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For Eagles, nowhere to run in their season opener

Struggling offensive line hinders rushing game in the game at Atlanta.

Ryan Matthews is tackled by a Falcons defender.
Ryan Matthews is tackled by a Falcons defender.Read more(David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)

I'VE SO MISSED these why-didn't-we-run-the-ball-more discussions.

They used to be weekly occurrences back when pass-happy Andy Reid was the lord and ruler of the Eagles.

But then Chip Kelly arrived and all of the angst over the over-reliance of the forward pass went away.

In 2013 - Kelly's first season in Philly - the Eagles averaged 31.2 rushing attempts per game, which was the fourth most in the NFL. Last year, they averaged 29.6, which was the seventh most.

But then along came Monday night.

The Eagles ran the ball just 16 times and threw it 52 times in their 26-24 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, prompting a barrage of WTFs from fans, media and whatever category you put radio talk-show hosts in.

The 16 rushing attempts were the second fewest of the Kelly era - if two-plus years can be classified as an era. The Eagles had just 12 carries in a 26-21 loss to the 49ers last September.

Monday's lopsided plus-36 pass-to-run differential has been surpassed only once under Kelly. That was in a 24-20 loss to the Cardinals last October when Nick Foles heaved the ball a franchise-record-tying 62 times.

The 16 rushing attempts were kind of surprising since the Eagles did, after all, go out and sign workhorse running back DeMarco Murray to a five-year, $40 million contract in the offseason. Murray's 392 rushing attempts last season were tied for seventh most in NFL history.

Murray had just eight carries for 9 yards against the Falcons, including an 8-yard touchdown run. Ryan Mathews, the other free-agent back the Eagles signed in the offseason, had three carries for 4 yards and a touchdown.

"We're concerned with moving the ball down the field," Kelly said yesterday. "So, at the end of the day, whether we rush it for 399 yards or pass it for 399 yards or whatever, my concern isn't the distribution.

"If we are moving the football and getting the ball into the end zone, that's what we're concerned with. How we get it there isn't a concern."

The Eagles' most productive running back Monday actually was Darren Sproles, who gained 50 yards on five carries, 27 of which came on a third-quarter run that helped set up the Eagles' second touchdown - a 5-yard pass to Murray from Sam Bradford.

Sproles, Murray and Mathews ended up playing a fairly significant role in the Eagles' passing game against the Falcons. They combined for 14 receptions. Sproles had seven catches for 76 yards. Murray had four catches, including the touchdown. And Mathews had three catches for 24 yards, including a 12-yard catch-and-run on a pivotal third-and-11 play that helped make Murray's TD catch possible.

"All three of those guys are terrific playmakers," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said. "This was the kind of game where it was maybe a little smarter to throw it to them more than to have them run with it. They did a good job of running after the catch and making extra yardage."

Sproles is basically a receiver first and a runner second. Always has been. But that's certainly not the case with Murray and Mathews.

While they both are excellent receivers, they're mainly being paid the money they're being paid to run the football. Kelly knows that.

And unless the two of them only get 11 carries again this week against the Cowboys, I wouldn't get too worked up about it. It probably was an anomaly, just like those games last year against the Niners and Cardinals.

What was a concern Monday was that when the Eagles did try to run it, they often couldn't. The Falcons were getting into the backfield and blowing up the few runs they attempted.

Murray lost 12 yards on a run on the Eagles' second possession when Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux beat a block by right tackle Lane Johnson.

Tight end Zach Ertz missed a block on linebacker O'Brien Schofield on a Sproles first-quarter run that gained nothing. Another Falcons linebacker, Paul Worrilow, shot the gap between center Jason Kelce and left guard Allen Barbre to blow up another first-quarter run by Murray.

Two of Murray's best runs, a 5-yarder in the second quarter and his 8-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, both came out of two-tight-end sets.

But from watching the Eagles since the beginning of training camp, including Monday night, it appears Kelly wants to use more "11" (one back, one tight end, three wide receivers) and "21" (two backs, with Sproles in the slot, one tight end, two wide receivers) personnel this season and fewer two-tight-end sets. Which presents a little bit of a dilemma for him if the Eagles can't run the ball effectively out of 11 and 21.

The Eagles' inability to convert a third-and-1 at the Atlanta 26-yard line with 3 minutes left Monday was as big a factor in the two-point loss as Cody Parkey's missed 44-yard field goal.

If they had converted the third-and-1, they would have been able to keep the drive alive and, at the very least, given Parkey a shorter kick.

The Eagles were in 11 on the third-and-1 and just didn't have the numbers to block the play. Falcons defensive end Kroy Biermann took right guard Andrew Gardner inside and Worrilow circled behind him and came in unblocked to stop Mathews for no gain.

Both Mathews and Murray are outstanding short-yardage runners. Mathews had converted 42 of 52 "and-1" runs in the previous four seasons.

After the game, Kelly said his offensive line didn't get much movement on the Falcons' defensive line. "We were concerned with their defensive line going in," he said.

After watching the film yesterday morning, Kelly said the biggest problem up front was "just a matter of getting separation on combination blocks and things like that.

"Again, give those guys credit. I thought their d-line, we had said going in, I thought the additions of [rookie Vic] Beasley on the edge and [Adrian] Clayborn inside, their techniques kind of changed from what you had seen before."

Maybe so. But when you have an offensive line that features three of the most athletic blockers in the league - tackles Jason Paters and Lane Johnson and center Jason Kelce - that's no excuse for not being able to run the ball against a one-gap defense with no exceptional players. Kelce admitted as much after the game.

"Atlanta didn't do anything we didn't expect," he said. "They didn't do anything we hadn't seen them do on film. Up front, we just didn't get it done in the first half.

"We still have a long way to go. We need to get a lot better."

Yes, they do.