Eagles look to Smallwood with Sproles out
Third down blocking and pass-catching are important tasks in Birds' offense.
About five weeks ago, reporters were asking Wendell Smallwood if he thought he would make the Eagles' roster.
Smallwood made it, despite a hamstring injury that dogged him through training camp and the preseason. Tuesday, reporters were asking Smallwood if he thinks he can fill in for Darren Sproles the rest of the year.
"There's no doubt Wendell's going to have an increased role," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Tuesday. "He's the guy – I think all the [backs] have some third-down ability, but I think Wendell has really improved in that area. He showed a natural aptitude for it early, both from a protection standpoint and from a route-running standpoint. I'm not sure you can ever replace '43' in that regard; he's just a unique player. But I feel good about Wendell, and him stepping up."
Sproles, 34, went on injured reserve Monday after suffering a torn ACL in his left knee, a broken radius bone in his right forearm and right wrist ligament damage in an encounter Sunday with New York Giants safety Darian Thompson early in the second quarter of the Eagles' victory.
"It's just upsetting for us to lose him, a guy who means so much to this team," said Smallwood, a fifth-round pick in 2016 from West Virginia, who grew up in Wilmington. "We gotta play for him, guys gotta take on more."
Reich called Sproles, the active NFL leader in all-purpose yards (19,155), "a class act and an elite player."
Smallwood said he was impressed by how "nonchalant" Sproles was, getting up off the Linc turf and walking casually to the locker room despite his injuries.
"I admire that guy to death," Smallwood said. "I've been talking to him nonstop since he got hurt. He's doing good. He's a fighter, he's a competitor."
Smallwood said they haven't discussed whether Sproles still intends this to be his final season – an intent obviously formed before Sproles knew his season would last just three games. After undergoing wrist surgery Monday, Sproles spoke on social media of a comeback.
Sproles' injury overshadowed the long-awaited breakout Sunday of the Eagles' running game, 193 yards on 39 carries, led by Smallwood's 71 yards on a dozen runs. Smallwood said he, LeGarrette Blount (12 carries, 67 yards) and rookie Corey Clement (six carries, 22 yards) benefited from "some of the biggest holes I've seen since I've been here."
"You get mad," Reich said, when asked what energized a ground game that had struggled at Washington and at Kansas City. "You know, you get mad. We know we have the people to have a good running game. We know it. There was never any doubt.
"Whatever all the outside chatter is … I can promise you, [there is] no doubt from the coaching staff and no doubt from the players that we have what it takes to have a successful running game … It was a pretty small sample size, so it was just a question of being patient and just keep calling it, and keep calling it, and give our guys a chance."
Sproles is most feared these days as a punt returner, a job Eagles coach Doug Pederson said wideout Torrey Smith would get the first shot at assuming, though that was before the team brought back Kenjon Barner to fill Sproles' roster spot Tuesday evening. In Pederson's offense, even if he didn't carry the ball that much (15 carries for 61 yards in three games), Sproles was on the field a lot, especially on third down, for blitz pickup, and to catch passes (seven for 73 yards this season).
Smallwood has just three catches this season for 11 yards, one for 9 on Sunday, but he definitely battled Giants blitz action after Sproles went down.
"He did a great job," Reich said. "There were two or three times in that game – you know, [Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo] runs very complicated blitzes, a lot of different looks. Wendell did a particularly good job on several of them. Still maybe one little snafu, but those things can be corrected.
"I have a lot of confidence in him and I know Carson [Wentz] has a lot of confidence, because as a quarterback it's important, to be standing back there, and knowing that with everybody moving around, this guy is going to get the right guy."
Smallwood said his blocking has "always been an area that's needed to get better, and Duce [Staley, the running backs coach] has been harping on it … We watched the film today and he said, 'Hey, some of those drills are working.' "
Smallwood recalled one play on which he ditched his assignment to take on a Giants cornerback headed for Wentz.
"I wasn't supposed to go there; if I had gone the other way, I wouldn't have been wrong. But I saw the guy coming off the edge and knew he had a clear shot. I just said 'Whatever,' " Smallwood said. "I didn't get yelled at. I did something good for a change."