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Eagles need to increase Miles Sanders’ pass-catching role | Early Birds

With receiving options at a premium right now for the Eagles, the rookie running back is ready for a bigger role in the passing game.

Seattle Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright pulls down Eagles running back Miles Sanders in Sunday's game at the Linc. Sanders rushed for 63 yards on 12 carries, but had just three catches for 23 yards.
Seattle Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright pulls down Eagles running back Miles Sanders in Sunday's game at the Linc. Sanders rushed for 63 yards on 12 carries, but had just three catches for 23 yards.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the best pro football newsletter on the planet. I know you’re still bummed about Sunday’s loss, but take heart. That’s the god-awful Miami Dolphins around the next turn. While Sunday’s game is technically a road game, it’s not going to feel like one for the Eagles. Thousands of Eagles fans are expected to make the trip to South Florida, and Hard Rock Stadium figures to be a nonstop E-A-G-L-E-S chant on Sunday. I only ask that if you’re on my flight, you wait until I put on my noise-canceling headphones before you start singing “Fly Eagles Fly.”

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Memo to Carson: Throw the ball to Sanders

There weren’t a lot of bright spots offensively for the Eagles in Sunday’s 17-9 loss to Seattle. But Miles Sanders definitely was one of them.

With Jordan Howard missing his second straight game with a stinger, the second-round rookie from Penn State was the Eagles’ primary ballcarrier, rushing for 63 yards on 12 carries. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry on first down.

But he wasn’t much of a factor in the passing game for the second straight week, catching just three passes for 23 yards, all late in the fourth quarter when the Seahawks were letting the Eagles do whatever they wanted as long as it wasn’t throwing the ball deep.

A week earlier in the Eagles’ 17-10 loss to the Patriots, Sanders ran the ball 11 times (for just 38 yards), but caught just two passes for 9 yards.

One of the reasons the Eagles liked Sanders so much coming out of Penn State was because of his run-or-catch versatility. Even though he wasn’t used much as a pass receiver by James Franklin — he caught just 24 passes last season for the Nittany Lions — the Eagles viewed the 5-foot-11, 211-pounder as a bigger version of Brian Westbrook. A run-for-daylight ballcarrier who also could be a vital weapon in space in the passing game.

Sanders showed that earlier this season, catching five passes of 30 yards or more in the first six games. Only two other players in the league, both wide receivers, had more at that point.

He also had a 25-yard reception in the Eagles’ Week 8 win over Buffalo and a 19-yard catch in their Week 9 win over Chicago.

Last week, the Patriots made a concerted effort to take away two things from the Eagles offense — Zach Ertz on third down and Sanders in the passing game. They accomplished both.

“Yeah, they did a nice job, whether it was [putting] a linebacker, a safety or a nickel back on Miles,’’ coach Doug Pederson said. “They obviously had a plan for him and we expected that.

“We can do things [to counter that]. We can empty the backfield more with him. I think he is getting a little more comfortable with some of the route combinations and concepts that we’re introducing to him.

“We can move him from side to side [in the backfield] and maybe get him matched up on a linebacker as opposed to a DB. And we can put him in bunches and stacks and different formations.’’

The last two weeks, against two very good defenses and with key players missing from the offensive line, empty backfields really weren’t the way to go. But once they get Lane Johnson and Brandon Brooks back, as well as wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Nelson Agholor, they’ll likely do a few more things with Sanders in the passing game.

Carson Wentz targeted Sanders a couple of times early Sunday, but misfired. He had him open in the flat for a potential touchdown on a third-and-9 play in the red zone on the Eagles’ second possession, but badly overthrew him. Later in the first quarter, he overthrew Sanders on a screen. That was the last time the rookie was targeted until the Eagles’ final possession of the game.

“With some of the things we’re trying to do [with him] and kind of get — we didn’t do everything we worked on in practice with him last week in the game,’’ Pederson said. “There are some things with emptying the backfield and route combinations that are a part of his plan that didn’t manifest in the game.’’

What you need to know about the Eagles

  1. The Eagles gave unproductive wide receiver Jordan Matthews his walking papers Monday, and are expected to bring cornerback Cre’Von LeBlanc off injured reserve, Les Bowen reports.

  2. Lane Johnson told Jeff McLane that he expects to be cleared from concussion protocol on Tuesday.

  3. EJ Smith has Doug Pederson’s reaction to Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright calling the Eagles offense predictable.

  4. Tom Avril takes a deeper look at the anxiety disorder that forced Brandon Brooks out of Sunday’s game.

  5. Jeff says Carson Wentz has regressed, but points out that there’s plenty of blame to go around for why that’s happened in his latest What We Learned column.

  6. You want reasons for why the Eagles’ lost Sunday? I got your reasons right here.

  7. Eagles need to wise up and start riding the D train, says Marcus Hayes.

  8. Bob Ford is once again looking for someone to blame for the Eagles’ struggles, and has settled on Doug Pederson.

  9. Les reports that the Eagles’ receiving corps had plenty to do with Wentz’s struggles against Seattle.

From the mailbag

Is it Wentz or the WRs? — @TDfromPhilly via Twitter

It’s both, TD. Wentz has played pretty badly the last two weeks. But the four wideouts he was throwing to Sunday had a combined total of 14 receptions this season going into the game. I would suggest you check out the excellent film breakdown by ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky of three particular plays in Sunday’s game — a first-quarter red-zone incompletion to J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, an seemingly underthrown pass to Greg Ward on a third-and-5 in the second quarter, and a fourth-and-2 incompletion to Arcega-Whiteside in the fourth quarter. Orlovsky, a former NFL quarterback, correctly points out the imprecise route-running by the two young wideouts in all three cases. On the first one, JJAW drifted on his route, which allowed the defender, cornerback Tre Flowers, to get on his left shoulder and knock the ball away. On the second, Ward ran his route too deep and wasn’t where he was supposed to be. On the third, JJAW also was out of position.