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Eagles' Darren Wasteland

The team has been unable to get Darren Sproles involved as much as it would like in the passing game.

Eagles running back Darren Sproles. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Eagles running back Darren Sproles. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more

CHIP KELLY is regarded as one of the brightest offensive minds on the face of the earth. Maybe even in the entire solar system.

The impressive scoring and yardage numbers that his offense has managed to put up in his first two seasons as the Eagles' head coach even without the benefit of a great quarterback seem to support that view.

Yet, one thing he hasn't been able to do with any regularity this season is find a way get Darren Sproles involved in the passing game.

The 5-6, 190-pound running back is lethal in space, as he has demonstrated so impressively on punt returns (a league-best 14.1 yards per return) and on his infrequent rushing opportunities as LeSean McCoy's backup (6 yards per carry and five touchdowns on only 49 carries).

But Sproles also is one of the league's top pass-catching backs. The last 3 years with New Orleans, he caught 232 passes for 1,981 yards and 16 touchdowns. Over the last five seasons, he has averaged 67.2 receptions per year.

After the Eagles traded for him in March, fans drooled over the prospect of Professor Kelly playing "Where's Waldo" with Sproles, moving him all over the formation and finding ways to get the ball in his hands in space.

Yet, here we are, 13 games into the season and Sproles has only 29 catches. He's on pace to finish with only 36, which would be his lowest total since he had 29 with the Chargers in '08.

In Sunday's 24-14 loss to Seattle, which saw Kelly's offense held to 139 yards, nine first downs and convert only two of 11 third-down opportunities, Sproles was targeted as many times as the fat guy in the Andy Harmon jersey in Section 226. That would be zero.

"We're trying [to get him the ball]," Kelly said. "But a lot of times, they're doing some different things [to prevent that]. They dropped [safety] Earl Thomas down a few times Sunday to kind of double him. When you see a guy who has the impact he had in the first couple of games, we're starting to see a lot of different coverages on him in terms of what we're trying to do, as far as bringing him out of the backfield and things like that. We've seen some different looks, and rightly so because of the type of player he is."

Sproles had 14 receptions for 196 yards in the first three games, including that impressive seven-catch, 152-yard performance in their Week 2 win over Indianapolis. Since then, he has only 15 receptions for 117 yards.

Last season, the Eagles' offense probably saw more man-to-man coverage than almost any team in the league. It was a big factor in Kelly's decision to acquire the 31-year-old Sproles.

"One-on-one coverage is a big deal for us," Kelly said last March shortly after trading a fifth-round pick for Sproles. "It's a big deal in this league. We're always looking for guys who can exploit that matchup.

"The addition of Sproles, are you gonna play us in man [or zone]? Now [if you play man], you have to have a linebacker cover him if he's the back. That's kind of a huge addition when we thought about bringing him in."

While it hasn't translated to catches for Sproles, his presence has prompted opposing defenses to play a lot more zone coverage against the Eagles.

"At the beginning of the season, they weren't [playing zone]," Sproles said yesterday. "They were playing a lot more man. But they moved it out to zone."

Sproles said defenses have frequently doubled him or dropped out a defensive end to help with him and slow him down.

"They're putting two people on me," he said. "Which means somebody else has to be wide open. So it doesn't really bother me too much.

"It's been good, but it could be better."

Said wide receiver Jeremy Maclin: "Obviously, they're very aware of him when he comes out of the backfield. Whenever he's on the football field, you have to account for him. It's a credit to what he's done."

Mainly because of McCoy's presence, Sproles isn't being used quite as much on offense as he was in New Orleans. He averaged 30 snaps a game the last 3 years with the Saints. He's averaging 21 in 12 games this year (he sat out the loss to Arizona with a knee injury). On Sunday, he played only 13 snaps.

"I wouldn't say [there's been a decline in Sproles'] usage," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "We've got him out there. There are times when we intend to give him the ball and can't for some reason.

"The other team is obviously well aware when he's on the field, too. If he's doubled or for some reason covered, you move on [to another receiver]. But we continue to have plays for him."

Kelly hasn't been inclined to use McCoy and Sproles together much. They've been on the field at the same time for only 24 snaps this season, 19 of them in "21" personnel sets (2 backs, 1 tight end, 2 wide receivers).

"We've had formations with two halfbacks," Shurmur said. "But when you have two halfbacks out there, you've got to do the math. Who do you take out? Do you take out one of our tight ends? Do you take out [slot receiver] Jordan Matthews? Do you take out one of our outside receivers?"

Sproles has been targeted 45 times this season, but only 24 times since Week 5. He was targeted 89 times last season with the Saints and caught 71 passes. The year before, he was targeted 104 times and had 75 receptions.

"Of course, you want the ball," Sproles said. "But if they're playing me a certain way, then that means somebody else is wide open."

On Twitter: @Pdomo