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Domowitch: Eagles hit ground running

DOUG PEDERSON is a former quarterback. And as a former quarterback, you might think his offensive preference would be to throw the ball a hundred times a game.

DOUG PEDERSON is a former quarterback. And as a former quarterback, you might think his offensive preference would be to throw the ball a hundred times a game.

But it's not. In fact, Pederson is the guy who finally convinced Andy Reid of the importance of a balanced offense.

And he's the guy who knew that if the Eagles were going to beat the Falcons Sunday, it was going to be by controlling the football with the run game, not by getting into a throwing contest with the guy who happened to lead the league in passing yards and touchdown passes, Matt Ryan.

"That's an explosive offense (the Falcons have)," Pederson said after his team's huge 24-15 win at the Linc. "I felt we were going to have to possess the ball (to beat them). And in order to do that, I thought that the running game was going to have to be a huge factor.

"They've got a good, young defense and they're going to win a lot of games this year. But I just felt, gut instinct, watching the film, knowing our guys, relying on our offensive line, the run game was going to be a big part of my plan."

That plan, of course, depended on the Eagles being able to run the ball, which is something they often weren't able to do in the first half of the season.

They came into the game ranked 17th in rushing yards per game (107.8) and 21st in yards per carry (4.0). They rushed for 133 yards in a season-opening win over the Browns, then had just one more game with more than 120 rushing yards (125 vs. Pittsburgh).

In their previous four games, they had averaged just 97 rushing yards.

In back-to-back division losses to the Cowboys and Giants, rookie quarterback Carson Wentz threw a total of 90 passes, while the Eagles ran the ball just 49 times.

"We weren't being as efficient running it," center Jason Kelce said. "Playcallers call the plays that are working. That's usually the way it works.

"Today, right out of the gate we established the run. And that just gives (Pederson) more confidence to call running plays."

The Eagles ran the ball eight times on their first possession, driving 81 yards on 12 plays with Ryan Mathews scoring from 4 yards out.

By game's end, they had amassed a season-high 208 yards on 38 carries. Notched a season-high 12 rushing first downs and had seven runs of 10-plus yards.

Mathews, who had just four carries against the Cowboys and five against the Giants, and appeared to have been supplanted by Darren Sproles as the team's primary ball carrier, had his most productive game as an Eagle, rushing for 109 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries.

With the Eagles planning to attack the Falcons' defense primarily between the tackles, Pederson felt the 6-0, 200-pound Mathews and 5-10, 208-pound rookie Wendell Smallwood (70 yards on 13 carries) were better-suited running weapons against the Falcons than the 5-6, 185-pound Sproles.

It also freed him to use Sproles more in the role he's played most of his career - a receiver. The 33-year-old Sproles, who had 28 carries against the Cowboys and Giants and was on pace for a career-high 118 rushing attempts, had just two carries (for 19 yards) Sunday, but caught a team-high eight passes from Wentz.

"I've always had confidence in Ryan Mathews," Pederson said. "I think what you saw today is the guy that I kept seeing, the guy we all wanted to see.

"This running game was a little bit between the tackles. We had some designed outside-the-tackle runs, but having that bigger back, and again, just the confidence in Ryan to get the job done and having his size and his strength, paid off for us today."

Mathews came into the game with a team-high five rushing touchdowns, but was averaging just 3.8 yards per carry. He had a late fumble against the Lions in Week 4 that contributed to a 24-23 loss.

"We knew it was going to be a hard game," Mathews said. "Whoever got the ball was going to give 100 percent. My line played great today. You have to give it to them. They really did all they could do to open up holes for us today."

The line, which has been up and down much of the season, had its best collective run-blocking performance of the season. They took the fight to the Falcons' front seven right from the start and never let up.

Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich used 6-4, 303-pound rookie guard Isaac Seumalo as a second or third tight end on about a dozen run plays to give the line more blocking heft.

"What a lot of teams do, especially this team (the Falcons), they take a big guy who's actually a defensive tackle and put him out on the tight end," Kelce said. "That can be problematic in terms of weight and size and everything like that for pass-catching tight ends who are designed to run (pass) routes.

"Brent (Celek) is one of the best blocking tight ends in the league. But whenever you can put another big guy in there and establish a bigger edge for the defense to defense, it can open up some more lanes."

Many of those lanes were inside, which is where much of the Eagles' 208 rushing yards came.

"We're an inside running team," Kelce said. "We get to the outside runs. But if you look since (offensive line coach) Jeff Stoutland's been here, he's big on crushing stacks and moving people off the line of scrimmage. That's kind of his MO. And we were having success with it today. So they kept calling it."

The Eagles' run success Sunday helped keep the ball out of the red-hot Ryan's hands -the Eagles had the ball 16-plus minutes longer (38:10) than the Falcons (just 21:50). It also took the pressure off of Wentz.

Wentz had some more rookie moments Sunday and failed to throw a touchdown pass for the second straight week. But he also didn't throw an interception and attempted just 36 passes, which is a little more manageable than the 47 passes he threw last week against the Giants.

"Anytime you can run the ball as effectively as we did today, it's going to help any quarterback," Pederson said. "It just opens up a little bit more of your offense and play-action game, things like that.

"I give credit to the offensive line. They really took the challenge to heart and did a great job up front. And the tight ends blocked well. Not only Ryan, but Wendell stepping in and did a nice job."


* For the sixth time in nine games, the Eagles held their opponent without a score on their first two possessions.

* The Eagles scored on their first possession for the fifth time this season. They've scored 23 points on their first possession.

* The Eagles' first touchdown drive lasted 7:14. It was their longest touchdown drive timewise this season.

* Their 38:10 time of possession against the Falcons was the Eagles' second highest of the season. They controlled the ball for 39:20 in their Week 1 win over Cleveland.

* Carson Wentz, who had thrown seven touchdown passes in his first four starts this season, has just two in his last five starts.

* The Falcons, who came into the game ranked 10th in the league in third-down efficiency, converted just 2 of 11 third-downs against the Eagles. Matt Ryan completed just five of 10 third-down attempts. Just one of those five completions resulted in a first down.

* Wentz, who was just 4-for-11 with one passing first down on third down in last week's loss to the Giants, was 8-for-11 Sunday, with four passing first downs on third down.

* The Falcons' 15 points, 303 net yards, 11 first downs and 48 offensive plays all were season lows. They entered the game ranked first in the league in scoring. They were averaging 33.9 points per game.

* The Falcons were the fifth team that the Eagles have held to 15 points or less.

* Ryan Mathews, who had two rushing TDs against the Falcons, has seven for the season. He's just the fifth Eagle in history to record seven or more rushing touchdowns in the first nine games of a season.

* With Sunday's win, the Eagles now are 4-0 at the Linc this season. They are one of just four teams in the league that still are undefeated at home. The other three: Houston, Kansas City and the team that will be hosting the Eagles next week, Seattle.

* Matt Ryan had just 18 completions against the Eagles. That's the fewest he's had in a game since Nov. 29, 2012, when he also had 18 completions in a win over New Orleans.

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