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Carson Wentz is irreplaceable, but effective ground game would help Nick Foles immensely

The Eagles' third-ranked run game hasn't been nearly as potent lately as it was earlier in the season. Without Carson Wentz, they need that to change if they are going to win their first playoff game since 2008.

Eagles quarterback Nick Foles signals with offensive guard Brandon Brooks against the Oakland Raiders on Monday, December 25, 2017 in Philadelphia.
Eagles quarterback Nick Foles signals with offensive guard Brandon Brooks against the Oakland Raiders on Monday, December 25, 2017 in Philadelphia.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

The subject of the conversation with Brandon Brooks was the playoff readiness of the Eagles' run game. But it's difficult to talk about any aspect of the Eagles' offense without Carson Wentz's name coming up.

"Until he was injured, I don't think people realized how special Carson was playing,'' said the Eagles' Pro Bowl right guard. "He was playing at an unmatched level.

"[Nick] Foles is a great quarterback. He's proved himself. We've seen what he's done. But we need to pick it up in the run game. It will only help him.''

NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger went back and watched every offensive play the Eagles ran this season with Wentz behind center this week for a piece he's doing for the network on the injured quarterback.

"You just forget how good he is, and how crisp the offense was with him,'' Baldinger said. "And the precision of his passes. And the decision-making. And the ability to extend plays.

"All that is gone now. That's not a knock on Nick. There's just no other athlete like Carson in this league. When you watch the offense now, there's just a stark contrast between the two players.''

You don't have to have played in the NFL for more than a decade like Baldinger did to come to that conclusion.

Nick Foles isn't Carson Wentz. You know it, I know it, he knows it. He can't do the amazing things Wentz can do.

But that doesn't mean the Eagles can't make a deep playoff run with him as their quarterback. It just means they have to do things a little differently. And a little better.

And as Doug Pederson so eloquently pointed out on Tuesday, that starts with running the football.

"We have to get better in the run game,'' the Eagles coach said.

Ground and Pound

The Eagles finished third in the league in rushing this season, averaging 132.2 yards a game. During their nine-game win streak this season, they averaged 161.9 rushing yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry.

But they weren't nearly as productive in their final five regular-season games. They averaged 98.4 rushing yards per game and 4.0 yards per carry in those games.

The Eagles had just 19 rushing first downs in their final four games and didn't have a rushing touchdown in their last six games.

Jay Ajayi, who was acquired by the Eagles right before the league trade deadline in late October, averaged 7.0 yards per carry in his first five games with the Eagles, but only 3.9 in his last two.

He had 10 rushing first downs and nine double-digit-yard runs on 44 carries in those first five games, and just two rushing first downs and three double-digit-yard runs in 26 carries in his last two games.

Ajayi's importance to the Eagles' playoff hopes were obvious Wednesday during the team's first pre-playoff practice. The 24-year-old running back with the arthritic knees didn't practice.

Pederson is handling Ajayi much the same way he did wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in the preseason. With the utmost care. He is determined to get him to the starting line in one piece.

"They know they have to win with their running game,'' Baldinger said. "I expect them to get that cranked up.''

Winning in the trenches

It wouldn't be surprising to see the Eagles pull out many of their run-game tricks next week, including using offensive linemen Isaac Seumalo as a third tight end and often going with an unbalanced formation.

The return of left guard Stefen Wisniewski should be a big plus for the Eagles' run game. He missed the two games against the Giants and Raiders with an ankle injury. But he played 51 snaps Sunday against the Cowboys and held up fine.

"I was glad to be able to play and practice this week and shake the rust off and be ready to go,'' Wisniewski said.

In the two games Wisniewski missed, the Eagles averaged just 3.9 yards per carry.

"I don't know exactly what the numbers were, but we were one of the top run teams in the league this year,'' Wisniewski said. "Obviously, we'll be hoping to continue that in the playoffs. I don't see any reason why we wouldn't be able to do that. It's kind of who we are.''

Baldinger said defenses aren't really playing the Eagles any differently, even with Foles at quarterback. At least not yet.

"Most teams play down-and-distance about the same,'' he said. I don't see anybody sitting there in an eight-man front saying, 'Check out of this.' I don't really see that.''

The Eagles didn't run the ball on first down against the Giants and Raiders nearly as well as they did in the previous five games following the Ajayi trade. Ajayi averaged 7.35 yards per carry on first down in his first five games with the Eagles. Against the Giants and Raiders, he averaged 1.85 yards on first down.

While Wentz navigated the difficult waters of third-and-long better than any quarterback in the league this season – he had an NFL-best 133.0 passer rating on third downs of eight yards or more – Foles needs more manageable third-down situations.

In the last five quarters Foles has played, the Eagles have converted just one of 17 third-down opportunities. The offense's inability to stay on the field has impacted the run game.

"They're not able to get into any kind of rhythm because they haven't been able to stay on the field,'' Baldinger said. "They've got to start converting some third downs.''

With Wisniewski back, the Eagles seem fairly confident that they'll be able to get the run game back up to speed next week.

Two of their three potential opponents — Carolina and Atlanta – both have top-10 run defenses. The Panthers are third against the run and the Falcons are ninth, though the Falcons are 19th in opponent rush average (4.1).

The Saints own the weakest run defense of the three. They finished 16th in rushing yards allowed per game (111.7) and 28th in yards allowed per carry (4.4).

"We've done it all year,'' Brooks said. "Nothing's changed. We're not just confident in ourselves [up front]. We're confident in the guys behind us [the running backs]. They're all special backs. They all can run the ball well.''