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July 30, 2017

Eagles' challenge at running back will be to mask predictability

Ideally, at the running back position, the Philadelphia Eagles and every other team in the NFL would like to have a do-it-all player who can run inside, run outside, catch passes, and pass protect at a high level.

Speaking at the NFL Combine back in March, Doug Pederson explained the benefits of having such a running back.

“I think that position has changed quite a bit over the years, he explained. "You look for guys that, are they a three-down guy? Guys that are mobile in the sense of out of the backfield. We do so much empty formation nowadays with a lot of guys, you want good route-running ability. And obviously, the skill set of running the football, I mean, that’s what they do. They gotta be able to carry the ball and run. 

"There’s so much versatility in backs nowadays, again from those empty formations, out of the backfield, spreading the field, those are the things that we want to see. Physical traits – are they physical enough to run between the tackles? Can they stretch the field, outside zone. Because every run game plan every week changes. Sometimes you’re going to be more inside the tackles, next week you might be outside the tackles, so you’ve got to have that versatility to do that."

What the Eagles have heading into the 2017 season is a mix of running backs with varying strengths and weaknesses, none of whom can do all of the things Pederson noted above. The player who comes the closest to everything Pederson described is Darren Sproles, whose usage has to be limited because of his small stature. Sproles has averaged under four carries per game over his 11-year NFL career.

The trick for the Eagles' offensive coaching staff will be finding a way to utilize all the strengths of their backs, while not being predictable in calling plays. On Saturday, offensive coordinator Frank Reich was asked how the offense can avoid being predictable while rolling out a group of backs with specialized skills, individually.

"I think that's a fair statement," Reich acknowledged. "You don't want to be predictable by personnel. If all of a sudden LeGarrette comes in, you don't want them just to think run. But we actually like that predicament because we try to use it to our advantage. So [if] LeGarrette comes in the game, he's a workhorse runner. We know teams fear him running the football, so [we can run] play-action. Are we going to run many drop-back passes with him in the game? Probably not.

"And it doesn't matter. You can tell every team in the league that we're going to run the football and we're going to run play-action, that in itself. All you've got to do is run a handful of play-action to keep them honest because the play-action plays tend to produce. You get those linebackers stepping up to stop him, it creates huge holes in the secondary.

"A lot of the stuff about us last year with the yards attempt and all that stuff being low, [if] you get a good running game like that and those linebackers start stepping up, all of a sudden, we get a lot of 20-yard completions by those guys. We'll take that problem."

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