DUCE STALEY understands better than anybody what can happen to a running back who gets ridden too hard.
Fourteen years ago, in just his third season with the Eagles, Staley lugged the football a career-high 325 times. It was the fourth- most carries in the league that year.
He rushed for a career-high 1,273 yards, his second straight 1,000-yard season.
But five games into the following season, he suffered a foot injury that put him out for the rest of the year.
He came back and played five more seasons in the league, including three more with the Eagles. But he would rush for 1,000 yards just one more time.
As the Eagles' running backs coach now, Staley wants to make sure that what happened to him doesn't happen to the team's current workhorse back, LeSean McCoy.
McCoy, who leads the NFL in rushing with 468 yards, has 78 carries in the first four games. That's the fifth most in the league and puts him on a 312-carry pace.
Staley said yesterday that the only way McCoy will carry the ball 312 times this season is over his dead body.
"That's a big load," he said. "It's tough on your body. I can say that from personal experience. I was dealing with a hernia at the time. So it was a little more involved with me.
"But when you look at McCoy, he's not built for 312 carries. Now, if you go in there [to the locker room] and ask him about that, he'll tell you he's Superman. But he understands. He's one of the smartest players I've ever been around."
McCoy has averaged 209 carries a season in his first 4 years in the league. But throw in his 220 receptions and his average touches per year jumps to 264.
He had 321 touches 2 years ago when he was a first-team All-Pro selection after rushing for a career-high 1,309 yards and catching 48 passes.
Staley has a lot to say about how many carries and snaps McCoy and his other two running backs - second-year players Bryce Brown and Chris Polk - get. In fact, he has everything to say about it because Chip Kelly has put Duce in complete charge of the running backs' work schedules. He decides who's in and who's out.
"That's my responsibility," he said. "Chip has great trust in me to make that decision. I've got to do a better job of making sure I get a great rotation going.
"But it's hard when you got a back out there [like McCoy] who's running, running, running. Thirty-one carries [against the Redskins in Week 1] creeps up on you fast. But it's hard to pull him out when he's feeling it.
"As we continue to go into the second quarter of the season, though, I'm going to work hard to make sure all three of them are fresh."
Brown, who twice rushed for 150-plus yards as a rookie when McCoy was sidelined with a concussion, has 23 carries in the first four games, including nine against the Redskins and eight in last week's 52-20 blowout loss to the Broncos.
Polk, who didn't have any carries last year as a rookie, and none in the first three games this year, had three carries Sunday. He scored on a 4-yard run in the second quarter and had a 28-yard run later in the game.
"I can't say enough about those guys," Staley said of Brown and Polk. "What they're doing out here [on the practice field], they're outworking a lot of people. They're getting that from their leader, McCoy. McCoy has been great as a leader. That's what he is. And it's rubbing off on those guys."
When you have a running back as talented as McCoy, you don't want him to get worn down, but it's also hard to take him out. I mean, the guy is averaging 7.1 yards every time he touches the ball this season.
"He understands; I understand," Staley said. "It's hard to get him out now. It's like a sharpshooter. If he keeps hitting the bull's-eye, he doesn't want to put the gun down.
"If you look at McCoy, he keeps hitting these home runs in these games and leading the league in rushing, it's hard to pull him out. But that's the kind of running back you want. You want the type of running back who always is eager to play more, who always is hungry to play more."
If Saints can do it . . .
All of the numbers are bad right now for the Eagles' defense. They are last in the league in yards and first downs allowed. They are 31st in points and passing yards allowed. They are 26th in third-down efficiency and 23rd in sacks per pass play.
It's easy to look at Bill Davis' unit right now and see little reason for hope. It's easy to look at it right now and think it's going to take 2 or 3 years to rebuild it. And that's if general manager Howie Roseman buys the right materials.
But a lot of people said the same thing about the Saints' defense last year when they gave up the most yards in NFL history.
A year later, the Saints are 4-0, and while Drew Brees and the offense has had a lot to do with that, so has the Saints' defense, which no longer is the sieve it was a year ago. Check out the night-and-day difference:
Saints Defense2012 2013
Yards 440.1 (32nd) 304.5 (6th)
Passing Yards 292.6 (31st) 192.3 (5th)
Rushing Yards 147.6 (32nd) 112.(22nd)
Points/Game 28.4 (31st) 13.7 (5th)
Third Down Pct. 38.5 (18th) 34.8 (10th)
Takeaways/Game 1.6 (12th) 2.5 (7th)
Like the Eagles, the Saints have a new defensive coordinator. They fired Steve Spagnuolo and replaced him with Rob Ryan, who was let go by the Cowboys.
They switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4, though they use a four-man front much of the time, with rush linebacker Junior Galette lining up as a standup end.
While they've got a few new parts, including rookie safety Kenny Vaccaro and defensive tackle John Jenkins and free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis, they've accomplished this turnaround with much of the same personnel that stunk up the Superdome last year.
"I've studied what Rob is doing," NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said. "It's amazing. It's not like the same old Rob Ryan where he's blitzing from every different direction. He's actually not blitzing at all.
"He does use some of his dad's '46' concepts in certain situations. But he has a really good front four. Galette's [three sacks] been really good, and [defensive end] Cam Jordan [four sacks] has really developed.
"The rookie from Georgia [Jenkins] has been holding down the nose real well, and the three-technique kid, Akiem Hicks, has played well. They've really been able to get pressure."
Besides getting pressure on the quarterback, Baldinger said the Saints are tackling much better this year and are playing much better assignment football.
Could the Eagles turn around their defense in a year the way the Saints have? Baldinger is skeptical.
"For starters, they don't have a safety like Vaccaro," he said. "And the inside linebackers in New Orleans [David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton] are better than the Eagles two inside 'backers [Mychal Kendricks and DeMeco Ryans]."
Baldinger said the Eagles also need defensive end Fletcher Cox to start playing like a first-round pick.
"I don't know what's wrong with him," he said. "Right now, Cedric Thornton is a better player than Cox. I keep hearing he's struggling to learn how to play 3-4 defensive end. But there are a lot of guys in the league like him who have to play that position. [The Jets'] Muhammad Wilkerson, [the Texans'] J.J. Watt.
"You use your athletic ability to the best or you don't. He didn't even look close to being a good player in Denver. You need your most talented players to play at the highest level to be successful. In order for them to turn it around defensively, it's got to start with Cox. He's got to play up to his ability."
Figuring the Eagles
* The Eagles aren't the only team in the NFC East having difficulty defending the pass. The combined opponent passer rating of the four teams in the division right now is 103.2. The combined completion percentage: 67.4. They've given up a combined 38 TD passes and have just 12 interceptions. Three of the four teams are ranked 25th or lower in passing yards allowed (the Giants are 19th). None of the four is ranked higher than 24th in completion percentage. And only the Eagles and Giants can use the we-played-against-Peyton-Manning excuse.
Cmp. Att. Yds. TD Int Rat.
Redskins 95 141 1295 9 2 111.9
Eagles118 168 1358 9 2 107.2
Cowboys 112 169 1314 10 4 99.6
Giants 105 160 1081 10 4 95.3
* The Eagles used two-tight end sets on 10 of their first 21 plays against the Broncos, then rarely used it again until their final possession when Nick Foles replaced Mike Vick. Just 18 of the Eagles' 69 offensive plays against the Broncos featured "12" personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers). The other 51 used "11" personnel (one back, one tight end, three wide receivers). Two hundred twenty of their 267 offensive plays in the first four games, or 82 percent, have been run with "11" personnel. Four hundred eighteen of LeSean McCoy's league-leading 468 rushing yards have been with "11" personnel.
* Eagles running backs are averaging 7.8 yards per carry on runs up the middle, 5.2 on runs to the left and 3.9 on runs to the right.
* The Eagles are averaging 66.7 plays per game. That's only the 10th most in the league, behind Houston (75.5), Buffalo (72.0), New England (71.7), Denver (71.0), Cleveland (70.0), Baltimore (69.5), the Jets (69.0), Kansas City (68.7) and New Orleans (68.7).
* Fifty-six percent of Mike Vick's passing yards have come on throws of 10 yards or longer. A breakdown of Vick's "aimed" throws by distance, according to the website Pro Football Focus:
Cp.-Att. Yds. TD Int.
20-plus yards 7-18 219 3 0
10-19 yards 19-40 386 2 1
0-9 yards 29-38 341 0 1
minus yards 10-12 134 0 0
FROM THE LIP
* "I trust in my offensive line to protect me. It's been that way since the start of the season and it's going to continue to be that way." — Eagles quarterback Michael Vick
* "He's playing as well as we've seen him play. Thank God for it." — Giants coach Tom Coughlin, on wide receiver Victor Cruz
* "Public service announcement: I can care less about fantasy football. Key word 'fantasy.' As long as we win I'm happy. I rush for 200 and lose, y'all happy. You're the head coach and the owner of your fantasy team, so you should be mad at yourself not me. I didn't ask any of you to draft me." — Titans RB Chris Johnson, on fantasy football people who are unhappy with him because he hasn't had a touchdown or 100-yard game yet this season
* "We hit a team that if you look at them on paper, we had a good chance to win that game even though it was on the road. When you don't do that, it's going to create a lot of discontent." — Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, on his team's 30-21 loss to the Chargers last week
BY THE NUMBERS
* In his last 12 regular-season starts, Russell Wilson has a .652 completion percentage and has thrown 22 touchdown passes and just five interceptions. The Seahawks have won 11 of those 12 games.
* The Broncos have outscored opponents in the second half, 406-183, since the start of 2012 season. They have been outscored in the second half just twice in the last 20 games.
* Detroit's Matthew Stafford, who will play in his 50th game Sunday against the Packers, already has thrown for 14,069 yards. That's the most passing yards by a quarterback in his first 50 games.
* There are five unbeaten teams in the league — Denver, Kansas City, New England, New Orleans and Seattle. If all five win this week, it would be just the second time that five teams opened the season 5-0. The only time it has happened was in 2009.
* The Chiefs are just the second team to start 4-0 after finishing the previous season with at least 14 losses. The 1980 Lions also did it. That team finished 9-7 and failed to make the playoffs.
* There have been six 400-yard, zero-interception passing performances in the first 4 weeks. That ties the league record for the most in an entire season (2010 and 2012).
This and that
* Chip Kelly has said the only statistic he pays much attention to is response after turnover. But he might also want to include red-zone production, particularly when you have a defense that is giving up 34 points per game. The Eagles are tied for 27th in the league in red-zone efficiency. They've converted just five of 12 trips inside the 20, or 41.7 percent, into touchdowns. That percentage is significant because over the last 5 years, just four of the 60 teams that qualified for the playoffs — the 2008 Vikings, the '10 Seahawks and Jets and the '11 Niners — managed to make it to the postseason with a red-zone success rate lower than 45 percent. And with the exception of the Seahawks, who won the NFC West that year with a 7-9 record, the other three teams had very good defenses that picked up the slack for their offense's red-zone ineptness. That's not the case with the Eagles. "We obviously want to score a touchdown every time we get down there," said Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur. "We always look at, OK, what are the top five teams doing in terms of their [red zone-] percentages? What are the playoff teams doing?"
* Teams are blitzing Michael Vick much less this season than the past couple of years. In the first four games, he's been blitzed on just 29.2 percent of his dropbacks, compared to 39.5 percent last year and 39.2 in 2011. Center Jason Kelce said that was to be expected. "With the type of offense we have, it's pretty tough to blitz and blitz effectively," he said. "Because if you're getting guys out of position, if you bring too many to one side, then all of a sudden you're leaving things open. So what we've been seeing is a lot of man-to-man [coverage]. We expected that coming into the season. We're going to see a lot of man coverage, a lot of safety down. Because that's really the only way you can stop the read option." Kelce said teams that aren't quite as confident as the Broncos and Chiefs were in their ability to play man-to-man might blitz them a little more.
Domo's rankings (through Monday night)
1 Broncos 4-0 (1 last week)
2 Seahawks 4-0 (2)
3 Patriots 4-0 (3)
4 Chiefs 4-0 (5)
5 Saints 4-0 (6)
6 Colts 3-1 (8)
7 49ers 2-2 (12)
8 Lions 3-1 (15)
9 Bears 3-1 (4)
10 Titans 3-1 (17)
11 Dolphins 3-1 (7)
12 Texans 2-2 (11)
13 Packers 1-2 (13)
14 Bengals 2-2 (9)
15 Ravens 2-2 (10)
16 Falcons 1-3 (14)
17 Chargers 2-2 (20)
18 Cowboys 2-2 (16)
19 Cardinals 2-2 (19)
20 Bills 2-2 (22)
21 Browns 2-2 (25)
22 Eagles 1-3 (21)
23 Jets 2-2 (18)
24 Vikings 2-2 (26)
25 Panthers 1-2 (23)
26 Redskins 1-3 (27)
27 Rams 1-3 (24)
28 Steelers 0-4 (28)
29 Giants 0-4 (29)
30 Raiders 1-3 (30)
31 Bucs 0-4 (31)
32 Jaguars 0-4 (32)
On Twitter: @Pdomo