’ longest of the season. But he’s still learning how to balance knowing when to use his athleticism and when to just lower his head and get as many yards as possible.
Pederson and running backs coach Duce Staley won’t likely have much trouble finding snaps for Howard and Sanders with Darren Sproles (quadriceps) sidelined yet again -- at least for the time being.
“Jordan’s been on a good roll, so I’m pretty sure he’s going to get a lot of carries just trying to pound the ball,” Sanders said Tuesday. “I’m probably going to be filling the void for Sproles. I’ve been in the passing game a lot so far, but I’ll have a bigger role for these next few weeks.”
While he has yet to find a rhythm on the ground, Sanders has been productive as a receiver. He has also already picked up some of the finer points of picking up blitzes. Howard has done well in that regard, as well.
Here’s a closer look at the film of the two running backs from the Eagles’ 31-6 win over the New York Jets and the argument for staying with a balanced 1-2 punch:
Howard and Sanders, theoretically, would complement each other, with the former more of a north-to-south runner and the latter east-west. But Howard has had more success running outside (5.2 yards) than Sanders (1.9 avg.).
The Eagles tried two outside zone runs on their first drive and the Jets were ready each time Sanders (No. 26) got the ball.
Sanders: We ran it twice and they saw us do it against the Packers [on Sept. 26], who had their safety back. Both times we ran that you could see the linebackers and the safety run outside to shut that down.
Howard (No. 24) may have benefitted from more inside runs early on, but he has done a great job of running skinny through crevices, as he did here on this split zone play.
The Jets were aggressive against the run. They attacked with stunts and twists and weren’t afraid of blitzing.
Eagles center Jason Kelce: Dallas does some similar things. They’re going to sit in one spot and just let you hit them. They give them some things up. It can be risky at times defensively. We caught them maybe one or twice in it.
They caught the Jets here with a staple on their offense: the mesh concept. Sanders lined up wide and motioned into the backfield to give quarterback Carson Wentz a pre-snap man defense indication. But the Jets checked from the linebacker to the end.
Sanders: Me and Carson both saw it.
The Jets blitzed, Sanders ran a wheel route past defensive end Henry Anderson (No. 96) and Wentz (No. 11) hit his running back in stride for 36 yards.
Sanders: They didn’t know I was running a rail route. It was a great mismatch and just beat him with speed.
Sanders has three 30-plus catches over the last three games.
Pederson: You’re seeing Miles in the passing game be a little more explosive with some of the down-the-field throws with him.
Sanders has had more success on inside runs and averages 4.3 yards a carry. He gained eight yards here, although a slight hesitation before the hole opened might have cost him a few extra yards.
While there have been occasional moments when he’s needlessly bumped inside runs outside and lost yards or created holding penalties, there have been just as many carries when he’s had little space to run. On this negative-yard rush, there was nothing he could do vs. the Jets’ blitz.
Eagles center Jason Peters: They were loading the box. They’re built to stop the run. They got [Jamal] Adams coming down from safety. They got corners slicing. We had 200 yards [against the Packers] almost. So they came in wanting to stop the run.
Howard’s vision and patience
But that didn’t always stop Howard. On this 5-yard run in the first quarter, he waited for guard Brandon Brooks (No. 79) to square up the linebacker before plunging ahead toward the goal line.
Howard would score on the next play with a second-effort lunge.
Groh: You can just tell he’s an experienced runner. He’s obviously really strong with the ball in his hands. He’s decisive. He has good vision. He shows the ability to stick his foot in the ground and then he pushes the pile. He’s generally falling forward for additional yards; rarely knocked back. He’s a strong runner. He brings that tenacity to our offense.
On this 13-yard carry in the third quarter, Howard kept his feet moving downhill and when the sea parted, he hit it like Moses.
Howard: I didn’t feel like I did a great job in the first half outside of the touchdown, but I feel like I was able to pick it up in the second half a little bit. Our pass game is going pretty well, but if we have the run game to complement that, it makes us even harder to stop.
Sanders wasn’t asked to block much in college, but he has been a willing pupil in the NFL, which is half the battle. Being able to diagnose blitzes pre-snap also helps.
Sanders: We knew they like to bring a lot of “cat” blitzes. We had an alert on that the whole week because they disguise it well.
On this play, Sanders saw Adams creep toward the numbers and when Jets corner Darryl Roberts (No. 27) blitzed, he was ready.
Sanders: I already knew it was coming because no safety is going to play that wide out unless he’s recovering a corner.
His technique was seamless and he flattened Roberts.
Sanders: I was just trying to match his pad level because I had a lot of time to see how he was going to come. I got lower than him and just laid the boom.
With Sproles out, Sanders will be asked to stay in block on passing downs more often.
Groh: I would say he’s on it and he’s up to the challenge. I know he’ll be challenged again throughout the course of the season, whether it’s this week or the remaining weeks.
Howard has been just as adept at blocking. While the running back’s job is often to identify and stop a blitzing linebacker or defensive back, he must be able to chip in however needed.
Twisting defensive end Quinnen Williams had a free pass at Wentz on this rush, but Howard reacted just in time. Wentz did the rest, dipped below Williams and hit tight end Zach Ertz for 21 yards.
Groh: We have a lot of confidence in those guys not only knowing their protections and being targeted right, but stepping up and keeping the pocket firm.
Despite their differences, Howard and Sanders have more in common than it may seem. While it may be more of Howard on run downs and Sanders on pass downs in the foreseeable future, they can be interchangeable. And it’s unlikely that either will be cast aside.