Will the Eagles finally play the Jay Ajayi card?
With Carson Wentz and Nick Foles in at quarterback, it may be time for the Eagles to feed new running back Jay Ajayi, or to just rely more on their formidable ground game.
Now would seem to be the time to play the Jay Ajayi card.
For five games, the Eagles bided time with their new running back. They didn't necessarily need Ajayi to carry the load on the ground during that span. And they may not need him to be a workhorse, per se, over the final three games.
But Ajayi can do more than he has since the Eagles acquired him from the Dolphins on Halloween. And with quarterback Carson Wentz done for the season and Nick Foles tossed into the cauldron, the Eagles will likely need additional carries from the 24-year-old tailback if they are to stoke their chances of securing home field throughout the playoffs.
And, most important, advance in the postseason.
It took a half on Sunday, but Ajayi finally saw touches comparable to the amount he typically received in Miami. He logged 11 carries in the second half of the Eagles' win over the Rams. While he didn't match the production he had before the break – four rushes for 49 yards – Ajayi helped nail down the NFC East-clinching victory after Wentz left.
"I just run the plays that coaches call," Ajayi said Thursday. "Obviously, last week I was in there a lot more. Just taking advantage of the opportunities and just playing my game. If that just means I'm out there more, then it is what it is, and I embrace the role."
In his first three games with the Eagles, Ajayi averaged 6.7 carries per game and played 25 percent of the time. In the last two games, he has averaged 12 carries and played 45 percent.
"His production and his touches are going up each week," Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Wednesday. "He's really fit in well. Still learning the protection aspect of it and some of the routes that we do with the backs, but [I] really feel like he's come a long way in understanding our offense."
LeGarrette Blount was the early choice in the backfield in the last two weeks. And Corey Clement has been the primary running back on third down. But Ajayi has dipped into each well and could drink more from the trough with each passing week in the system.
"I know the playbook," Ajayi said.
The sample is small – 44 carries — but Ajayi is averaging 7 yards per run. And his yards after contact with the Eagles (3.8 yards) has been consistent with his average from last season – an NFL third-best 3.5 yards.
Before the trade, Ajayi averaged only 2.8 yards after contact with the Dolphins this season. Defenses were stacking the box against Miami's pass-inept offense. With Foles, coordinators are likely to test the Eagles quarterback and could have as many as eight men near the line.
"It's happened in my career before," Ajayi said, "so I wouldn't be surprised if it happens again."
Blount's yards after contact (3.74 avg.) rank third in the NFL, but he hasn't broken as many tackles over the last two games (1.73). While Blount's production last season with the Patriots waned in December, the Eagles got this far by not relying too much on one tailback.
"We haven't had any further conversation other than our normal conversation about designating plays for backs," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "And then there's always the hot-hand thing that Coach Pederson has talked about, and just letting it roll from there and see how it plays out game-by-game."
The Eagles' 54-47 run-pass ratio makes them the 7th-most balanced offense in the NFL. Pederson has favored the pass more over the last three games – throwing 61 percent of the time – but the Eagles trailed throughout the Seahawks game.
Pederson and company would never publicly admit that they plan on running more, but the cold months have traditionally led to more ground-and-pound than chuck-and-duck.
"I feel regardless of whether Carson's back there or Nick, late in the year it's time to make sure your run game is on point," Ajayi said, "especially leading into the playoffs."
Sidney Jones has yet to be activated to the 53-man roster, but the rookie cornerback's first official NFL practice on Wednesday brought the Eagles' 2017 draft class back into the spotlight.
Jones, who suffered an Achilles tendon rupture in March, is unlikely to play this season. The Eagles always knew it was a long shot. Selecting him in the second round wasn't about the immediate future. While there were other second-round prospects who could have helped the Eagles this season, it's too soon to evaluate his worth.
In the first round, the Eagles took defensive end Derek Barnett. He has had a very good first year. Barnett has five sacks in 13 games – a high tally even for a first rounder – and is poised to be a top-end edge rusher for years to come.
With Jones' absence, Rasul Douglas moved up the cornerback depth chart. He wasn't active in the first game, but injuries forced him not only onto the game-day roster but also into the starting lineup. Douglas didn't bat an eye. Over the next eight games, however, his play declined, along with his playing time.
Douglas has potential, but the Eagles' depth at cornerback could force him to wait his turn down the road.
When the Eagles drafted Mack Hollins in the fourth round, they highlighted his special-teams ability. He was expected to contribute immediately, but not as much as a receiver. Hollins hasn't played a lot on offense, but he's caught 13 of 16 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown. He's in line for a promotion.
The Eagles traded up for running back Donnel Pumphrey in the fourth round. He made the 53-man roster but was inactive for Week 1. A week later, the Eagles said he injured his hamstring and placed him on season-ending Injured Reserve. Whether the injury was serious enough to warrant a trip to IR, the early returns on Pumphrey haven't been positive.
Receiver Shelton Gibson was selected a round later. He struggled throughout training camp and didn't dress for the first 10 games. He's been up for the last three games and has played almost entirely on special teams.
Sixth-round linebacker Nate Gerry didn't make the initial 53-man roster but was signed to the practice squad. The Eagles called him up before Game 7, and he has been active since, playing exclusively on special teams.
A late preseason push propelled defensive tackle Elijah Qualls onto the team. He has played in five games because of injuries to other players. Gibson, Gerry, and Qualls might be nothing more than bottom-of-the-roster players, but the next off-season will go a long way in deciding whether they have greater potential.
Clement wasn't drafted, but he's contributed as much as any rookie. The running back has 290 rushing yards, 116 receiving yards, and five touchdowns. He's also played meaningful snaps on special teams and is fourth on the team with seven tackles.
Kicker Jake Elliott wasn't drafted or signed before the season, but he has become a valuable member. The Eagles plucked him off the Bengals' practice squad after Caleb Sturgis injured his hip. While he's had a blip here and there, he's been dynamite from deep, connecting on 16 of 18 field goal attempts beyond 40 yards, including a 61-yard buzzer-beater against the Giants.
Foles knows the no-huddle.
From 2013-14, that was about all the quarterback did in Chip Kelly's frenzied offense. Speed was the name of the former Eagles coach's game, and whenever a play was changed based on a pre-snap read of the defense, it wasn't the quarterback who made the audible. The new play came from the sideline.
The Eagles offense under Pederson is traditional. While Wentz wasn't given the full playbook, he did have the option in certain scenarios, most of them in up-tempo, to check to one or two different plays.
"As a quarterback, you love it," Foles said Tuesday. "You love to have a head coach that does stuff like that. I think switching up the speeds of the game is tough for a defense, because that's something they have to work on in practice throughout the week. You can sort of get them on their heels."
The Eagles had great success with their tempo offense before Wentz's season-ending knee injury, particularly over the last seven games. During that span, aside from end-of-half or late-game situations, the Eagles went no-huddle on 19 possessions and scored 11 touchdowns and three field goals.
While Foles has experience in Pederson's offense, having played in the original version for Andy Reid in Kansas City, he didn't go up-tempo in two games last season. Pederson said that Foles would have the same freedom as Wentz in no-huddle situations.
"As a quarterback," Foles said, "it's fun to choose your owns plays at times."
Five questions: Stefen Wisniewski
If you couldn't play the position you now play in the NFL, which position would you want to play? Defensive end, because if you have one great play a game, you had a great game.
What's your least favorite part of the week of practice leading up to a game? You do anything over and over again, it can start to get boring. So, just trying to stay mentally fresh, trying to remain curious and always grow and learn is a challenge.
What's the hardest you've ever been hit? I think it was by [linebacker] Rey Maualuga. I think it was in college, actually. I played him in the NFL, too. I remember pulling around, and I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, I feel like I just got hit by a truck.' "
What's your favorite play you ever made in football? Well, I'm a lineman, so it's probably not that exciting. I do have one touchdown in my life. I barely remember it. I was 10 years old. But I caught a touchdown pass as a fullback. I motioned out to the left, ran a "go" route, and caught a touchdown pass.
If you didn't play football, what career do you think you would have? I studied education as an undergrad, so I think I might enjoy being a high school English teacher and a football coach, probably at a Catholic school like the one I went to.
Inside the game
— Wisniewski's ankle injury understandably got overshadowed by Wentz's season-ending knee injury, but his absence in the last three quarters of the Rams game was significant.
The Eagles scored 21 points on four drives with Wisniewski and then only three points over their next four possessions with Chance Warmack or Isaac Seumalo at left guard. The offense did tally 16 points on its final six possessions despite Seumalo's presence.
The second-year offensive lineman lost the starting spot after a particularly dreadful outing against the Chiefs in Week 2. While Seumalo had to contend with Rams all-pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald for most of his snaps, he struggled against all the linemen he faced.
Wisniewski is a long shot to play Sunday against the New York Giants. He didn't practice on Wednesday and was limited on Thursday. One of Wisniewski's strengths, per Eagles center Jason Kelce, is that he brings a center's mentality to the guard position.
"Wiz is tremendous player, and he's offered a lot to our offense, not just from a physicality standpoint but a mental standpoint," Kelce said. "He's very involved in the game plan."
Kelce said that the offensive line was confident in Seumalo and Warmack and offered the reminder that Wisniewski and Warmack split snaps the last time the Eagles faced the Giants. But after three games with the rotation, and after it became abundantly clear who was playing better, Warmack was sent to the bench.
— Someone had to be the odd man out, and it's been Wendell Smallwood.
When the Eagles traded for Ajayi before the trade deadline, they increased the number of running backs on their roster to five.
"Normally you don't have five running backs active," Smallwood said.
The Eagles did for the first game with Ajayi, but only because tight end Zach Ertz was a late scratch. Since then, Smallwood hasn't dressed in four games. Ajayi, Blount, Clement, and Kenjon Barner have been ahead of him.
It's been a precipitous fall for the second-year back. As a rookie, Smallwood rushed 77 times and came into this year's training camp poised to have a more featured role. He was an early standout, but he suffered a hamstring injury – just the latest in a series of setbacks since the Eagles drafted him in the fifth round.
"I don't think it's been in my control," Smallwood said of the injuries. "I've been working hard since I got here. Some things are just out of my hands. It's all about how I deal with it."
Smallwood missed two games in October with a knee injury. He got snaps the following three games but has slipped down the depth chart.
"I felt like I got behind when I wasn't out there after I got hurt," Smallwood said. "It slowed me down."
Inside the locker room
— Zach Ertz suffered the second concussion of his NFL career on Dec. 3 against the Seahawks. The first occurred two years ago, against the Buccaneers. In each case, the Eagles tight end left the game early and missed the following week.
"It's tough. You don't ever want to have brain injuries," Ertz said. "With an ankle, if you're 95 percent, you're good to go. If your body is 95 percent this time of year, you're in great shape. But if your brain's at 95 percent, that's not good news."
Ertz had plans to wear a helmet designed by VICIS to protect against concussion this season, but the model didn't fit. His mother, Lisa, joined VICIS' coalition of advisers in January.
Lisa Ertz has four sons, all of whom have played competitive sports. Shane had his football career end after he suffered a second concussion – one that knocked him out for minutes — in high school. The first occurred while playing basketball.
"Obviously, you know the impact in the game. Concussions are very real," Zach Ertz said. "The protocols are for the players' benefit now. I thought this one wasn't as serious as the last one. The last one, we just had to play on Thursday."
Ertz cleared the protocol after Sunday's game against the Rams and has practiced all week.
— NFL Films recounted Wentz's season-ending knee injury this week and provided sound of Ajayi reacting from the sideline after the quarterback collided with two Rams defenders.
"Gotta stop doing that," Ajayi said.
Wentz's fearlessness and willingness to sacrifice his body has led to countless big plays, but there has been a concern that he sometimes puts his health at risk.
"Knowing the kind of player that Carson is, he's a baller, he's relentless, and he makes plays on his feet, so you got to take kind of the good with the bad," Ajayi said Thursday. "It was really just coming from seeing the hit. You never really want to see your guy, No. 11, I never want to see him take hits like that."
By the numbers
27.7: Percentage of missed tackles (7) by Rodney McLeod in run defense snaps (194), which is first among NFL starting safeties.
15.5: Average yards per catch by Mack Hollins (13 receptions, 201 yards), which is third among drafted rookie wide receivers. Detroit's Kenny Golladay (18.9) is first, and Pittsburgh's JuJu Smith-Schuster (15.8) is second.
27.3: Percentage of missed tackles (12) defenders have had on Ajayi's carries (44) since he joined the Eagles, which is third among NFL running backs with more than 35 rushes over that span. New Orlean's Alvin Kamara (37.8) is first, and Tennessee's Derrick Henry (29.3) is second.