Josh Adams might have been the Eagles’ lone bright spot when they left the field after a 48-7 loss to New Orleans on Nov. 18, and the Eagles were determined to give the rookie running back a bigger role in the offense in the weeks that followed. The most carries by an Eagles running back this season were by Adams in the next two games.
But now with the Eagles set for a rematch against the Saints in the divisional round of the playoffs, Adams’ playing time is dwindling. He was all but removed from the running back rotation in last week’s win over Chicago, with one carry on his lone offensive snap.
Coach Doug Pederson said Adams’ lack of playing time against the Bears was a “game-specific” decision. The Eagles trust veteran Darren Sproles, who is getting the majority of the work in the offense. And they’ve also gone more to three-year veteran Wendell Smallwood in recent weeks, too. Running backs coach Duce Staley determines the running back rotation.
“We had a package for Josh and a way that we were going to use him in the game,” offensive coordinator Mike Groh said. “Over the course of the game, it just didn't go that way. Wendell was playing well and it was one of those games where we wanted to make sure that Darren Sproles had every opportunity to make an impact in the game, getting playoff time. If we had not gotten Darren in the game, you'd be asking me why he didn't get in.”
Adams had seven carries for 53 yards and his first career touchdown against the Saints. During the next two games, Adams totaled 42 carries for 169 yards and a touchdown, topping 20 carries in both games.
On Dec. 16 against the Los Angeles Rams, Adams had an ugly stat line: 15 carries for 28 yards and a touchdown. Since then, Adams’ playing time continued to decline. And perhaps of greater concern came on Dec. 23 against the the Texans, when Adams had a fourth-quarter fumble that could have proved costly.
A fumble in a close game doesn’t help, but Adams’ production has also fallen since the Saints game. He had a seven-week stretch before the Rams game during which he averaged 5 yards per carry. In the four games since, he averaged 2.7 yards per carry. (Adams was productive in Week 17, though, when he rushed for 53 yards on 12 carries.) He has a patient running style that can allow him to capitalize when holes develop. But when there’s not much room to run, Adams has struggled to create yards. Eleven of his 30 carries with no yards or negative yards came in the last three weeks of the season.
He took 30 percent of the snaps in Week 16 vs. Houston and 25 percent of the snaps in Week 17 vs. Washington before his one snap on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Smallwood’s workload continues to increase. When Adams played the most, Smallwood had fallen out of the rotation, with 11 total snaps during a four-game span. But Smallwood played 37 percent of the snaps in Week 17 and 41 percent on Sunday, when he totaled 10 offensive touches with limited success (eight carries for 20 yards, two catches for 20 yards).
“Wendell played really well,” Groh said. “Ran strong; was able to make people miss; break some tackles. I thought he showed really good vision in the game. He did a really nice job. Duce really handles the rotation of those guys each and every week and we’ve got a package for all of them so that they know that they have a role in certain things. And then sometimes you feed a guy that looks like he’s got a hot hand that night. It’s his night and he’s playing well and you try to feature him a little bit more and keep him going. It could go either way, but Wendell did a really good job the other night.”
The biggest difference with the running back rotation now compared to the first Saints game is Sproles’ presence. He wasn’t active in November, and the Eagles needed someone to step up among Adams, Smallwood, and Corey Clement. Now that Sproles is back and healthy, the Eagles want to ride him. He’s their most dynamic runner, their best pass-catching running back, and their best pass-blocking running back. He’s also the most experienced and trustworthy.
The Eagles prefer to use a running back committee with their current depth chart more than relying on one featured running back, but Sproles figures to be at the front of the line. They want to have a consistent running game, which they couldn’t find last week against the NFL’s top-ranked rushing defense. The Bears held them to 1.8 yards per carry.
Guess who had the second-ranked rush defense in the NFL this season? The Saints, who limited opponents to 80.2 rushing yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry. However, Adams had success against them in November, albeit with only seven carries.
Maybe Adams’ number gets called on Sunday. Maybe he’s on the outside looking again. Whoever is out there, the Eagles need to be more productive on the ground.
“We gotta get better in the run game,” Sproles said Sunday. “I feel like we had some opportunities. We had to get some big plays out of it. We didn’t. We were like one guy away and stuff like that. But we’ll get back to work this week. Because we gotta get better in the run game.”