Nothing against Carson Wentz, but Miles Sanders clearly had a blast Sunday playing with Jalen Hurts.
The rookie quarterback rushed for 106 yards on 18 carries in the Eagles’ impressive 24-21 win over the New Orleans Saints, and opened things up for Sanders.
Sanders notched just his second 100-yard rushing performance of the season, putting up 115 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries. One of those two TDs was an 82-yarder late in the second quarter that gave the Eagles a 17-0 lead at the time.
“It’s hard to stop the read-option or play-fake or whatever it is when you’ve got a guy like Jalen out there who can extend the play with his legs,” Sanders said after the game. “I mean, if there’s nothing there, he can take off and get a first down.
“That’s pretty hard to stop, man. We just have to keep this rolling. I’m excited. I’m excited.”
This has been a frustrating season for the second-year running back out of Penn State. He had an impressive rookie season, rushing for 818 yards and catching 50 passes for 509 more yards.
He was hoping to build on that this season, but then the COVID pandemic wiped out spring OTAs and the preseason. He missed much of the team’s abbreviated training camp and the season-opener against Washington with a hamstring injury. Then he missed three games in October and November with a knee injury.
Running backs coach Duce Staley talked about Sanders being a “workhorse back” this season. But that never really materialized. The Eagles went into Sunday’s game averaging just 23.3 rushing attempts per game, which was the fifth fewest in the league. Their 35.7 run-play percentage was the lowest in the NFL.
Sanders, who averaged 11.2 carries a game last year, has averaged 13.1 this year, with just one 20-carry game. He had costly fumbles in losses to the Rams and Browns, and had just 46 yards on 16 carries in the Eagles’ previous two losses to the Seahawks and Packers. He’s been a non-factor in the passing game and came into New Orleans game with eight drops, the most by any running back in the league.
But Sunday was different. The Eagles came into the game with a run-first game plan to take the pressure off Hurts. The Eagles ran the ball nine times in the first quarter and eight more times in the second quarter.
“Our game plan was pretty dynamic and simple because Jalen was in there,” Sanders said. “Rookie quarterback making his first start.
“But when you have a quarterback who can run like that, we were betting to see who would get a hundred yards. It’s hard to stop that when you have a roomful of running backs that can run the ball and a quarterback that can run the ball efficiently, too.”
The Saints hadn’t given up 100 rushing yards to a player in 56 games. On Sunday, both Sanders and Hurts did it against them. The Eagles had 11 rushing first downs in the game, which was their most since notching 12 in that ugly Week 3 tie against the Bengals. Hurts had seven of their 11 rushing first downs Sunday. Sanders had three.
Sanders’ first 8 runs Sunday gained just 18 yards. But he hit paydirt on No. 9, with 1:35 left in the second quarter when he took a Hurts handoff 82 yards to the house to give the Eagles a 17-0 lead with
The blocking on the play was exceptional. Left tackle Jordan Mailata, left guard Isaac Seumalo and center Jason Kelce opened up a lane for Sanders. Tight end Zach Ertz took out cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Then Sanders used a stiff-arm to elude a tackle by ex-Eagle Malcolm Jenkins and had clear sailing the rest of the way. It was Sanders’ third 70-plus yard run of the season. He had a pair of 74-yard runs earlier this season against Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Hurts actually was on the field for his 74-yard touchdown run against the Ravens. He had lined up at wide receiver, and his ghost motion actually contributed to opening up a lane for Sanders.
Hurts’ presence “opened things up a lot” Sunday, Sanders said. “From the first play to the last play, they had to respect him and his legs. He did a great job of just reading the D-end, reading his keys, and knowing whether to pull it or give it to me.
“My long touchdown was an inside zone. They had been playing over the top the whole time, letting linebackers hit certain gaps. But I think the front-side linebacker hit the wrong gap. So I just took it out the front. Zach had a helluva block. I made one guy miss and to the house I go.”
The linebacker, Kwon Alexander, thought he could Sanders on the backside of the play and went through another gap. But he underestimated the Eagles running back’s speed.
Sanders’ second touchdown came late in the third quarter on a 1-yard run with 11-personnel. His 82-yard run also came with 11-personnel (three wide receivers). It forced the Saints to take out a linebacker and go with an extra defensive back, which made it a little easier to run on them.
“He played awesome, man,” Sanders said of Hurts. “He’s so confident. He’s a natural leader. We just needed that. He gave us that spark. It started last week” after he replaced Wentz in the second half against the Packers.
“You saw it. We played a total of four quarters today. I think we looked like a complete team. Minus the penalties. We have to clean those up. But overall, I think this whole team did a helluva job today.”
The Eagles rushed for 246 yards Sunday. It was the most by the Eagles since 2014. Sanders’ 82-yard run was his only double-digit-yard run. Hurts had 3 of them — 15-, 16- and 24-yard runs.
“I think some of it was we had a couple more designed runs with Jalen,” coach Doug Pederson said. “And then just, the style of run plan that we put together. Coach (Jeff) Stoutland (the team’s offensive line coach and run game coordinator) does a great job studying the front and what these guys do. We kept it to where we could have more probably repeat plays and just execution with the guys up front. The guys did a nice job there.”
The Eagles’ 36 rushing attempts equals their season-high. It’s a far cry from the 14 carries they had 2 weeks ago against Seattle.
Hurts was effusive in his praise of the offensive line. “The big guys up front,” he said. “The big guys up front blocked their tails off all game. It was all 11 playing as one. All 11 doing their job and dominating that box and doing what they’re coached to do.”