LeGarrette Blount holds off Father Time, Jay Ajayi
The Eagles running back is carrying the ball less than he did at this time last season with the Patriots. Will it pay off down the stretch or will new running back Jay Ajayi play more of a role?
When LeGarrette Blount hurdled Eddie Jackson on Sunday, it looked almost as if he had used a vault board to launch himself over the Bears safety.
Jackson had dipped to the ground, so Blount's vertical looked higher than it really was. But the running back said that he had jumped over standing defenders before.
"I've gotten pretty high up before," Blount said Thursday. "I've probably gotten a guy that was standing straight up a few years ago."
Few in Philadelphia could have imagined him reaching such heights at the age of 30 and in late November. Even offensive coordinator Frank Reich said that he didn't expect this version of Blount when the Eagles signed the free agent in April.
"I've been a little bit surprised at his athleticism and agility," Reich said Tuesday. "It was more than I thought."
Blount came with the reputation of being a power back. And at 6-foot, 250 pounds, he has certainly brought heft. But he's also deceptively quick, and when he gets rolling he's like a runaway train.
"I said to him last week in practice, and I wasn't exaggerating, I thought he looked faster … than he's looked all year," Reich said.
Maybe it was how he looked in practice, or maybe not, but Blount continued to be the featured running back on Sunday, rushing 15 times for 97 yards. In fact, since the Eagles traded for Jay Ajayi, Blount's average number of carries per game has stayed essentially the same.
In the first eight games, he averaged 12.5 rushes. In the last three, after the 24-year-old Ajayi arrived from the Dolphins, he has averaged 12.3.
"It's situational," Blount said. "Some games you can get no carries. Some games you can get 10 carries. Some games you can get 15 carries. … There's a lot of things that play a factor into how many carries you get.
"You can't go into the game and expect 15 to 20 carries, and you go out there and get six. You set yourself up for disappointment."
Ajayi, who averaged 19.7 carries a game with Miami, has gotten 6.7 rushes with the Eagles. Coach Doug Pederson said after the trade that his new running back would need time to assimilate. The style of defenses the Eagles have faced the last two weeks have called for more of the north-to-south running from Blount, per Pederson.
"It's a new role for Jay, too," Pederson said. "He's not 'the guy,' so to speak, but he's fit in well."
There was some speculation that Ajayi was unhappy with his limited role following the win over the Bears, but Pederson said that the running back was upset only because he had fumbled in the game. Blount fumbled twice.
Ajayi has been unavailable to interview thus far this week.
While Blount has remained the lead horse for the Eagles, he is carrying the ball significantly less than last season with the Patriots. Through 11 games, he averaged 19.3 rushes in 2016. His production decreased in the final five games and three postseason games, though.
After averaging 4.1 yards in the first 11 games, his yards per carry dropped to 3.3 over the final eight. The Eagles have been prudent in their use of Blount.
"I think that's a good number of carries," Reich said. "Who knows how it will end up playing out? Hopefully, we keep things rolling the way they are. But as we know, and we've seen it happen here, next week it could be Jay getting the bulk of the carries."
Blount credited the Eagles' practices, not the fewer carries, with his fresh legs.
"We grind harder than a lot of teams in this league," he said.
But there aren't many 30-plus running backs – Blount turns 31 on Tuesday – who have averaged 4.8 yards per rush, as he is. He credited the Eagles offensive line, but Blount leads the NFL in yards after contact at 2.91.
"I'm not getting hit by d-linemen and linebackers," Blount said. "I'm getting hit by [defensive backs] and occasionally a linebacker here and there."
After Darren Sproles' season-ending injury, Blount became the Eagles' oldest running back by four years. But that doesn't mean he has rested on his laurels.
"He has some plays here and there in practice where you're like, 'Is he coasting on this one?'" rookie running back Corey Clement said. "No, LeGarrette goes full speed every single play he gets, and that's what you out of a veteran. He sets an example of how to practice."
Rasul Douglas knew what was coming when Ronald Darby returned from an eight-game layoff. The Eagles cornerback, who mostly filled in for Darby in his absence, would be relegated to the bench and must bide his time until another opportunity arose.
Douglas wants to play, but the rookie said that he couldn't fret over every hypothetical.
"I can't worry about everything else because if I did, maybe I would look at it like if I had been this way now in the summer, maybe they don't bring in Darby," Douglas said. "You can always look at it different ways, and I don't ever look at it."
The third-round draft pick opened training camp as the first-team outside cornerback in nickel personnel. Patrick Robinson started there. But after the first preseason game, the Eagles traded receiver Jordan Matthews to the Bills for Darby.
Less than a half into the season, Darby dislocated his ankle. Douglas wasn't the next man up, though. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz turned to Jaylen Watkins and had him start opposite Jalen Mills the following week at Kansas City. But Watkins suffered a hamstring strain early in the game, and Douglas finally got his chance.
He played well and started the next two games but eventually had only a part-time role as Schwartz shuffled Robinson and Watkins into the outside spot. Douglas notched 30 tackles, 11 pass breakups and two interceptions over an eight-game span.
Douglas didn't play on defense against the Cowboys in Darby's first game back. But he did log 11 snaps during mop-up time against the Bears on Sunday. He had three pass breakups and two tackles.
"I know I can play with the elite guys, and I know I belong here," Douglas said. "I think it showed my teammates and my coaches that they can trust me whenever my number does get called again."
The Eagles seemingly have as much depth at cornerback as they've had in years. While the 30-year-old Robinson isn't under contract next year, Darby, Mills and Douglas are. And second-round rookie Sidney Jones, who is likely to miss this season as he recovers from an Achilles tendon rupture, will be back in the fold and likely given every opportunity to earn a starting spot.
Shelton Gibson said that he found out last Tuesday that he would be active against the Bears for his first NFL game.
"I was very excited," the Eagles rookie wide receiver said. "I haven't been out there for a long time."
Gibson, drafted in the fifth round, didn't dress for the first 10 games of the season. But the Eagles felt like "spreading the love a little bit," according to offensive coordinator Frank Reich, and had Gibson up ahead of Marcus Johnson on Sunday.
He played only four snaps on offense without a target and eight snaps on special teams, but Gibson said that he has made vast improvement since May.
"I think it's just being a pro," said Gibson, who had struggled with catching the ball in training camp, "and just being around all these vets and learning how to do things the right way."
The Eagles' success and a recent spate of blowing teams out has allowed coach Doug Pederson the opportunity to play his reserves in the fourth quarter. Youngsters such as receiver Mack Hollins, offensive lineman Isaac Seumalo, cornerback Rasul Douglas and linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill have benefitted.
"Without looking too far down the road, if you're in position, these guys might get to play again toward the end of the season," Pederson said. "We'll see where we're at."
Seumalo, who lost the starting left guard job after the second game, has been the reserve swing tackle since Jason Peters' season-ending injury.
"I'll jump at any chance to play and at any position," Seumalo said. "I'm obviously just focusing on tackle right now. Hopefully, it gives the coaches and everybody assurances that whatever happens we have a guy that can play there."
FIVE QUESTIONS: MACK HOLLINS
If you couldn't play the position you now play in the NFL, which position would you want to play? Maybe kicker. I don't know if I could kick, but that would be fun.
What's your least favorite part of the practice week leading up to a game? Probably Friday or Saturday when you're so close to the game, but you're still preparing, and you've seen [the opposing team on film and in practice] so many times.
What's the hardest you've ever been hit? In college I got hit hard. It was on kickoff, and I wasn't looking at all.
What's your favorite play you ever made in football? There was a punt return in college where I blocked one guy and chased down and blocked another guy as we broke for the touchdown.
If you didn't play football what career do you think you would have? Something either with snakes or animals or electronics.
INSIDE THE GAME
— When the Eagles played at the Seahawks last year, they committed two false start penalties, both by tackle Jason Peters. While he won't be on the field on Sunday, the offense will face the same daunting challenge at one of the NFL's loudest stadiums.
"It's among the most difficult," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said of CenturyLink Field. "In another respect, loud is loud, and once you're using the silent count, you're using a silent count."
There are several ways to use a silent count. If the quarterback is under center, he'll typically press up against the center to signal when he wants the snap, and the guards and tackles will watch the ball.
In the shotgun, the Eagles use a system of communications between quarterback Carson Wentz, right guard Brandon Brooks and center Jason Kelce. Wentz lifts his right leg when he wants to ball. Brooks, looking back, then taps Kelce on his right thigh, and Kelce turns his head as he snaps the ball to signal the rest of the linemen.
"The real key is on the quarterback and the o-line to be able to continue to mix it up," Reich said.
One way to mix the silent count so that defensive linemen can't time their releases is to change the pace of the signals. The Eagles, who had four false starts at home this past Sunday, will have their work cut out against Seattle's quick-twitch ends – Michael Bennett and Frank Clark.
— The Eagles offense is not only among the best on third down (third in the NFL) but also on fourth down (second). One of the big reasons why they have converted 11 of 18 tries (73.3 percent) is because they have seemingly perfected the quarterback sneak.
Wentz is a perfect 8 of 8 sneaking on fourth-and-1 – he's also 1 for 1 on third-and-1. His size and athleticism help, but the push that interior linemen Kelce, Brooks and left guard Stefen Wisniewski have gotten is key.
"I think we feel confident in 4th-and-1 situations," Reich said. "Coach [Doug Pederson] is aggressive. I think we have a handful of plays and packages that we have ready for that. Certainly that quarterback sneak has been working well, but we have a few others up our sleeve, as well."
INSIDE THE LOCKER ROOM
— Malcolm Jenkins is a man of many messages, but he doesn't use just his platform as a NFL player to bring awareness to social and racial injustice.
He likes to use fashion.
The Eagles safety, who owns a menswear store in Philadelphia, often wears designer clothes. But he isn't against dressing down in T-shirts. And those shirts are often emblazoned with a saying or message.
For instance, on Thursday Jenkins wore a shirt that read, "Black by Popular Demand."
Some of his teammates benefit from Jenkins' sartorial sense and shop at his store. Cornerback Patrick Robinson had a garment bag from "Damari Savile" – the name of Jenkins' store – hanging in his stall.
And cornerback Sidney Jones tugged a shirt from Jenkins' Foundation over his head. It read: "Be as one. Rise as one. Fly as one."
BY THE NUMBERS
Yards per carry on first down by the Eagles, tops in the NFL.
Receiving yards from the slot by Nelson Agholor, fifth-best in the league.
Percentage of third down and shorts (one or two yards) opposing offenses have converted against the Eagles defense, lowest in the league.