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Duce Staley’s running backs have been the Eagles’ most successful group, but even they have problems

Running the ball is going really, really well, but catching it, and blocking for passes, could be a lot better.

Duce Staley supervises Miles Sanders' pregame work.
Duce Staley supervises Miles Sanders' pregame work.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

The Eagles’ assistant coach who carries around less of the stench of this 3-5-1 season than any of his colleagues says he isn’t looking at it that way.

“We’re not going to go and shake our shoulders or walk a certain type of way or feel a certain type of way, [while] our record looks like it looks,” said assistant head coach and running backs coach Duce Staley, whose charges are producing 5.12 yards per rush, the Eagles’ best average since 2013, which was the best season of LeSean McCoy’s career. The rushing success is strikingly different from what is happening in the passing game, where Carson Wentz and the Eagles are averaging 4.96 yards per attempt, the team’s lowest figure since 1999.

“We’re staying together. I’d never do that. It’s all about the team,” Staley said. “When you look at that [disparity], of course, those guys – everybody’s out there working hard. Let’s start there. Of course, there’s been some things out there that haven’t gone our way.

“Let’s be honest about it. We’re not happy with our record, right? Each and every player, every coach that’s in this building right now will tell you that. We’re not happy at all. But back out there to work we go.”

The questioner who asked if Staley had a little extra swagger right now was being facetious, because that isn’t the way things work in Doug Pederson’s universe, and also because, yards per carry aside, Staley’s backs have not been perfect.

The passing game to Miles Sanders and Boston Scott, which was money in the bank down the stretch last season, has struggled. Blitz pickup has been hit and miss. Sanders has missed three games with injuries, after Staley touted Sanders before the season as a workhorse back, heading into his second NFL season. Over their last four games, the Eagles have converted only 5 of 12 third downs from 1 to 3 yards.

Staley said Friday that defensive coordinators saw what the Eagles were able to do last season with throwing to the backs and have worked at stopping it. But he said there were two other factors to the pass-game problems, both involving Sanders, who despite those missed games has 519 rushing yards (on just 86 carries, 6.0 yards per carry), more than double the rushing total of Scott (51 carries, 246 yards, 4.8 yards per carry.)

“The second part, just Miles, I think it’s chemistry, to be honest with you. And the chemistry part comes from not being on the field,” Staley said. “He hasn’t been healthy throughout the whole year, so the chemistry between him and Carson – not just him, him and Carson, both together -- they got to get back on the same page for the routes and the passing game to the halfbacks to be successful.

“And then the last part, just being his coach, he’ll be the first to tell you, is his hands. And Miles’ll tell you, we go over that. We catch a lot of balls, we throw balls, we talk it through. We watch every route. We’re constantly trying to get better. But he’ll tell you – he’ll be the first to tell you – he has to tighten his hands up.”

Sanders’ 46.7% catch rate this season is among the worst in the league for a running back, and way off his 79.4% rookie season number.

Factoring into this is the Eagles’ puzzling inability to run successful screen plays, a reliable part of their offense since Pederson arrived in 2016. Here, the avalanche of offensive line injuries – eight starting lineups in nine games – hasn’t helped, but that doesn’t seem to be the whole story.

“It’s a work in progress,” Staley said. “You go back and every place of the screen, from the depth of the back, from the quarterback, from the O-line, we’re looking at everything.”

Staley would not acknowledge that blitz pickup has been a problem for his backs, even though Pro Football Focus gives Sanders a terrible 35.3 pass-blocking grade, and an 18.7 for the loss to the Giants, after rating him at 55.4 for his rookie season. Scott, 26.3 against the Giants, is at 48.2, vs. 59.6 last season.

“That’s part of the game sometimes,” Staley said. “You may have a guy that’ll try to overpower you. … Might have a guy sometimes to give you a move to go around you. The first part of picking up a blitz is to know your responsibility. [Sanders] knows his responsibility. Sometimes the quarterback got to step up in the pocket and make a throw.”

Staley is hoping the reacquisition of Jordan Howard will help with short-yardage plays. Howard left the Eagles in free agency last spring, signed in Miami, was waived this week, and signed with the Eagles. He is on the practice squad until he has quarantined long enough to join the locker room.

Staley said he didn’t know much about what Howard did with the Dolphins (a neat way of getting around discussing why Howard has gained 33 yards on 28 carries this season, 1.2 yards per carry).

“You can go back and just look at what Jordan did here, his body of work here, before the injury, and I remember a hell of a player. I do,” Staley said. Howard gained 525 yards on 119 carries, 4.4 yards per carry, before suffering a shoulder injury that ended his 2019 season after 10 games.

“He fits what we do, he knows us, so him coming back here … Everybody likes Jordan,” Staley said.

Howard is unlikely to be here next season. If the Eagles go face-down in the stretch of five games against teams with winning records that starts Sunday at 6-3 Cleveland, there is going to be a robust discussion about all of the Eagles in that situation who are playing instead of younger guys, who need developing.

Howard’s opportunity – if it turns out there is one -- could be viewed as coming at the expense of Jason Huntley, the rookie runner the Eagles claimed Sept. 6, after the Lions waived their fifth-round pick. Staley seemed to indicate that Huntley needs an offseason and a training camp with the Eagles to be much help. He has three carries for 14 yards in four games.

“It’s all about reps right now, to be honest. Of course, we just picked him up from the waiver wire. Getting him in, teaching him our system, trying to get him involved and trying to teach him just how we do things offensively, it’s been a little challenge,” Staley said. “Dealing with COVID and everything else that’s going on right now, it’s kind of hard to have that one-on-one time that I would like. I tell you man, special talent, we’ve all seen, from what he did in college [at New Mexico State, where Huntley averaged 5.9 yards per carry in 46 games]. Special player. I just can’t wait to get him and kind of take him through how we do things, from the beginning to the end.”