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November 15, 2020

Eagles are good at running the ball, so why do they avoid it so much?

A healthier dose of Miles Sanders and Boston Scott might've helped the Birds pull out a win over the Giants

Eagles NFL
Miles-Sanders-Boston-Scott_111520_usat Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia Eagles running backs Boston Scott and Miles Sanders celebrate Scott's touchdown against the New York Giants.

There is no running back in the NFL who picks up more yards per carry than Miles Sanders does. 

And there is the undeniable eye test that the Eagles are a better team when they run the football. 

The list of reasons for this is long. Aside from the offensive yards gained, the stress taken off quarterback Carson Wentz, who we can all agree has been trying a little bit too hard at times to force plays all by himself, is major benefit of pounding it on the ground. There is also the the ticking clock, which keeps the Eagles sub-optimal defense from being on the field longer. Plus, there's a very strong argument to be made that this rag tag offensive line is much better suited at opening holes for Sanders than protecting Wentz, who is the most sacked quarterback in the league by a large margin.

But for some reason — be it injuries, or Doug Pederson's undying love affair for everything passing — the Eagles have run the ball the third fewest times on average of any NFL team. Heading into Sunday's 27-17 loss to the Giants, the Eagles were running the ball just 36.3% of the time (a year after running it just over 41% of the time, the 13th most in 2019).

Put another way: through eight NFL games heading into Week 10, Wentz had 305 passing attempts. That's more than Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Deshaun Watson and all but eight other NFL quarterbacks. All five of the above QBs have a passer rating above 100 and in the top 10 of NFL signal-callers. Wentz's rating is 73.2 (32nd). He leads the NFL in turnovers, with 16 of them. And yet Pederson thinks having the ball in Wentz's hands for 63.7% of offensive plays is a wise decision.

The Eagles were once again — surprise surprise — at their best in Week 10 when they kept the ball in their running backs' hands. Touchdown runs from Boston Scott (a 58-yarder that saw him eclipse 20 miles per hour, per NFL Next Gen stats) and Corey Clement kept the Eagles in the game against a more potent than expected New York offense, while 87 yards (of 158 total on the ground) from a newly healthy Miles Sanders moved the chains and made the play action a workable option.

But the Eagles still didn't run it enough. Renowned "Giant killer" Scott had just three carries and Sanders had 15 despite his 5.7 yards per run in the game. 

"It's not even about that," Sanders said to reporters Sunday afternoon after being asked if he deserves to have more carries, "it's about executing whenever we get on the field, we know what kind of offense we are, we know what kind of offense we can be, it doesn't matter if I get the ball five times, 10 times 20 times, as a team we didn't play to our standard including myself."

At a key point in Sunday's game, after the Eagles unsuccessfully went for two (for no real reason), forced a Giants three-and-out and trailed 21-17 late in the third, the Eagles got a 13-yard first-down run from Sanders. And then, they proceeded to throw an incomplete pass that was thrown away due to pressure, try a trick play that went nowhere with Jalen Hurts, and then a do-nothing completion for a yard before punting.

Or how about another second-half situation, with the Eagles also trailing by four and facing a third and 18 that inspired Pederson to give the ball to Sanders on a delayed handoff?

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There are examples like this from every single game this season, but it's starting to pile up to make Pederson look like the biggest problem for an Eagles team with the talent to win, at least against the Giants, but perhaps not the optimal opportunities to do so.

"It's on me that we played the way we did today quite honestly," Pederson said after the game. "I felt the energy was good. It's difficult without the fans but both teams have to deal with that and you can't make excuses for it. We've got to stop shooting ourselves in the foot, that's the bottom line."

Wentz, however, disagrees with Pederson's assessment.

"I thought Coach called a really good game and I felt good about it," Wentz, who did not throw a touchdown pass or turn the ball over, said.

They also didn't really run it when it made sense for them to do so, as some share of blame for a football team failing on each and every third down (0-for-9) has to fall on Pederson, who clearly was not making smart decisions with the clipboard.

"Too many third and longs, it's hard to overcome," the coach said. "We have to do better on first and second down."

The Eagles still, thanks only to the futility of their geography, lead in the NFC East and control their own destiny. And perhaps it's time for the Eagles and Doug Pederson to turn to running backs coach Duce Staley, one of the best at that particular job in the entire NFL, to help the Eagles bring this thing home.

Because it seems much more likely that Philadelphia ups its win total by becoming a run-first team than by a team led by the worst ever version of Wentz.

"It is frustrating to be where we're at but at the same time we have no choice but to bounce back," Wentz said.

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