COSTA MESA, Calif. — The Eagles-Rams game will feature two different philosophies for how to use running backs. The Eagles know they must try to stop Los Angeles' Todd Gurley, one of the NFL's elite running backs who ranks second in the league in rushing yards.
The Rams must prepare for the Eagles' second-ranked rushing offense, but it's less clear which running back deserves the most attention. Unlike the Rams, the Eagles don't have one defined featured rusher. They've stuck to a committee approach, with LeGarrette Blount, Jay Ajayi, and Corey Clement sharing playing time.
"I suppose there are pros and cons, but you play the hand that we have, and the hand we've been playing has been working for us, it keeps them fresh," Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "I feel like we've built in enough rhythm for them at times. I'm sure every back wants more carries. But so far, it's working pretty well for us."
Gurley is the best running back the Eagles have seen this season. His 939 rushing yards trail only Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell among the league's leaders. The 23-year-old is a complete running back who has been the main catalyst of the Rams' offensive resurgence this season. Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz called him a "marquee" player.
Note: Jay Ajayi has 694 yards (465 with Miami; 229 with the Eagles.
Unlike the Eagles, who want to mix and match their running backs depending on the play call and formation, the Rams often stick to Gurley. He has 65 percent of their carries this season. Their second-leading rusher is a wide receiver, Tavon Austin. Their No. 2 running back, Malcolm Brown, has 186 fewer carries than Gurley.
"We've got to stop their run because Gurley is a big part of their offense, and everybody sees it," defensive end Brandon Graham said. "He's a big back who can do everything. He can catch out of the backfield. He's a downhill runner. He's shifty, too. He's a complete running back. We've got our hands full."
The Eagles have the NFL's top-ranked rushing defense, limiting opponents to 68.1 yards per game. It's part of Schwartz's approach of trying to make teams one-dimensional. They dominated the Bears two weeks ago, and the Bears' rushing offense includes Jordan Howard, the NFL's fifth-leading rusher. The Eagles haven't faced many of the top running backs this year. Kareem Hunt joins Howard as the only other running back among the NFL's 10 leading rushers that they've played this year. Gurley will be the third. They didn't play Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott, who was suspended for the first Eagles-Cowboys meeting.
Schwartz said Gurley even has some of the qualities of Bell with the way he navigates behind the offensive line. Schwartz knew Gurley would be a challenge in the running game. What he didn't know before putting the game plan together this week was how productive Gurley has been as a receiver. Gurley is third on the Rams with 48 catches for 563 yards and three touchdowns, and Schwartz pointed out how impressive the 11.7 yards per reception are for a running back.
The Eagles have had a better overall rushing offense than the Rams (143.3 yards per game compared to the Rams' 115.2), although it comes with a decidedly different approach. Fantasy football owners might loathe the way Doug Pederson distributes carries, but it's been the preferred method all year. Whereas Gurley was a top-10 draft pick selected to be the lead back, the Eagles have not committed significant resources to the position since Pederson arrived.
Blount was signed as a low-priced free agent and leads the Eagles with 145 carries this season, which is 38.7 of the overall carries – nearly 30 percent fewer than Gurley's share of the workload. He has topped 15 carries just twice this season. Gurley has topped 15 carries nine times this season. Quarterback Carson Wentz is also a big contributor to the Eagles' rushing offense.
The trade-deadline addition of Ajayi didn't change the Eagles' approach even though Ajayi was Miami's clear lead running back. In his four games with the Eagles, Ajayi has had only 29 carries. His nine carries against Seattle were his most with the Eagles. He averaged 19.7 carries in seven games with the Dolphins.
"Obviously, you want to be able to get in a rhythm in a game and be able to feel how the game is going," Ajayi said Friday. "But what we've been doing, it's been working. How it's been going is whenever your number gets called, just make it count. And understanding that realistically the opportunities are limited so you have to make sure you take advantage of them."
Ajayi's role will continue to grow with more third-down responsibilities. He took 41 percent of the offensive snaps against Seattle after sticking in the 20s in his first three games. Even a bigger workload likely wouldn't rival the way the Rams use Gurley. It doesn't appear Pederson is looking for a featured runner. The Eagles' way is working and they're not looking to change.
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