After the first two games of the season, one NFL coach said, his initial thought when seeing Darren Sproles enter a game was, "Oh, [shoot]!" The new Eagles running back created matchup nightmares for defenses and appeared an ideal fit for coach Chip Kelly's scheme.
But Sproles' production has waned since then. He did not record a single rushing or receiving yard Sunday in the 24-14 loss to the Seattle Seahawks and had only four offensive touches. The Eagles want Sproles more involved in the offense, but defenses increase their attention on Sproles when he enters the game.
"When you see somebody that has that impact in the first couple of games, we are starting to see a lot different coverage on Darren in terms of what we are trying to do," Kelly said. "We have seen some different looks, and rightly so, just because of the type of player he is."
Sproles has 49 carries for 295 yards and 29 receptions for 313 yards this season. He totaled 15 carries for 97 yards and 11 catches for 152 yards in the first two games of the season. That means 33 percent of Sproles' offensive touches and 31 percent of his offensive yards came in those opening weeks. He missed a Week 8 loss to Arizona because of injury, so his other 10 games have netted 34 carries for 198 yards and 18 catches for 161 yards.
"They quickly remembered what a great player he is," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said of opposing defenses.
Sproles is on pace for 96 offensive touches this season. That would be his fewest since 2008. When Sproles heard about that number, his eyes widened. He did not believe it's a function of the way the Eagles are using him as much as the way defenses are responding to him.
"Of course you want the ball," Sproles said. "But if they're playing me a certain way, somebody else is wide open."
Sproles said defenses often bring the safety down to cover him with a linebacker. So with both players paying attention to him, Sproles does not have the ability to cut inside or outside. Other teams are dropping a defensive end into coverage to help on Sproles.
The Seahawks used all-pro safety Earl Thomas to try to keep Sproles from becoming a factor in the passing game. Quarterback Mark Sanchez did not target him once.
When Sproles was acquired, Kelly noted that the Eagles saw more man-to-man coverage than any team in the NFL last season. He wanted skill-position players who can win one-on-one situations, which is why Sproles was so appealing.
Kelly said the Eagles are seeing more zone defenses than they saw last season. The Eagles' explosive play total from 2013 is one of the reasons, with defenses focusing on keeping the Eagles' pass catchers in front of them. Sproles' ability to beat man coverage is another reason.
"When you're on the inside of the defense and now you're matched up with a guy that you feel threatens you like Darren, that may cause you to play a little bit more zone," Shurmur said.
Sproles rationalized the increased attention he receives - and the resulting decline in production - by pointing out that it means another player should be open. Based on that logic, it makes sense to give Sproles more playing time.
Sproles played 37 percent of the snaps during his first two games. He played 26.5 percent of the snaps during his next 10 games.
Shurmur said it's not as simple as increased playing time, because that would require another skill-position player to come off the field. Lining Sproles up alone in the backfield means LeSean McCoy is on the bench. The Eagles have been reluctant to put Sproles and McCoy together often n the backfield, because that takes off a wide receiver or a tight end.
"When you put two halfbacks in there, now you have to do the math," Shurmur said. "Who do you take out? Do you take out one of our tight ends? Do you take out Jordan Matthews? Do you take out one of the outside receivers? You just try to get a nice little flow there."
Sproles' contributions are not limited to offense. He has the most punt returns in the NFL this season, and leads in punt return yards and touchdowns (two). He will likely make his first Pro Bowl. It's been a strong overall season, with the potential for more.
"It's been good," Sproles said. "It can be better, though."
Sproles Now Coming Up Short
Darren Sproles has been among the Eagles' MVPs this season, but his rushing numbers of late have declined. Here is how he has done lately, and in games the Eagles have won and lost:
49 carries, 295 yards, 6.0 avg., 5 TDs
Last 2 games
5 carries, 13 yards,
2.6 avg., 0 TDs
In 9 wins
42 carries, 270 yards, 6.4 avg., 5 TDs
In 3* losses
7 carries, 25 yards,
3.6 avg., 0 TDs
*Sproles did not play in the Eagles' loss to Arizona.EndText