Trade for Jay Ajayi may make Wendell Smallwood Eagles' odd man out
Eagles running back Wendell Smallwood had only two touches against the 49ers and now could see his role reduced more against the Broncos after the addition of Jay Ajayi.
Five is an odd number. It's also the number of running backs the Eagles have after trading for Jay Ajayi.
Of the group, LeGarrette Blount was thought to be the one most directly affected by Ajayi's arrival. And, in terms of snaps and carries per game, that's possible. But one running back is unlikely to dress on Sunday.
And Wendell Smallwood, who had his fewest snaps and carries on Sunday, might be the most plausible candidate to sit Sunday against the Broncos — and in the foreseeable future.
"I don't think there's going to be an odd man out," Smallwood said Thursday. "I think it's going to be a game plan every week, and every week the game plan is different or may stay the same. You never know."
Eagles coaches have said that Smallwood's 13 snaps and one carry against the 49ers were based upon situation. Blount led the way (35 snaps and 16 carries), followed by Corey Clement (19 snaps and 10 carries), Smallwood and Kenjon Barner (four snaps and no carries).
But in the previous three games he played, Smallwood had the most snaps in two and only one less than Blount. Eagles coach Doug Pederson said there was no correlation between Smallwood's reduced playing time against San Francisco and the Tuesday trade deadline move to acquire Ajayi.
And he even said that Smallwood's role wouldn't change.
"Nothing changes with Wendell," Pederson said. "We just keep him coming and keep feeding him when we can."
But Pederson said essentially the same of Blount. Something must change. If Barner didn't return punts, he would likely be the odd man out. But the Eagles kept him on the roster for that reason, which means that he should be active on Sunday.
Clement was behind Smallwood on the offensive depth chart at the start of the season. But he has slowly moved up the pecking order, and Clement has developed into one of the Eagles' key cover guys on special teams.
Smallwood returns kicks, but that is essentially all he does on special teams, and Clement and Barner can also return kicks.
If one of the running backs were clearly above the rest in pass protection, his job on Sunday's would be secure. But no one has been able to block consistently. Smallwood looked improved earlier in the year, but then he suffered a knee injury in Week 4 and missed the next two games.
Injuries have been an issue for Smallwood since he was drafted in the fifth round in 2016. He missed most of training camp last year and the final three games of the season with a knee injury. He started off strong this camp, but another hamstring injury sidelined him during the preseason.
And just when he seemed to be locking down Sproles' third down job, he injured his knee against the Chargers.
"I think it just slowed me down a little bit missing the two games and getting kind of thrown back in there, and them having to sort of ease me in," Smallwood said.
But he averaged only 3.1 yards a carry when he returned against Washington and blocking was back to being an issue.
"Most of our [practice] day is pass protection," Smallwood said. "Running the ball is really not the most important thing. Catching the ball is not. Pass protection. As soon as I step in the building I have to learn protections before I move on to anything."
Assistant coach Duce Staley, himself a top-notch blocker during his playing days, has hammered his chargers with all sorts of blocking and blitz-pick up drills. He's also tasked with easing Ajayi, who left the Dolphins under a cloud of reports about his mentality, into the running back room.
"He's the great equalizer in that room," Pederson said of Staley. He added: "He has the right demeanor to deal with LeGarrette, to deal with Wendell, to deal with all the guys we have."
Smallwood said that group was surprised when they learned of the trade for Ajayi, but that "we knew what we were getting with him and we know they're trying to make this team better."
It was a move made for the short term, but with Ajayi under contract at low cost through next season it was also one made with an eye toward the future. Blount's contract is up after this year, but Smallwood is here for two more years.
Does he worry about his future with the Eagles?
"You got to always have that fire," Smallwood said.
While there isn't a searchable public engine for calculating league-wide blitzes, Doug Pederson said after the 49ers game that the Eagles had the most-blitzed offense in the NFL. True or not, it has seemed like a lot.
Pederson said that defensive coordinators were sending extra pass rushers because of Carson Wentz's mobility. Wentz said he had no idea why he was seemingly seeing more blitzes than other quarterbacks.
"I feel like we've handled it for the most part pretty well," Wentz said Wednesday. "Sometimes [the blitzes] get home. I'm not exactly sure why, but we've got to keep handling it. At the same time, any time a team does pressure there's a chance for big plays."
Most quarterbacks view the blitz as an opportunity. More rushers mean fewer defenders in coverage. Wentz has, overall, been better against the blitz than he was last season when he had a 76.3 passer rating, according to ESPN. He had a 94.3 rating against the blitz through Week 5 and hit receiver Nelson Agholor for a 72-yard touchdown when the Cardinals sent the house last month.
But the Panthers, Redskins and 49ers sent relatively the same number of blitzes the next three games, even if Wentz still had the occasional success.
"We feel like we're pretty good against it, but there's some weeks that you're going to look bad," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "We tell Carson this all the time, 'Hey, you're going to get it wrong one time. You're not going to see something or they are going to disguise it and they could make you look bad.'"
The 49ers blitzed Wentz on just 9 of 37 drops, but he completed just one pass in seven attempts for five yards. He was also sacked twice and scrambled once for a yard.
There are various other theories for why the Eagles are seeing so many blitzes. Darren Sproles was easily their best pass protecting running back. But since he suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 3, the offense has had to rely on LeGarrette Blount, Wendell Smallwood, Corey Clement and Kenjon Barner — and all of them have been inconsistent blockers.
The loss of left tackle Jason Peters could also be a factor, although he suffered his season-ending knee injury only two games ago against the Redskins.
Wentz is the common denominator. As great as he's been this season, his numbers while under pressure haven't been great. While the blitz constitutes only a portion of Pro Football Focus's calculations, Wentz has completed only 32.8 percent of his passes when under pressure (30th in the NFL) and has a 59.8 passer rating (22d).
He said that the Eagles have blitz meetings a couple times a week and that he and center Jason Kelce often meet on their own to go over pre-snap recognition and protection calls. Some of what they have seen from opposing defenses in recent weeks, however, they hadn't seen on film.
"You've got to be ready for everything," Kelce said. "You're doing a lot of film study and then you've got to be ready in the middle of games to say, 'OK, this is what we were expecting, his is what we're actually getting. Now how do we solve this?' "
Dime a dozen
The Eagles defense used its dime package on 12 of 66 snaps against the 49ers — more than any other time this season.
Was it because the Eagles were without linebacker Jordan Hicks for an entire game for the first time or was it because defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz wanted to match certain San Francisco personnel?
The Eagles weren't saying. But it was effective enough to envision Schwartz using it soon. The 49ers averaged just 2.6 yards per play against the dime. Of the 12 plays, 11 came on third down and San Francisco converted just nine.
"There are a lot of teams that play dime on every single third down," Schwartz said, "so it's not unusual."
Schwartz has been mixing up his personnel in the secondary, but safety Corey Graham has generally been the sixth defensive back when linebacker Mychal Kendricks comes off the field. With Graham at strong safety, Malcolm Jenkins played a quasi-linebacker role near the line.
"I was kind of whispering for it for a long time," Jenkins said. "You want to put your best guys on the field, even if sometimes it's a disadvantage in certain parts."
The Eagles weren't always matching personnel when going dime, so sometimes that put them at a size disadvantage. The 49ers once ran on third-and-five, but the Eagles stopped them short of the first down marker.
"If that's what they choose to do, I guess you could say we are sort of dictating to them and forcing them to play to our hand," Schwartz said.
Jenkins helped blow up the play by taking on the pulling Garry Gilliam, who was knocked from the game when the safety's legal hit injured the 49ers tackle's knee.
"If you are light in the box, if they have opportunities to run the ball, if they can capitalize on that, that's something that needs to be addressed," Schwartz said. "But if we do our jobs and all the steps along the way, it shouldn't be a problem for us."
Five questions: Nigel Bradham
If you couldn't play the position you now play in the NFL, which position would you want to play? I'll say safety. You want to hit guys over the middle and you can get a lot of picks. And I used to like [former Redskins safety] Sean Taylor a lot.
What's your least favorite part of the week practice leading up to a game? The first day we come back [after a game], which is Tuesday when we've got to lift weights.
What's the hardest you've ever been hit? My rookie year [former NFL fullback] Vonta Leach — it was a lead block and he was just so massive and it was a big collision.
What's your favorite play you ever made in football? In high school, I grabbed the running back and acted like I was going to tackle him, but grabbed the ball and took it and ran it in.
When did you first think that you were good enough to play in the NFL? When I was 5 I first made the goal that I was playing in the NFL.
Inside the game
Torrey Smith's playing time may be in decline — he played a season-low 46 percent of the snaps against the 49ers — but he has still found ways to be productive without catching the ball.
The receiver drew his third pass interference penalty on the season late in the second half of the 49ers game when the Eagles were ahead only 3-0. On third-and-15, Smith ran a post route into the end zone past cornerback Dontae Johnson, who grabbed him.
"Torrey, if you had a meter on him, is probably running faster than he's run all year long," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "To put a defender in a position where he's compromised, where he has to extend himself further to commit interference. And if Torrey is maybe just going 98 percent, as opposed to 100, that's probably not a penalty."
The Eagles scored a touchdown on the next play.
The Eagles have played six different cornerbacks this season. Injuries have played a part in Jim Schwartz's shuffling, but the defensive coordinator has increasingly divvied up snaps to all his corners.
On Sunday, all five active corners played at least 27 percent of the time — Jalen Mills (61 of 66 snaps), Dexter McDougle (32), Rasul Douglas (30), Jaylen Watkins (27) and Patrick Robinson (18), who left with a concussion. Even when starter Ronald Darby returns from an ankle injury, Schwartz may continue to rotate.
Most teams prefer to stick with just three cornerbacks — two on the outside and one in the slot in the nickel. The Broncos — Sunday's opponent — typically roll with Pro Bowlers Aqib Talib and Chris Harris on the outside and Bradley Roby inside.
Inside the locker room
After the Eagles defense pounded the 49ers, linebacker Mychal Kendricks was asked to explain the mentality of the unit that is first in the NFL against the run.
"Kick ass, take names," Kendricks said.
He paused, turned to his left and called down to fellow linebacker Nigel Bradham, who was several locker stalls down.
Nigel, what's the mentality of our defense right now?
"Inflicting pain," Bradham said.
By the numbers
Number of touchdown passes for Carson Wentz in October — the most ever for an Eagles quarterback in a calendar month.
Number of pass tackles for Jalen Mills, which is second to only the Patriots' Devin McCourtey (30) in the NFL. Mills has been targeted more times (69) than any cornerback.
Catch percentage for Alshon Jeffery (28 of 62), which is 78th out of 79 NFL wide receivers with more than 20 targets. (49ers' Marquise Goodwin is last at 43.5).