The Eagles' three remaining healthy running backs knew this was on them, that their coaches wanted to lean on the run game for offensive rhythm and balance Sunday, lifting at least a little of the burden off Carson Wentz in his 2018 debut.
Just in case they'd somehow missed this emphasis during the week of practice for what became a slog of a 20-16 victory over the visiting Indianapolis Colts, Eagles coach Doug Pederson and running backs coach Duce Staley took a moment to remind them, as they prepared to take the field in a steady drizzle.
"We got pulled to the side before the game, and Doug told us and Duce told us what we were going to do and how we were going to do it," said Wendell Smallwood, who gained 56 yards on 10 carries, including the winning touchdown on a 4-yard run that capped a 17-play, 75-yard, 11-minute, 18-second drive that was the football equivalent of World War I trench warfare. "I don't think they strayed away from it the whole game."
The Eagles were without their lead back, Jay Ajayi (back injury), and without their most accomplished back, Darren Sproles (hamstring). Smallwood, a 2016 fifth-round draft choice, probably would not have made the team this year had undrafted rookie Josh Adams been healthy all through the preseason. Sunday's running back group consisted of Smallwood; Adams, making his NFL debut, just up from the practice squad; and Super Bowl rookie hero Corey Clement, who was listed as questionable with a quad strain on the final injury report of the week. They totaled 142 yards on 32 carries (4.4 yards per carry), with Wentz adding 10 more on three carries, most notably scrambling and diving to convert a third-and-6 late in the second quarter. Clement gained 56 yards on 16 carries, Adams 30 on six.
The Eagles' 40:20 time of possession was their highest figure since 2011.
"We definitely wanted to run the rock," left guard Stefen Wisniewski said. "You've got Carson Wentz coming back for his first game [since last Dec. 10]. It makes his job a lot easier if we've got a good run game going."
Smallwood saw his most activity since the same week a year ago, when he gained 71 yards on a dozen carries against the Giants. The touchdown was his first since the week after that, at the Chargers, when Smallwood suffered a knee injury that took him out of the lineup for two weeks, and pretty much out of the running back rotation for good. Smallwood was inactive throughout the playoffs, didn't touch the ball in this year's opener, and finally got seven carries (for 28 yards) last week at Tampa, with Sproles out and Ajayi ailing.
Pederson was asked what made him trust Smallwood to handle the starting role Sunday.
"Darren Sproles and Jay Ajayi weren't playing," Pederson joked. "No, Wendell has always impressed me. He's worked extremely hard. He's really improved his craft and put himself in a position to help us. … Got to have guys like that. Might be role players, but you know what, their role is pretty big in games like this, when your top two guys are down."
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Smallwood said his coaches' and teammates' faith in him was a big boost.
"Just staying true and being who I am and having that confidence that it's going to come and not forcing it, and doing what I can do – Duce knows it. The whole running back room, [Saturday] told me, 'We know what you can do, just go out there and show it. Everybody else might not know,' " Smallwood said. "I think it's just going out there and proving myself … how I respond when bad things happen, and bad plays happen. … Do I put my head down, or do I go back to work the next play?"
Adams, from Notre Dame and Central Bucks South, said getting a half-dozen touches in his debut "gives me a lot of hope and a lot of drive" going forward.
They needed the rookie's carries. Neither Clement (5-foot-10, 220) nor Smallwood (5-10, 208) is a bell-cow-type back. In fact, sore quad and all, Clement set a career high in carries and touches, with 19.
"We knew we were going to be tired. We knew we were going to be fighting. We knew we were going to be suckin' wind," said Smallwood, who also caught three passes for 35 yards. "Every time I looked to the sideline, Corey was ready to come in, Josh was ready to come in. When they looked, I was ready to come in for them."
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Wentz agreed that "the running game was huge." He added that "we had a lot of no-huddle-type kind of checks at the line based on what we were getting coverage-wise. They were playing a lot of soft zone coverage, so the running game helped us a lot in the passing game."
The run game bogged down for a while in the second half, as the Colts seemed to figure out that Wentz lacked either the timing or the weapons to take any kind of shot downfield. Indianapolis was able to crowd the box. Fortunate penalty calls kept the winning drive alive, as much as the six running plays that gained 29 yards and the TD.
Center Jason Kelce said the winning TD play was "inside zone-esque. It's more like a dive play. It's one of our staples down there. … It allows us to get some double teams, try and move the line of scrimmage."
"I felt like that was one of the easiest touchdowns I've had," Smallwood said, without noting that it was only the third of his three-year career. "Kelce and Wiz worked up the double-team, and I knew it was coming when we practiced that play all week. I just hung in there. I think they had two safeties high, so I'm like, 'Man, this should hit.' They blew those guys off the ball and I ran it in behind 'em."
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