Eagles' Darren Sproles returns to old self
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Darren Sproles has been seen, but seldom heard from for much of this season. After an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Jets in Week 3 and a 45-yard return against the Redskins in Week 4, his legitimate return opportunities started to shrink as opposing teams either kicked away from him or sacrificed distance for hang time, forcing him to fair-catch more punts.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. - Darren Sproles has been seen, but seldom heard from for much of this season.
After an 89-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Jets in Week 3 and a 45-yard return against the Redskins in Week 4, his legitimate return opportunities started to shrink as opposing teams either kicked away from him or sacrificed distance for hang time, forcing him to fair-catch more punts.
With the arrivals of DeMarco Murray and Ryan Mathews, he also wasn't getting used nearly as much as he had hoped in the offense.
Prior to Sunday, he hadn't played more than 30 offensive snaps in a game since Week 3. Hadn't had more than nine touches in a game since Week 3. Had more than five rushing attempts in a game just twice.
Then along came Sunday and all of that changed.
With Mathews missing his third straight game with a concussion and Murray continuing to be a 3.5-yard-a-carry disappointment, Chip Kelly decided to go fast and little against the heavily-favored Patriots, turning to the 5-6, 190-pound Sproles and 5-9, 195-pound Kenjon Barner.
Sproles and Barner combined for 24 of the Eagles' 33 carries, gaining 105 yards in a remarkable 35-28 win that, just like that, has put the 5-7 Eagles right back in the hunt for the NFC East title.
Sproles also had a big 83-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the third quarter that gave the Eagles a 28-14 lead.
The 32-year-old Sproles finished with 66 yards on 15 carries. The 15 carries were his most since 2009, when he had 18 in a game with the Chargers. It was just the third time in his career he's had 15 or more carries in a game.
He also had four receptions for 34 yards.
Sproles and Barner, who had 39 yards on nine carries, combined for 32 yards on a big 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive late in the third quarter and early in the fourth that ate up more than six minutes of clock and gave the Eagles a 35-14 lead at the time.
Kelly said his decision to use Sproles and Barner so much had nothing to do with Murray's struggles this season.
"Some of the matchups with the linebackers, it's as big a group of linebackers as you're going to face," Kelly said. "And sometimes smaller, quicker guys can cause some matchup problems.
"And then as the game expressed itself, we just kind of tried to go with the hot hand and use all three. DeMarco had a big run on an inside zone (run) in the red zone on that long drive. We just felt we were going to need all three today."
Murray finished with just eight carries for 24 yards. Nineteen of those 24 yards came on the run Kelly referenced.
"Those guys ran hard today," quarterback Sam Bradford said. "The guys up front really started getting great movement, and those guys were finding holes. They were running hard and picking up some extra yards.
"Darren did a great job. He found some holes a few times that might not have been there. I'm not sure if anyone but him could have squeezed through some of those. He ran hard and picked up some extra yards for us tonight."
Sproles expressed his frustration over his lack of involvement in the offense a couple of weeks ago. He was much happier Sunday after the game.
He said he didn't know that he would be used as much as he was. But he thought it was a good possibility because of the size of the Patriots' linebackers.
"It comes with coverages," he said. "When we can get those one-on-ones (with bigger, slower linebackers), that's when you really want to use us. We really wanted to get them matched up on us.
And the more you carry it, you start seeing some things up front.
Asked if he could get used to a 15-carry-a-game workload, he smiled and said, "Yeah, I can."
It probably wouldn't be a wise idea to give Sproles 19 offensive touches every week. But Kelly acknowledged that he needs to be more mindful of getting Sproles involved in the offense.
"I thought Darren played really well in all phases," he said. "It's something you continue to see out of him. We see it every day in training.
"It's on us as a staff, we need to continue to get Darren involved. Because he tilts the field a little bit."
Sproles, who led the league in punt return average last season, had averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt in the previous five games as opposing punter didn't give him many good looks.
But after an early 14-yard return of a Ryan Allen punt, special teams coordinator Dave Fipp came to Sproles and told him he probably was going to going to get a chance to take one all the way.
"When they kicked that first one to us, he came to me and said, 'They're going to give us one today,' " Sproles said. "And they sure gave us one."
Sproles got outstanding blocking from the return unit and took it up the left side for his fourth touchdown return as an Eagle and seventh of his career.
It will be interesting to see whether Sproles continues to be heavily involved in the offense in the remaining five regular-season games, particularly if/when Mathews returns.
One thing is certain. The Eagles' offensive linemen enjoyed blocking for Sproles and Barner Sunday.
The Eagles finished with 128 yards on 33 carries.
"I liked it, man," said left tackle Jason Peters. "All three backs got carries and we were rolling. We just knew if we could run the ball and keep (Tom) Brady off the field and keep our defense off the field, that we had a chance.
Asked if there's a difference blocking for Sproles and Barner as opposed to Murray, Peters said, "Uh, they're quicker. They make a cut and get it. You don't really have to stay on your blockers long.
"Murray, he is a pounder. He'll stretch it out longer and try to hit it in there late. But those guys, they see something, they'll hit it quick."
Said right tackle Lane Johnson: "We got some midzone (runs) going early. We creased them a few times. The biggest testament to us was that 12-play drive. We ran it down their throat and went and scored.
"When we're able to run the ball, it takes the pressure off of Sam. It was good that we were able to do that."