September 28, 2017
In his rookie season, Philadelphia Eagles running back Wendell Smallwood showed flashes that he can be a good runner in the NFL. His two noteworthy performances were in games in which the Eagles led throughout and thus could hammer away with their rushing attack.
Those games were against two good teams, the Steelers, against whom Smallwood put up a stat line of 17-79-1, and the Falcons, when he went for 13-70-0.
Otherwise, Smallwood didn't see the field much, as he had 10 or more carries in only one other game. The reason? The Eagles did not trust him in pass protection.
Last Sunday against the Giants, Smallwood saw more action than he otherwise might have after Darren Sproles was knocked out of the game with a broken arm and what was later revealed to be a torn ACL. With Sproles' season over and his career in jeopardy, Smallwood's heavier workload will almost certainly continue for the rest of the season, and beyond.
"There's no doubt Wendell is going to have an increased role," said Frank Reich.
"I think all the guys have some 3rd down ability, but Wendell has really improved in that area. He's showed a natural aptitude for it early, both from a protection standpoint and from a route-running standpoint. I'm not sure you can ever replace 43 in that regard. He's just a unique player, but [I] feel good about Wendell, and him stepping up."
Smallwood has worked hard at his pass protection skills, and it showed on Sunday against the Giants.
"It's always been an area that needed to get better, and Duce [Staley] has been harping on it," said Smallwood. "As far as me and the running back room, we've been getting a lot of practice at it. We watched the film today, and he said 'Some of those drills are working, and we're going to do some more.' It's been getting better for all of us in that room, and I think with me, as far as using the right technique and being in the right places, it has helped me a lot."
Let's take a look at the tape, and show why Staley has reason to be encouraged by Smallwood in pass protection on Sunday.
In this first example, the play was for Smallwood to carry out a play-action fake, but when he saw Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie blitzing from the edge, he aborted his play fake responsibility and picked up the blitzer.
That play earned Smallwood a gold star.
"We know they bring their corner a lot [on blitzes], trying to get an extra guy in there sometimes, and I actually wasn't supposed to go there," Smallwood explained. "If I would have gone the other way, I wouldn't have been wrong, but I saw the guy coming off the edge, knew he had a free shot, so I said 'Whatever,' and I was just being a football player. I didn't get yelled at. I did something good for a change."
On this next example, the Giants have a little cross-blitz action going with the linebacker, #46. Smallwood read the blitz, calmly stepped in front of Carson Wentz, and made a solid block.
Here, Smallwood once again reads the play and has to react quickly to the inside blitz.
The defender on the above play may have affected Wentz's throw to some degree, but short of putting the linebacker on his ass, that is about as good as you can reasonably expect from your running back in pass protection.
"He did a great job," said Reich of Smallwood's pass protection. "There were two or three times in that game where Spags runs very complicated blitzes, a lot of different looks, Wendell did a particularly good job on several of them. So there's always, there's still one or two, still maybe one little snafu, but those things can be corrected and I have a lot of confidence in him."
The one snafu Reich may have been referring to was a play in which two unblocked blitzers were coming Smallwood's way, and Smallwood picked up the outside guy.
Smallwood made a good block on the guy he picked up, but ideally there, it's preferable to pick up the inside rusher closest to the quarterback.
Smallwood has a long way to go before he'll match the pass protection skills of guys like Sproles, Brian Westbrook, or Duce Staley, but it's clear that he has made improvements in that aspect of his game.
If the Eagles feel like they can trust him in pass protection, he's going to see more time on the field, and thus more carries.
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