Before the season, Miles Sanders joked with Jordan Howard about a possible switch to fullback.
It was a few days before the Eagles’ season opener in which they would split the brunt of the Eagles’ running-back carries. When Sanders, holding a television microphone and being trailed by a camera, posed the question, Howard came back with a joke of his own.
“I think they’re moving Boston Scott to fullback,” Howard said. “He’s like 5-3, 240 [pounds].”
It was all in jest at the time. There’s a chance the Eagles hadn’t yet entertained the possibility of Howard making lead blocks. But a few months later, Sanders’ first career rushing touchdown came thanks to Howard playing as a fullback.
A fullback, yes. In 2019, yes.
The Eagles seldom use “21″ personnel, with two running backs and one tight end, but Sanders’ 65-yard rushing score against the Buffalo Bills came with Howard clearing the way.
Did Sanders remind Howard of his preseason jab?
“I didn’t bring it up, but I’m about to,” Sanders said.
It’s part of a trend around the NFL. After years of shotgun runs and spread formations ruling the day, the best running attacks this season have come from a more traditional look: A quarterback under center, and/or with extra blockers in the box with a dedication to overpower defenses.
“I think NFL defenses are getting better at stopping gun runs,” Eagles center Jason Kelce said. “I think the tendencies are starting to really get exasperated, and that’s why we try to eliminate a lot of that as much as possible.”
The philosophy behind the Eagles’ recent use of under-center runs can be traced to a book written thousands of years ago, held together by bamboo slats.
Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Principle No. 5: “All warfare is based on deception.”
Shotgun runs come with an immediate tell: The running back has to line up on either side of the quarterback behind center before the snap.
That can limit a team’s ability to mask play calls. Defensive coordinators can eliminate possibilities based on pre-snap formation.
“It’s Sun Tzu’s Art of War,” Kelce said. “Being unpredictable is a huge advantage in any type of competition.”
Kelce said the Eagles work hard to keep their formations from giving away the play calls, but it’s a lot less complicated to just line up under center, with the running back directly behind the quarterback.
“Running under center presents a lot of advantages for the team running the ball,” Kelce said. “Obviously, you’re not tipping the play right away with what side the back’s on. ... The tendencies are a little bit harder to pick up on as a defense."
In the last two games, Eagles coach Doug Pederson has called 49 running plays with Carson Wentz under center to 27 running plays out of shotgun formations.
“It’s harder as a coach, in my opinion, to scheme gun runs in a way that it’s truly balanced and to catch the defense off-guard, then it is to just line up under center,” Kelce said. “Then we don’t have to worry necessarily about ‘Hey, every time we line up with this guy here and the tight end there, it’s only one of two plays.’ So now, we need to do this, this and this to try and take away that tendency so these guys can’t just play one play.”
Then, there’s the issue of timing. Some runs actually work better with extended time to develop, but others benefit from running backs picking up speed by getting the handoff from Wentz in a traditional formation.
“We can hit the hole harder and faster,” Sanders said. “It’s hard to stop a running back going forward in full force when he’s reading the holes and just hitting that thing full speed.”
For the first time in Pederson’s tenure, the Eagles are on pace to run fewer plays out of the shotgun formation than they did the year prior.
The Eagles ran 77% of their plays out of the gun last season, and 69.7% the year prior. So far this season, even with two blowout losses forcing the team to throw often, the team is at 71.1%.
Against the Bills, the wind and rain forced the Eagles to call a season-high 29 under-center runs. But they held onto that formula against the Bears the following week, running out of similar formations 20 times in ideal weather.
The Eagles’ sudden dedication to running the ball, under center or in shotgun formations, has become part of their identity.
“It’s our recipe,” Wentz said after the team’s win against the Bears. “It’s what we want to do, finish games like that.”
The Eagles’ offensive line is the best run-blocking unit in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. They’re eighth in total rushing, and four of the top 10 teams in the NFL share their love for loading the box with tight ends and fullbacks.
According to Sharp Football Stats, the Eagles lead the league in plays run out of double-tight-end formations, at 40%. The Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers, and Minnesota Vikings are also running more than 25% of their plays out of “12” personnel. What’s more, the Vikings, the No. 2 rushing team in the NFL, run 26% of their plays with two running backs, meaning more than half their plays come in run-oriented formations.
With sub packages putting more defensive backs on the field, NFL coaches are starting the zag, which involves getting bigger.
“It’s what the league is kind of doing because I think it does make it more difficult,” Eagles offensive tackle Lane Johnson said. “Under center [runs] makes it more difficult for the defense to read it. It takes more time for them to see if it’s hitting the inside or bouncing outside.”
Plus, with so many college programs constantly working to defend spread offenses run out of the gun, some younger players have to adjust to defending under-center runs, which can take time.
While the Eagles have seen an uptick in plays run from under center, there’s still plenty of merit in running out of the gun. Sanders’ long touchdown rush came in a shotgun formation, just with Howard on the field instead of an extra receiver.
Some running plays work better out of shotgun formations, Kelce said.
“On inside zone [runs], sometimes you want them to be in gun,” Kelce said. “Everything has its advantages.”
The Eagles overall have had more success running the ball out of the shotgun than under center this season, partly thanks to some of their biggest runs having come that way. They’re averaging 4.82 yards per attempt on 138 tries out of the shotgun, and 3.64 yards per attempt on 132 plays under center. Howard is doing better with a running start, though, averaging 4.48 yards when Wentz is at the line of scrimmage compared to 4.31 on shotgun runs.
Howard had a touchdown on an under-center run against the Bears, and several other first-down runs in similar formations, but he attributed it to the offensive line more than where he started the play.
“The offensive line has been doing a great job all season, but they’ve been taking it to another level,” Howard said after the game. “... I don’t really feel like [formation] changes anything as much as the O-line just dominated [the Bears].”