And some Eagles fans thought Doug Pederson didn’t like to run the ball.
Through five games this season, Eagles running backs have carried the ball 22.5% of the time. There are various reasons, beyond Nick Sirianni’s apparent reluctance to hand off, for the low number: option plays and the team often trailing are the two most prominent.
But after a small sample, the new Eagles coach’s offensive inclination suggests a preference to pass early to get ahead. Analytics has long debunked the establish-the-run theory, but coaches must also account for personnel and defenses in their play-calling.
Sirianni, though, has been inconsistent in accentuating skill-position player strength and there has probably been no other player who has suffered more from this neglect than running back Miles Sanders.
After two promising seasons, Sanders was seemingly poised to have a breakout in Year 3. But Sirianni, for whatever reason, has featured the former Penn Stater less prominently than his predecessor, and has struggled to take advantage of Sanders’ explosiveness.
Sanders is averaging just 12.8 touches a game, down from last season’s 16, and even 2019′s 14.3 when he wasn’t the No. 1 tailback until the second half.
“It’s just adjusting to the play-calling, adjusting when we run the offense and just trying to do whatever I can to help the team win,” Sanders said Tuesday. “That’s really what it is. I’m not really focused on how many touches I’m limited [to] or getting.
“If I’m rolling and I’m getting more touches, then it is what it is.”
The run game has been slighted the most, even taking into account quarterback Jalen Hurts’ mobility. The Eagles have rushed only 30% of the time on designed calls, down 3.2% from last season. And the running backs — this year it’s been only Sanders and rookie Kenneth Gainwell — are getting 3.6% fewer carries than in 2020.
While that may not seem like much, the greatest disparity for Sanders has been in the first half of games. He averaged 8.4 carries before halftime last season vs. just 4.6 this season.
“It’s always like, ‘Man, I want to get him the ball more and I want it get him the ball and I want to get him the ball more,’ and, sometimes it’s not always that simple,” Sirianni said Monday of all his skill-position players. “The defense dictates how that goes, too, because Jalen has reads within the play.”
Hurts has essentially three options on run-pass plays (hand off, pass or keep and run) and two on zone reads (hand off or keep and run). Not all run plays include the quarterback keep option, although many of Sirianni’s calls thus far have.
Over the last three weeks, Sanders has been asked repeatedly about his smaller role. After the Cowboys loss, when he had only two carries, he spoke to reporters because he said wanted to diffuse the public outcry over his decreasing touches.
And while he did state that he believes offenses have to run the ball a fair amount to be successful, he has yet to voice any frustration or question Sirianni.
Numbers aside, the biggest issue hasn’t been that the Eagles aren’t running the ball enough. Even most traditionalists have come around to the idea that throwing early in games and on downs to get ahead, and becoming more balanced once in the lead, will pay off in the long haul.
But an effective run game would help ease some of the burden on Hurts and establish a physicality up front. Sirianni’s offense, while productive against the Falcons in Week 1 and the Chiefs in Week 4, has lacked a coherent identity, let alone consistent output.
And his game plans in Weeks 2, 3, and 5 have leaned too heavily in one direction — deep balls against the 49ers, pocket throws against the Cowboys and screens against the Panthers — and adjustments to counter un-scouted defensive looks have often come too late.
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Sanders’ role has also been poorly defined. Sirianni clearly wanted to get him going in the passing game Sunday. He was targeted five times, but each was behind the line of scrimmage either on a screen or swing pass, and he gained just six yards on five catches.
Sanders has just six “explosive” plays — 20-plus-yard receptions or 10-plus-yard runs — as defined by Sirianni. Last season, he had a total of 19 (three receiving and 16 rushing) and in 2019 he had 23 (seven and 16).
Pederson found ways to get Sanders matched up against linebackers in the passing game during his rookie season. And while drops plagued the running back during his sophomore season, he broke off three runs of 74 yards or more.
Under Sirianni, Sanders hasn’t been featured as much as a downfield receiver, though. Gainwell has been split wide or in the slot on 17 of 107 snaps, while Sanders has lined up as a receiver on just five of 218 snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
Sanders is still the lead back. But his percentage of snaps played has decreased this season (66%) vs. last (77%) when active. The Eagles have Sanders under contract through 2022, but it’s fair to wonder whether he’s part of the future when so few running backs sign long-term extensions with their original teams.
But that may be a premature question at this stage. Sirianni clearly would prefer to get Sanders going. But it has been a struggle so far. Here’s a closer look, focusing on the Panthers game, as to why:
The Panthers sometimes kept an extra defender in the box to account for Hurts’ running ability. For various reasons, the quarterback was unwilling to run on zone reads in the first three-plus quarters of the game.
“It just kind of unfolded that way,” Hurts said.
Sirianni said he wants his quarterback to “read every play independently, don’t get caught up on what you’ve seen on tape.” But on this early Sanders [No. 26] carry, Carolina had eight defenders in the box and the Eagles had only six blockers.
Hurts [No. 1] read the unblocked edge defender, but the Panthers had a linebacker scrap over top in case the quarterback kept.
“Teams are always going to change up the way they do that,” Sirianni said.
Hurts has some leeway with changing plays. He may be given two plays, or he can change the direction of a run. It’s unclear if he could have audibled here, but the numbers were decidedly against handing off.
Hurts did better here. The Eagles had six blockers to the Panthers’ six defenders, plus a lingering safety, and Sanders plowed ahead for six yards.
Later on, the Eagles had the same numbers, but an argument could have been made for Hurts to keep after reading the unblocked edge defender, linebacker Haason Reddick [No. 43].
Hurts ran here, though, and picked up 14 yards in the fourth quarter for his first rush of the game.
Sirianni wanted to exploit Carolina’s aggressiveness with running back screens in the backfield and receiver bubble screens on the perimeter. But the Panthers didn’t have their ends get up field as much as they did on film, per the coach, and this early screen to Sanders was snuffed out.
Julian Stanford [No. 50] also read the play and beat center Jason Kelce [No. 62] to his spot. Sanders has had some early success on screens — he’s caught eight for 57 yards — but defenses are seemingly more aware of the potential.
Almost half of his targets — 8 of 17 — have been screen passes. No other NFL running back with 10 or more targets has a higher percentage, per PFF.
RPOs have taken up a sizable chunk of Sirianni’s play sheet. Hurts’ read on this play was the middle linebacker. But with three-on-three blocking on an outside run, it may have made sense to hand off to Sanders, especially with Zach Ertz [No. 86] not open vs. man coverage.
On this run play, the Eagles went heavy with two tight ends. The Panthers had five on the line and two second-level defenders. The numbers were in the Eagles’ favor and they doubled the interior lineman for a Sanders run up the middle.
But the middle linebacker, Jermaine Carter Jr. [No. 4], closed the hole and Ertz struggled to contain Reddick.
The offensive line, which has already suffered multiple losses, did better in the four-minute drill after the Eagles took a late lead. Sanders picked up seven and 18 yards on his first two carries. On the latter, he ran behind an unbalanced line, got skinny through the hole and accelerated into the secondary.
But on his first try and his third — a 3-yard loss — he inexplicably ran out of bounds.
“That’s just something I got to do better,” Sanders said. “Just a mental funk.”
Sanders was yanked for Gainwell after the second mistake and his replacement gained 12 yards to essentially seal the outcome.
Most of Sanders’ targets, aside from screens, have come on swing passes or dumps. He was the safety valve on this play, but he did his best to pick up two yards with two defenders crashing.
The design and read on the following swing pass was better. Sanders had blockers and only one defender to beat. He probably wouldn’t have gained many yards had he gotten free — wide receiver Jalen Reagor [No. 18] apparently didn’t carry out his blocking assignment — but the running back’s reaction after he was tackled indicated that he felt he should have won in the open field.
While Sanders has yet to drop a pass this season — he had eight a year ago — the Eagles clearly prefer Gainwell as a receiver. He has filled the role held by Nyheim Hines when Sirianni was with the Colts and Austin Ekeler did when Sirianni and offensive coordinator Shane Steichen were with the Chargers.
“When you start to put the guy outside and you put the guy in the slot … that’s another level of hands that you have to have,” Sirianni said.
Sanders lined up as a receiver on 16 percent of passing snaps from 2019-20, but only five percent so far this year. He was open in the slot here after a corner blitz, but Hurts went the other way to Ertz for the third-down conversion.
“They like using Kenny in a lot of different ways, [although] it’s for everybody,” Sanders said when asked about his usage as a receiver. “We still have a lot of stuff in the playbook we haven’t used yet. Just taking it slow using what we need to use each week.”
Will Thursday night’s game against the Buccaneers mark the week he’s finally featured? Stay tuned.