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November 13, 2016

Eagles ride Mathews, run game to get back on track

Eagles NFL

After Doug Pederson was asked why the Eagles running back roulette wheel landed on Ryan Mathews in the 24-15 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, he must have known that a question about Mathews’ workload was coming. The Eagles head coach was prepared.

"Just to keep you guys [the media] off-balance,” Pederson cracked right away.

Mission accomplished: On a day when Darren Sproles was the Eagles running back announced in pre-game introductions, it was the 29-year-old Matthews who shouldered the heaviest load.

Mathews seeing more of the ball than he had since Week 1 against Cleveland was a logical step for a few reasons. But you could easily make the argument topping that list is a desire to keep the Eagles’ most dangerous playmaker fresh.

The last couple of weeks, both Eagles losses, Pederson leaned heavily on Sproles. And while Sproles is a legitimate weapon in both the run and passing game, utilizing the 5’6”, 190-pound 33-year-old as anything more than a change-of-pace back is playing with fire. If Sproles continued to receive around 20 touches per game, the Eagles ran the risk of those electric punt returns disappearing. Or worse, he could just get hurt.

So Pederson made it a point to pound the football up the middle and off-tackle with Mathews, and his back and reworked offensive line were up to the task.

“We had some designed outside runs, but having that bigger back and the confidence in Ryan to get the job done and having his size and strength paid off for us today,” Pederson said.

The strategy sure did pay off, as Mathews had himself a nice day: 19 carries for 109 yards and two touchdowns for the 29-year-old back, who quietly set a career-high with eight touchdowns on the season.

“Like I said throughout the week, if any of us got to touch the ball, we’re giving 100 percent every time,” Mathews said. “We’re trying to make it all count. My line played great today, you have to give it to them. They really did all they could do to open up holes for us today.”

Another reason to feed Mathews had to do with keeping the defense fresh. Over the past two weeks, the Eagles run-pass balance had ballooned to Reidian levels. Carson Wentz was slinging the ball all over the field, as his 91 pass attempts — Well, 90 plus an ill-advised toss by Josh Huff, who is the definition of “Life comes at you fast…” — dwarfed the team’s 49 rushing attempts.

The crazy thing is that even with all of those passes, it wasn’t like the Eagles defense was on the field for the entire game as it had grown accustomed to under Chip Kelly. So when the offense finally became more balanced against Atlanta (38 runs, 36 passes), they almost doubled up the Falcons in time of possession.

“It was good to get two-four going again,” Wentz said. “Obvious he has had a couple of down weeks, but it was good to feed him the rock. And he was running angry. And then when the O-line is playing like that, it made my job easy. I’ll tell you that much.”

The final margin was nine points and the outcome wasn’t decided until the very end, but even some key Falcons (head coach Dan Quinn, Julio Jones) admitted that the Eagles controlled the game. If Atlanta had escaped with a win, they would have stolen one.

The defense, which held the highest-scoring offense in the league 18.9 points below their average, appreciated all of the extra rest.

“Obvious he has had a couple of down weeks, but it was good to feed him the rock. And he was running angry. And then when the O-line is playing like that, it made my job easy. I’ll tell you that much.”

“We could look at the defensive snaps but you also have to look at the offensive snaps,” Jordan Hicks said. “How many snaps did we have this game compared to other games? Fifties maybe, maybe 40s.”

The number was 48, and the running game played a big part in limiting it. In addition to Mathews, rookie Wendell Smallwood chipped in with 13 carries for 70 yards. It hasn't been smooth sailing for those two, as Mathews had a root canal the day after the Dallas game, which limited his effectiveness. Both players had critical fumbles in recent losses (Mathews at Detroit, Smallwood at Dallas), but on Sunday, the Eagles and their running game got back on track against one of the NFC’s best teams. That’s no coincidence.

“It shows a lot,” Mathews said. “I know the lineman love run blocking, too. It was a fun game out there.”

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann