Since the beginning of the season, it seemed almost inevitable that Wendell Smallwood's role in the offense would grow. It was not only because of the rookie's development but because of Ryan Mathews' injury history.
Though Mathews has endured an ankle injury and an infected tooth this season, he has not yet missed a game. Mathews has played 16 games only once in his six NFL seasons, and his seventh season is now in jeopardy of falling short of the mark.
Mathews has a knee injury that has kept him out of practice all week, including Friday's session. Smallwood has taken Mathews' work. He appears in line for a bigger role on Monday against the Green Bay Packers. The Eagles are still expected to have starter Darren Sproles, who will play through a fractured rib, but the potential loss of Mathews would move Smallwood up the depth chart.
"Definitely look forward to it," Smallwood said. "It's a challenge, and it's a great opportunity for me to take advantage of it and show what I can do and that I can take on a bigger load."
Smallwood was already trending in that direction. He had 13 carries in each of the last two games, and he played a season-high 48 percent of the offensive snaps Sunday against Seattle after Mathews and Sproles exited the game in the first half.
Mathews has taken more than 13 carries just three times this season, so even his absence would not turn Smallwood into a 25-carry running back for the Eagles. But Smallwood's carries could be around what he received the last two weeks, and his playing time would eclipse what he typically receives. Smallwood has played 16 percent of the offensive snaps in 10 games. He will also be exposed to plays he does not typically run.
"Obviously, the playbook has to be opened up a little bit more," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "When [Matthews] is healthy and we kind of have our way that we rotate the backs, [Smallwood] kind of knows the plays he's getting. This just expands a little bit more. . . . A little bit more in the pass game and a few more of the runs, so you've got to be ready for all that."
Before last week, Smallwood had a carry on 62 percent of his offensive plays. So when he was in the game, it usually indicated he would get the ball. If he gets more snaps, it is less of a tip, but it also exposes Smallwood to more pass-blocking and receiving situations.
Smallwood thought this could help him because defenses would not key on him as when he enters the game. But part of the Eagles' rushing success this year has been rushing when the opponent knows it's coming. The Packers have a stout run defense that has limited opponents to 3.7 yards per carry and 91.1 yards per game, which ranks sixth-best in the NFL. It could be up to Smallwood to try to wear the Packers down late in the game if the Eagles have a lead. Reich said that with an increase in playing time Smallwood must show he can withstand the physical pounding.
"Having the durability to get hit 15 or 20 times as opposed to four or five," Reich said. "I think we all see that when he touches the football, you see the explosiveness. Can you maintain that explosiveness on your 15th carry if he ends up with that many carries?"
Smallwood, who is 5-foot-10 and 208 pounds, said more carries allows him to get in a rhythm and wear down a defense. That is easier to do with 13 to 17 carries, like he has received in three games this season, than with the four or fewer carries in the other seven games this year.
"I definitely think I'm that type of running back that gets better and gets a bead on defenses," Smallwood said. "Once I start to slow it down and get those runs going, I get better."
Smallwood knows he'll be put on the spot by the Packers defense in passing situations because he's a rookie who still doesn't have much experience blocking. He also has only five catches this season, with four coming last week.
Sproles will still get most of the playing time on passing downs unless the rib injury is a problem. He has played with a rib injury, although he said it wasn't like this one. He is wearing rib protection and said that once the adrenaline starts pumping during the game he'll "be fine." The Eagles could also mix in Kenjon Barner, who is the fourth running back.
Coach Doug Pederson has not yet ruled out Mathews from playing or even dressing in a backup role. The Eagles' final practice of the week will be Saturday, so there will be more clarity then. But they have had three practice sessions with Smallwood taking Mathews' snaps, and what appeared likely before the season could finally materialize if Mathews is absent.
"I really like what we see in Wendell, both in the run game and in pass protection," Reich said. "I like everything about him. I think he's a really good football player, and I think the more he plays that's just going to show more and more."
In addition to Mathews, the Eagles practiced without defensive end Steven Means (illness) and tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai (knee). Vaitai is not expected to play Monday. . . . Defensive end Connor Barwin returned to practice Friday after missing the previous two days with a bone bruise on his knee. He is expected to play against the Packers.