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Domowitch: Eagles' Sproles a 'freak' of nature

DARREN SPROLES is 33, which is about 105 in running back years. His football career should be in his rearview mirror by now. He should be spending this weekend back home in San Diego with his feet up and a beer in his hand, watching the Eagles play the Giants on TV.

DARREN SPROLES is 33, which is about 105 in running back years.

His football career should be in his rearview mirror by now. He should be spending this weekend back home in San Diego with his feet up and a beer in his hand, watching the Eagles play the Giants on TV.

He should be, but he's not, because Sproles is, well, he's, what is he again, Frank Reich?

"I mean this in the most complimentary way possible - he's a freak," the Eagles offensive coordinator said. "He is a genetic and physical specimen.

"We all know the size thing, but he's probably the strongest guy, pound-for-pound, on the team."

There's the age thing and there's also the size thing. Sproles is only 5-6 and 190 pounds.

And yet, there he was Sunday night, getting 15 carries and 20 touches in the Eagles' 29-23 overtime loss to the Cowboys. Rushed for 86 yards and caught five passes for another 17 yards.

The 15 carries equaled his biggest rushing workload since 2009 and was the third most carries of his career. The 20 touches were the second most of his career. He had 26 touches back in '07 for the Chargers, but he was considerably younger then.

"He can handle a lot," Reich said. "Now, as you said, his age, is that a factor? Absolutely. I know coach (Doug Pederson) mentioned that to me. Fifteen carries and 20 touches probably is the max we want to use Darren in the game. But he needs to stay in the mix. He's an explosive playmaker.

"It's fun to see him out there. He creates energy for the whole team. I think he creates energy for our fans. He draws attention from defenses. So he's got to be on the field the lion's share (of snaps).

"When he can't handle it anymore, I'm sure he'll retire. But in the meantime, we have to find that blend of how much can we use him without overusing him."

Sproles' 86 rushing yards was the fourth highest total of his career. Keep in mind this guy's spent most of his career as one of the league's top pass-catching backs and return men.

But the running back who is supposed to be the Eagles' primary ballcarrier, Ryan Mathews, has struggled this season.

He's averaging only 3.8 yards per carry and has lost two fumbles, including a costly one late in the fourth quarter of the Eagles' 24-23 loss to the Lions.

Mathews had only 10 yards on four carries against the Cowboys before essentially getting replaced by Sproles.

Sproles had five of the Eagles' six rushing first downs Sunday. He's averaging 5.0 yards per carry this season and has nine double-digit-yard runs in 46 carries.

He's on pace for 105 carries, which would be far and away the most of his career.

Again - and I can't mention this enough - at age 33.

"Darren stands out, not just on the field, but by the way he works every single day," center Jason Kelce said. "He's one of those guys who's always going full speed. He's always finishing runs. It's really paid off for him."

The long and short of it

In the last two games, 84.3 percent of Carson Wentz's pass attempts traveled 10 yards or less. Even more startling: 93.2 percent of the Eagles' passing yards in their games against the Vikings and Cowboys came on passes of 10 yards or less.

Wentz attempted a total of six passes against Dallas and Minnesota in the 11- to 19-yard range (he completed two) and five passes of 20 yards or longer (no completions, one interception).

They didn't dink and dunk nearly as much in the first five games. In those games, only 68.4 percent of Wentz's passes traveled 10 yards or less, and only 50.3 percent of his passing yards came on passes from that distance.

In the first five games, Wentz attempted 19 passes of 20 yards or more, completing nine.

"It was just the kind of game it was," Wentz said of the Dallas game. "Some of it was play-calls. But other times, the defense was dropping. They were playing a really soft zone coverage.

"It's one of those things where you have to take what the defense gives you. It's frustrating, because you want to take those shots (down the field). But at the same time, I thought we played pretty efficient football. We just didn't finish."

Wentz attempted 43 passes against the Cowboys. Only five traveled more than 10 yards.

"There's no question we want to get the ball down the field," Frank Reich said. "We had (deeper) stuff called, but they were playing soft a lot of the time. Other times, other things were happening (to prevent it). But we talk about it each week. (We say), 'How do we get our matchups? How do we get the ball down the field?' "

Figuring the Eagles

* The Eagles have turned the ball over only seven times in the first seven games (three interceptions, four fumbles). They're on pace for only 16 giveaways, which would be the fewest by an Eagles team since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. Their fewest giveaways during that period was 19 in 2013. The Eagles have a plus-6 turnover differential, which is the fifth best mark in the league. They have scored 43 points off 13 takeaways and given up only 13 points off their seven giveaways.

* Third down continues to be a problem for the Eagles' offense. The reason: too many third-and-longs, too few third-and-manageables. They are 29th overall in third-down efficiency (34.8 percent). Only 12 of their 89 third-down opportunities have been 3 yards or less. That's the fewest in the league. That's in sharp contrast to their defense, which has faced the fewest third-and-3s or less in the league (18). Forty-six of the offense's 89 third-down situations have been 8 yards or more. That's the eighth most in the league. They've converted only 10 of those 46 third-and-8s or more (21.7 percent).

* Another offshoot of so many third-and-longs: Seven of Carson Wentz's 15 sacks have come on third down. That's the eighth most third-down sacks in the league. He has been sacked once every 8.3 third-down pass attempts, which is the fifth highest percentage in the league. The four quarterbacks with a higher third-down sack percentage: the Vikings' Sam Bradford (1/5.2), the Colts' Andrew Luck (1/5.8), the Falcons' Matt Ryan (1/6.8), and the Rams' Case Keenum (1/7.7).

* The Eagles have given up eight touchdown passes. Four of them have been to running backs and tight ends, all in the last four games. Lions running back Theo Riddick had two TD catches against the Eagles in Week 5. Redskins tight end Vernon Davis had one in Week 6 and the Cowboys' Jason Witten caught the 5-yard game-winner in overtime Sunday night. A breakdown of passes to tight ends and running backs against the Eagles:

* The Eagles are 20th in the league in overall rush average (4.1) and only 26th in first-down rush average (3.5).

* Opponents are averaging 9.5 yards per carry against the Eagles on third down. They've rushed for 143 yards on 15 carries. That goes back to the earlier statistic about the Eagles facing the fewest third-and-shorts in the league. Most of those 143 yards have come against lighter passing-down sub packages.

* On Dak Prescott's game-winning touchdown throw to Witten Sunday night, he managed to scramble around for 5.7 seconds against the Eagles' four-man rush before releasing the ball.

* Only one of Caleb Sturgis' 41 kickoffs has been advanced beyond the 25-yard line. That was an end-of-the-half squib kick against the Bears in Week 2. Twenty-seven of his 41 kickoffs, and 10 of his last 11, have been touchbacks.

* Slot receiver Jordan Matthews leads the Eagles in just about every pertinent receiving category, including receptions, first-down catches and red-zone TDs. A breakdown of the Eagles' receivers through seven games:

2-minute drill


* "I played against him last year and he just held every single play. Every single play he held. That was tough. (The Dolphins) traded for him to stop me, so I'm excited for this matchup. A great trade for the Eagles."

-Jets WR Brandon Marshall, on Dolphins CB Byron Maxwell

* "He's a class act, and he's a competitor. He knows right now he is not ready to go. He wants this team to thrive and give us every possible chance to win a championship. He knows when he's ready to go that, at some point, we are going to need him, and he'll be ready. It's a great situation."

- Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones, on Tony Romo

* "He (still) looks like Joe. He's still a guy that's capable of hurting you in a lot of ways. His deep ball is exceptional. His short game, he's getting it out as quick as he ever has. His pinpoint accuracy in small spaces in the short game is exceptional. He's (still) Joe to me."

- Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, on Ravens QB Joe Flacco, who is ranked 29th in the league in passing


* Titans RB DeMarco Murray, who was traded by the Eagles in the offseason, is second in the league in rushing with 756 yards and has eight touchdowns. He is only the sixth player in league history with at least 750 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in his first eight games with a team.

* Murray is 8-for-8 on third-down conversions of 3 yards or less.

* Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has thrown 12 first-half TD passes. That's the most in the league. He has only five in the second half.

* Patriots QB Tom Brady recorded his 20th career game with four or more touchdown passes and no interceptions Sunday against Buffalo. That's the most in league history.

* The Eagles and Cowboys both are 5-for-5 on fourth-down attempts this season. They are the only two teams in the league who still are perfect on fourth down.

This and that

* Another week, another game in which Zach Ertz wasn't a factor in the Eagles' passing game. The tight end caught four passes for only 19 yards against the Cowboys.

Ertz, who had 75 receptions last season, has only nine catches for 92 yards in the four games he's played since returning from a rib injury. Only four of those catches have resulted in a first down. He's been targeted only 13 times in those four games. That's a far cry from the 46 times Ertz was targeted by Sam Bradford in the final four games of the 2015 season.

"Obviously, we know the weapon he can be and the weapon he is in this offense," rookie quarterback Carson Wentz said. "But we feel confident that we have a lot of guys that can make plays."

Wrong answer, kid.

"I think we have to continue to stay the course, have a sense of urgency, keep thinking about it, keep trying to get the ball to him, and just have a breakthrough one of these games and get him back on track," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said.

"Each week we go in (to a game) and there's 'X' number of plays geared to go to Ertz since he's been back. And then, because of the flow of the game - I know that sounds like an out you hear a lot, and you're probably tired of hearing about the flow of the game, but so are we. We just need to make more first downs and get him the ball. He's a great tight end and that is our plan."

* In the last two games against the Vikings and Cowboys, the Eagles blitzed on 28.1 percent of the pass plays, up significantly from the 18.1 percent they blitzed in the first five games. They were very effective when they sent extra rushers. The Vikings' Sam Bradford and the Cowboys' Dak Prescott were a combined 10-for-22, averaged only 6.2 yards per attempt and were sacked three times when the Eagles blitzed. But, given the quality of the Giants' receivers and the fact that Eli Manning gets the ball out quickly, Jim Schwartz may opt for less blitzing and keep seven defenders in coverage. Manning's been sacked only 10 times this season and only four times in the last four games.

Cornerback Nolan Carroll said it's going to be on the cornerbacks and safeties to slow up Odell Beckham Jr., Victor Cruz and rookie slot receiver Sterling Shepard long enough for the pass rush to get pressure on Manning.

"He's the type of guy who wants to get rid of it and let his playmakers do what they need to do," Carroll said. "We just have to hold (them) up and make him hold on to it. We've got to show him different things, do different things. Try and confuse him."

Carroll said Manning doesn't like to get hit. "If somebody's not open, he doesn't care about throwing it away," he said. "Just chucking it. He'll take intentional-grounding calls. He just doesn't want to get hit. He'll just throw it to the ground. If you watch him, you'll see sometimes he'll just blindly throw the ball and turn (his body to protect himself). Because he doesn't want to get hit."

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