Jay Ajayi wants the running backs to eat. Doug Pederson says he wants to feed them.
The proof will be in the pudding.
Eagles running backs carried the ball just 12 times for 55 yards in their 23-21 loss to the Vikings on Sunday. Their first four offensive plays were passing plays, which netted minus-8 yards: incompletion, 3-yard pass, 15-yard sack, then punt; then, a 4-yard completion.
Ajayi, the Eagles' No. 1 running back, finished the game with just eight carries for 29 yards in what will be the last game of his season. He tore an ACL, presumably late in a pass-heavy loss to the visiting Vikings on Sunday. Ajayi fumbled at the Vikings' 5-yard line early in the third quarter but returned to the game after that play. His final carry was a 6-yard run in the fourth quarter that was negated by a formation penalty. Curiously, he showed no signs of injury at his locker after the game — certainly not an injury as severe as a torn ACL, especially for a player who has chronic knee problems.
His injury, while particularly unfortunate for a player whose contract expires this season and whose 2-3 team needs every offensive weapon, is coincidental to the issue at hand. Consider his suggestion a parting gift for the rest of the running-back unit.
Asked Sunday evening if he wanted the running game to have a chance to find a rhythm early, Ajayi replied:
"Obviously, you want to be able to run the ball early. And start that rhythm early, in the beginning of the game. And I think that, if I remember correctly, we had, like, three carries in the first quarter [actually, two]. With this offensive line we have on our team, when we're running the ball — that doesn't make sense."
The Eagles had just four running plays in the first half, excluding the final throwaway play of the half. Pederson said he considered the run-pass option play that he called to start the game to be a running play, but, of course, quarterback Carson Wentz opted to pass. That play almost ended catastrophically, since Wentz opted to keep the ball and throw to Alshon Jeffery, who was blanketed by Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
"We'd love to have balance," said Pederson, who calls the plays. "We just got in a situation where we fell behind."
That doesn't hold water for the first 29 minutes of the game. They never trailed by more than seven points in their first five possessions of the first half.
When the Eagles did commit to the run, Ajayi's observations gained merit and the Eagles gained yards. They began the third quarter with a 67-yard drive that included five runs for 31 yards — which ended, of course, with Ajayi's fumble. He took full responsibility for that fumble — his self-flagellation could hardly have been more severe — but the guilt did not temper his desire to keep the Birds grounded.
"I know the game can get away sometimes," Ajayi said. "You have a game plan and everything. But I think you see what happens when we run the ball. We're productive. If we can get rolling with that, I think we can do a good job."
Is he talking about setting an early tone?
"I'm talking about all game. Whenever we were running the ball, we were getting 5, 6 yards a clip," he said.
That isn't completely accurate, of course, but it's understandable why Ajayi thinks that. Seven of the Eagles' 12 runs by backs went for 5 yards or more; again, excluding the throwaway at the end of the first half. The Eagles got pass-happy after Vikings converted Ajayi's fumble into a field goal and a 20-3 lead midway through the third quarter.
Pederson did not mention the Vikings' solid run defense as a reason he opted to throw so much. It ranked 13th against the run and 23rd against the pass. But running the ball is an area of strength for the Eagles.
They were third in total rushing last season and tied for third with 4.5 yards per attempt, but they also were second in the league in first-quarter scoring last season, at 6.4 points per game. They're second to last this season, at 1.4. Pederson insists it's the team's slow starts that have limited the commitment to running the ball.
"We've got to figure out how to start games faster. Stay on the field longer. And generate points early in football games," Pederson said. "The times we've had success, we've been able to score on opening drives, get the lead early, which allows for your running game to take over. Play-action pass. All of that."
Almost every NFL team understands that passing wins championships, but at this point, the Eagles need to understand that they aren't a championship-caliber team.
The offensive line is struggling in pass protection. They replaced left guard Stefen Wisniewski on Sunday with road grader Isaac Seumalo, who surrendered one of three sacks of Carson Wentz. As for Wentz, he is still finding his legs and adjusting to the speed of the game after he missed the first two games recovering from a knee injury suffered in December. He's been sacked 12 times in his three starts. Obviously, a running game would protect him.
In their past two games, both losses, the Eagles have called 98 pass plays (including sacks and Wentz improvised runs).
They have called 32 running plays.
They are 0-2. And, now, they are without their best back.
"I love to run the football," Pederson said. "I think our guys are good at it."
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