There’s a case to be made that Miles Sanders has been the Eagles’ best draft pick since they won Super Bowl LII. How’s that for damning with faint praise?
After all, there have been just three drafts in that time, and Howie Roseman — with the occasional word of input from Jeffrey Lurie — is the one doing the picking, and one could argue that Dallas Goedert, whom the Eagles drafted the year before they picked Sanders, is or will turn out to be the better player. If you want to argue that, go for it. But Sanders is more explosive, a greater threat to score whenever the ball is in his hands, the focal point of an entire dimension of the Eagles offense: their running game. When they bother to have a running game.
Of all the mystifying and disheartening aspects of this Eagles season, their misuse of Sanders ranks at or near the top. Wait. Misuse is the wrong word. What’s the right one? Unuse? Nonuse? He’s averaging a yard more per carry this season than he did last season, when he gained a robust 4.6 yards per attempt. For an offense desperate to create big plays, Sanders has two 74-yard runs, a 28-yard reception, and a 22-yard reception. Yet he often vanishes from the offense like a phantom, or never appears at all.
He hasn’t carried the ball more than 20 times in any of his eight games — and that 20-carry game was his first game, a blowout loss to the Rams in Week 2 — and had just six rushing attempts in the Eagles’ loss to the Seahawks on Monday. He had 50 catches last season. He would be on a 16-game pace for 38 this season.
An inflection point
There isn’t a problem with the Eagles offense that wouldn’t improve with a little more Sanders. Yes, he has three fumbles, and yes, he has dropped an NFL-high eight passes, according to Pro Football Focus. (He dropped just three last season.) But compared with his quarterback, he’s a piker when it comes to burping up the football. If Sanders fumbles seven more times, he’ll only match Carson Wentz’s total, and as damaging as the drops have been, as much as they’ve diminished Sanders’ role as a receiver out of the backfield, it’s fair to say that Wentz’s attempts to connect with him haven’t been smooth and seamless. Besides, Sanders’ primary function is to carry the football, not to be a substitute for DeSean Jackson or this mummified likeness of Alshon Jeffery that Pederson and the team insist on keeping in the lineup.
Yes, the Eagles have a philosophical preference (and preference puts it as mildly as possible) for the pass. But Wentz has been, certainly statistically and perhaps aesthetically, the worst starting quarterback in the NFL this season, and the Eagles are just one of two teams — the winless Jets being the other — who haven’t scored at least 30 points in a game. So how does relying on Wentz less, taking pressure off him, hurt him or the team?
Yes, the Eagles have had 10 different offensive-line alignments in their 11 games because of injuries and poor play. But that upheaval hasn’t affected Sanders’ production.
“The lineup’s been different almost every game, and honestly the run game has still been effective,” he said. “So in my opinion, it’s good to be stable and consistent with the same guys in there, but honestly, the O-line’s been doing a heck of a job as far as the running game. There’s nothing more else that I can really ask.”
The Eagles’ game this Sunday, in Green Bay against the Packers, serves as a nifty and well-timed inflection point for them. The Packers have Aaron Rodgers, and they also have a suspect run defense. They give up 4.6 yards per carry, the 27th-best mark in the league. And remember: The Eagles won in Green Bay last year in large part by … running the ball. They piled up 176 rushing yards, 72 of them by Sanders on 11 carries. “That’s something we might have to do a little bit more of,” Doug Pederson said Friday. “We’ll go in and we’ll try and see how that plays out.”
So, Miles, your thoughts?
“It can be a key, just establishing the run and being consistent with it throughout the game,” he said. “I think that will definitely give us a chance to stay on the field and keep [Rodgers] out the game, I guess. But that’s not really our main thought. We played [Russell Wilson] last week, and that wasn’t the game plan, just to keep him off the field. We’ve got a good game plan, a very dynamic game plan, and we’re just ready to get out there and get to work.”
‘I run those plays in my sleep’
Sigh. The most significant coaching change that the Eagles made in the offseason was to fire offensive coordinator Mike Groh and hire Rich Scangarello as a “senior offensive assistant.” The allure of Scangarello, ostensibly, was his background and expertise in Kyle Shanahan’s run-oriented, zone-blocking scheme, and there’s evidence that the system has worked. Sanders, for instance, is averaging 3.8 yards per carry before contact, a substantial increase from his 2.5 average in 2019.
“It’s stuck in my brain,” Sanders said. “I run those plays in my sleep. Yeah, it’s a big part of our offense, with the inside zones and mid-zones, especially, really just getting those down pat and running those smoothly. They work in the games.”
They work when the Eagles use them, that is, which isn’t often enough, given the circumstances. It’s fairly mind-boggling that a team would hire an assistant coach because he possesses a particular knowledge base and skill set, would discover that this knowledge base and skill set are benefiting the team’s most dynamic offensive player and could mitigate some of the team’s shortcomings, then would not rely on that knowledge base and skill set as much as possible. But then, these are the 2020 Eagles. “Honestly, I don’t question the game plan at all,” Sanders said. Someone else should have, weeks ago.