January 02, 2018

All aboard the Jay Train? Eagles may look to ride Ajayi in playoffs

Eagles NFL
122517-JayAjayi-USAToday Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Eagles running back Jay Ajayi (36) reacts to his first-quarter touchdown against the Oakland Raiders.

Immediately following the Eagles' 6-0 loss to the Cowboys on Sunday, head coach Doug Pederson acknowledged that his team had to get back to running the ball the more, especially if it wanted to play more than one game in the playoffs. 

Beyond the fact that backup quarterback Nick Foles is now starting or that the Eagles have been one of the best rushing teams in the league all season, teams that run the ball well tend to win quite a bit this time of year. 

"I think that's a formula," Pederson reiterated Tuesday. "Especially now outside, January-type games the weather can be bad. I think you have to be able to do that and keep yourself on the field and keep your defense rested.

"But somewhere in there, you're going to have to make a play in the passing game, too, whether it be on a third down or maybe a first-down shot or something like that. [I'm] not ruling out the passing game obviously, but that run game, we have to get back to the way we did it a couple weeks ago."

The question is, why did they get away from it in the first place?

Sure, you wanted Nick Foles to get a chance to find some chemistry with his wideouts. And maybe you didn't want to tip your hand and reveal your strategy before you had to. And, if that is the plan, perhaps you didn't want to overwork your running backs, knowing you would be leaning on them in the playoffs.

But Pederson knows the bottom line is that his team won't win a playoff game if they don't start running the ball, not just more often, but more successfully as well. If they do that, it may help take some of the offensive burden – not to mention the pressure that comes along with trying to replace Carson Wentz – off Foles.

"We have to get better in the run game," Pederson said. "That helps any quarterback obviously, so we have to get better there. Then just taking a look at what his strengths are, strengths and weaknesses. Everything at this time of the year now becomes magnified even more going into the post-season.

"We have to make sure we're doing our due diligence as a staff to put our guys in successful positions."

In other words, the Eagles need to get back to being a run-first team, something they got away from down the stretch – and didn't return to even after their starting quarterback went down. [And, yes, you're totally correct; that makes absolutely no sense at all.]

WK OPP ATT YDS AVG TD
1 @ WSH 24 58 2.4 0
2 @ KC 17 107 6.3 0
3 vs NYG 39 193 4.9 2
4 @ LAC 42 214 5.1 1
5 vs ARZ 33 122 3.7 0
6 @ CAR 27 101 3.7 0
7 vs WSH 33 127 3.8 0
8 vs SF 31 112 3.6 1
9 vs DEN 37 197 5.3 3
11 @ DAL 33 215 6.5 2
12 vs CHI 33 176 5.3 0
13 @ SEA 26 98 3.8 0
14 @ LAR 32 139 4.3 0
15 @ NYG 27 108 4.0 0
16 vs OAK 21 78 3.7 0
17 vs DAL 18 70 3.9 0
2017PER GM29.6132.24.50.6
- - -TOTAL4732,1154.59
- - -RANK63424

So can we really expect Pederson and the Eagles to show what the second-year coach referred to as "a conscious effort to stay dedicated to the run game" with the way the offense was trending toward the end of the season?

There's no reason it can't change. And, in fact, some of that pass-heavy play-calling may have actually been in preparation for a different kind of attack moving forward.

Despite finishing near the top of the league in total carries, the Eagles running backs should have plenty of gas left in the tank.

I think that's a possibility with what he's shown us down the stretch here and giving him rest last week, and we'll see where he is this week health-wise. I think he's one of the guys that we can rely on.

LeGarrette Blount leads the team in carries with 173 carries for 766 yards (4.4 YPC); rookie Corey Clement has just 74 carries this year for 321 yards (4.3 YPC); and the newest member of the backfield, Jay Ajayi, who technically has the most rushing attempts this season (208), has only carried the ball 70 times since being acquired by the Eagles but has racked up 408 yards (5.8 YPC). 

Now, compare that to what Ajayi did in his seven games with the Dolphins, when he gained 465 yards, but carried the ball nearly twice as many times (138) and averaged 3.4 yards per carry.

However, since Howie Roseman acquired him just before the trade deadline in a move that's looking more and more important (and savvy) by the day, he's been a completely different player. And after he was the only offensive starter given the day off on Sunday, it's beginning to look more and more like he might be the guy the Eagles lean on in the postseason.

"I think that's a possibility with what he's shown us down the stretch here and giving him rest last week, and we'll see where he is this week health-wise," Pederson said when asked if he envisioned Ajayi being the team's workhorse in the playoffs. "I think he's one of the guys that we can rely on.

"Again, I don't want to get away from the things that got us to this point, too. That's the other thing is you don't want to just abandon ship on everybody else. I do think there could be a little more role for him down the stretch."

So what does that mean for Blount, who has racked up his most carries in a season since 2011, but hasn't come close to the numbers he posted during a career year in New England that ended with a Super Bowl title last February?

"LeGarrette has embraced his role," Pederson said. "I’ll tell you what, he's been a pleasant surprise, particularly with the younger guys. He understands his role. He's going to be a big part of the success, and has been a big part of the successes this year already.

"He has been to the pinnacle. He's been there and understands it, what it takes. Those are the things I'm going to lean on him with our team and with the guys that haven't been there. How to practice, how to prepare. So he's really done a nice job this his role."


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