As far as debuts go, Miles Sanders’ first NFL preseason game was underwhelming.
For those who have been following reports from training camp, Thursday night’s showing might have had many fans wondering what all the hullabaloo was about. Sanders rushed three times for only 3 yards and did little else in the Eagles’ 27-10 loss to the Titans.
But it was difficult to assess the second-round draft pick, let alone the Eagles’ run game. Coach Doug Pederson opted to sit most of his first-team offense, including quarterback Carson Wentz and four-fifths of the expected starting offensive line for Week 1.
Jordan Howard did play, if only because he’s new to the team, but the running back’s few touches had to be graded on a curve. He was only marginally better than Sanders, finishing with 8 yards on three carries.
If the opener revealed anything about the run game, it’s that Howard and Sanders could be splitting snaps at near a 50-50 rate.
“I kind of got that vibe today,” Sanders said. “That’s how they told us it was going to be today, rotating in and out. One of us would start the job and the other would rotate in.”
That’s pretty much how the first three drives were scripted, with Howard the first- and second-down back on possessions No. 1 and 3 and Sanders on No. 2. But, it was mostly Sanders on third down.
And when the Eagles took the field for their fourth offensive series, Sanders and Howard were done for the night. Pederson is being conservative with playing time this preseason, and it’s easy to understand why, when something like quarterback Nate Sudfeld’s wrist injury happened.
Both Sanders and Howard said that they expected to play more in the first preseason game. Pederson said that he had planned on playing them for one quarter.
Sudfeld’s outing was supposed to reinforce the Eagles’ decision to bring him back as their backup without any real competition. But the injury, which is likely to keep him out for an extended period, will force general manager Howie Roseman to add a No 2-caliber quarterback off the street, because Cody Kessler and Clayton Thorson aren’t viable candidates.
Last night made that abundantly clear.
The Eagles could have suffered an injury of more consequence. The preseason is something, ultimately, that coaches just want to get through relatively unscathed. But when you’re top two running backs weren’t on the team last year, you’d probably like to see a little more production than what Sanders and Howard provided.
Howard’s first carry was positive. He ran to the left, between guard Matt Pryor and center Stefen Wisniewski, and gained 5 yards. He didn’t touch the ball again until two drives later, gaining 3 yards running behind rookie left tackle Andre Dillard, and later no yards after right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai ended up on his side.
A rhythm tailback, and one who thrives more when there’s actual live football, Howard hasn’t stood out at training camp like the flashy Sanders.
“A lot of guys because they’re quicker than me they look better than me,” Howard said. “They’re in shorts and they can make moves and look fast. But when the pants go on, I show up.”
Sanders’ first touch came on the second series. He darted right, off tackle Jordan Mailata, lowered his helmet, and picked up 3 yards. But his next two totes yielded nothing, mostly because the blocking was abysmal. Pryor couldn’t contain linebacker Rashaan Evans on Sanders’ second rush.
The Titans, it should be noted, played their first-team defense for their first two possessions. The Eagles had more success – mostly with Sudfeld throwing to tight end Dallas Goedert -- on their third drive, against the backups.
But the drive stalled when safety LeShaun Sims blitzed untouched and sacked Sudfeld. There was clearly a missed blocking assignment. Vaitai didn’t block anyone, while Sanders was left to choose between linebacker Daren Bates, who he handled, and Sims.
“It was bad communication,” Sanders said.
The Eagles still managed three points when kicker Jake Elliott booted a 53-yard field goal.
Aside from Sudfeld’s 75-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Marken Michel, the kick might have been the Eagles’ lone highlight. Dillard appeared to hold his own in his first game. The top pick might not play much in his rookie season, but if starter Jason Peters were to miss significant time, the Eagles might trust Dillard to step in.
Rookie receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside caught a 12-yard pass on third down and nearly pulled in a one-hander on Sudfeld’s first pass.
But the Eagles, overall, struggled on the ground. That’ll happen with offensive linemen like Lane Johnson, Jason Kelce, Isaac Seumalo, Brooks, and Peters in street clothes. Josh Adams took over after Sanders and Howard left.
He, too, gained only 3 yards on three tries. He also bobbled a pass – before catching it – and fumbled when Titans cornerback Tye Smith popped the ball loose. Adams led the Eagles in rushing last season, but he could be off the 53-man roster by cut-down day.
That’s because Darren Sproles is back and seemingly healthy, and Corey Clement is close to a return following last season’s knee injury. Neither played against the Titans, but they are expected to round out the top four running backs.
Wendell Smallwood, meanwhile, refuses to go into that lonely night. He had the game’s best run when he plowed over linebacker Riley Bullough, who promptly left the game. Smallwood is entering his fourth season with the Eagles. Every year, he’s been written off.
But the Eagles upgraded their backfield this offseason. They had to following last season. Injuries to Jay Ajayi, Sproles, and Clement dug into their depth, and the lack of production from the running-back position was a glaring weakness.
The Eagles should be better with Sanders and Howard in tow. Sanders and Howard should complement each other, with the former as the elusive deer and the latter as the battering ram. But, it will remain a figment of the imagination – for at least another week.