Darren Sproles, other injured Eagles veterans still contributing to team

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Eagles running back Darren Sproles lays on the turf after getting injured during the second-quarter against the New York Giants on Sunday, September 24, 2017 in Philadelphia. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Kenjon Barner’s phone rang Wednesday as the Eagles running back and punt returner was getting dressed for practice.

It was Darren Sproles.

Sproles, who is back home in suburban San Diego recuperating from the torn ACL and broken forearm that ended his season seven weeks ago, has called Barner regularly since his injury to offer him punt-return advice. Barner, who is third in the league in punt-return average since replacing Sproles, relishes the calls.

“He called me before I even got here and said some things to me,’’ Barner said. “He called me before my second game [against Arizona]. He was fresh out of surgery. Literally. He had just gotten out of surgery.

“He’ll call and say, ‘Hey, this punter is going to do this this week,’ or ‘This is how he likes to kick and you have to look out for this.’

“He’s been absolutely huge for me. As far as getting me ready to go out there and return punts, there’s no one outside of [special-teams coordinator Dave] Fipp who’s had a bigger impact on me.’’

Sproles is just one of several injured veteran leaders on the team still doing everything they can to contribute to the Eagles’ playoff hopes even if they have played their last game this season.

Offensive tackle Jason Peters (knee), linebacker Jordan Hicks (Achilles), and safety and special-teams captain Chris Maragos (knee), who, like Sproles, are on injured reserve, also have been providing valuable input.

Peters has regularly texted his left-tackle replacement, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, with advice about opponents and technique. He also leaves voice messages on right tackle Lane Johnson’s cell phone at halftime of games with suggestions for him and the rest of the line.

“I’ll come in and check my phone at halftime, and he’ll have some advice for me,’’ Johnson said. “ You’re really not going to find a better coach. He’s played so long and so well and knows these guys inside and out. He helps just with his knowledge.’’

While Sproles and Peters have been using their iPhones and iPads to provide assistance as they recover at home from their injuries, Hicks and Maragos are at the NovaCare Complex every day, participating in meetings, offering advice, and encouraging their teammates when they’re not rehabbing.

“Jordan’s played a key role,’’ linebackers coach Ken Flajole said. “He’s in our meetings taking notes like he’s going to play. He studies the tape and sees things, and when he gets back into the locker room, he passes on some tips to people. He’ll say, ‘Hey, this is what I saw in this formation and maybe we can cheat our alignment here.’

“He wants to be a part of it. I kidded him a while back. I said, ‘Are you driving your wife nuts now?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I need to get out of the house. She wants me here [at the practice facility]. I need to be here.’ I said, ‘Well, then come on. We got a spot for you.’ ’’

Take it from a guy who has covered the NFL for 35 years: This isn’t how it usually is with guys on injured reserve. When players get hurt, they generally are overcome with a sense of uselessness and self-pity.

They’re on the outside looking in, and it’s tough to deal with. They stay away from the locker room because they feel they have nothing to contribute. But that’s not what’s happening at NovaCare.

“Guys on IR usually are out of sight, out of mind,’’ Barner said. “They’re not here. You don’t hear from them.

“But with Darren and the other guys, it’s the complete opposite. I hear from that dude literally almost every week, sometimes even twice a week.

“He’s been in the league 13 years. He doesn’t have to do that. He’s done plenty in this league — more than most will ever dream of doing. For him to be the kind of guy he is, the unselfish guy that he is, always giving of himself, always being there for me, I have nothing but high praise and positive things to say about that.’’

Hicks has helped fellow linebacker Nigel Bradham get adjusted to the role of defensive play-caller. Bradham knows Jim Schwartz’s defense as well as Hicks, but he’s never had to relay calls to the secondary in hurry-up situations. Hicks has helped him with that.

“He showed me the best way to relay the calls,’’ Bradham said. “Gave me tips on stuff like that, which has been huge. That stuff goes unnoticed. But if you make a mistake there, you can easily give up a touchdown because you didn’t have a guy in the right place.

“Jordan helped me figure out ways to signal that to the DBs. Because I’m not just communicating with the D-line. I’m also communicating with the DBs who are spread out wide. He gave me tips and pointers on how to give them the call and certain signals I can use to get them the call.

“Jordan has stayed true to who he is. Why get away [because he’s hurt]? We’re family. He feels like we need him, and we do.’’

Bradham said he has been impressed by the way all four injured veterans have tried to stay involved and help the team.

“They’re true leaders, man,’’ he said. “It tells you a lot about their character. A lot of guys, if they can’t practice, they feel they can’t contribute.

“These guys, they might not be playing, but they’re like, I can play through you. I can help motivate and encourage you and give you pointers that can help you on game day.

“That’s what separates those kind of guys from others.’’

Barner said the Eagles are the exception rather than the rule. Selflessness like this is not the norm in the NFL.

“It’s not like this everywhere,’’ he said. “A lot of teams will say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got great guys in our locker room.’ But that’s a front for most teams. I haven’t been around a group like this where literally everybody is giving of themselves to the rest of the team.

“It’s not just the guys who are hurt. You’ve got Malcolm Jenkins out there after practice helping the [running] backs with pass [protection]. It goes all the way down the line, man. We have guys willing to help each other no matter what side of the ball they’re on. Just helping each other get better. And because we have guys that are willing to help each other, we’re getting better as a team.’’

Red-zone leaders       

The Eagles have converted 11 of 12 red-zone opportunities into touchdowns in their last four games, and are ranked first in the league in red-zone offense heading into Week 11.

They have a 72.4 touchdown percentage in the red zone (21 for 29). That’s a dramatic improvement over last season, when they finished 24th (49.1%).

The Eagles are one of just two teams in the league – Tennessee is the other – that haven’t turned the ball over or given up a sack in the red zone. The last time the Eagles went through an entire season without a red-zone turnover was 2003.

Wentz has completed 24 of 36 passes (66.7%) in the red zone. Last year, he had a 49.4 red-zone completion percentage.

Fifteen of his NFL-high 23 touchdown passes have come in the red zone. Six receivers have red-zone touchdown catches. Four have at least two, headed by tight end Zach Ertz’s career-high six.

“Anytime you get down there, you never want to have penalties or turnovers or sacks,’’ Wentz said. “We’ve had a few penalties, but no turnovers or sacks.

“You have to play on time down there. It’s either [get it to] your guy or nobody. We’ve been fortunate to make a lot of those plays.’’

Said offensive coordinator Frank Reich: “Carson is playing phenomenal down in that area. A lot of it is the quarterback play in that area, and a lot of it is [Doug Pederson’s] play-calling.

“Doug deserves a lot of credit for that, especially down there, of having the sense of the right play to call.’’

Figuring the Eagles

–The Eagles  are second in the league in scoring behind the Rams and have scored 283 points in their first nine games, which puts them on a 503-point pace. That would break the club record for points in a season (474) set in 2014. They are averaging 31.4 points per game right now. The club record for highest scoring average in a season is 31.3 by the 1948 team, which won the first of the franchise’s three NFL titles.

–Carson Wentz completed just 2 of 11 passes against the Broncos with 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs). But both completions went for touchdowns (to tight end Trey Burton and running back Corey Clement). For the season, Wentz has a 114.5 passer rating with 12 personnel groupings (62.6 completion percentage, 7.7 yards per attempt, 8 TDs, 1 INT, 8 sacks). His passer rating with 12 personnel last year was just 64.7 (57.1 completion percentage, 5.6 yards per attempt, 4 TDs, 7 INTs, 8 sacks). Wentz also has a better passer rating with 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) this year (95.7) than last year (82.4). His completion percentage with 11 personnel is down (from 64.1 to 58.3), but his yards-per-attempt average is significantly up (from 6.5 to 8.1). So is his touchdown production (8 last year, 10 already this year). He had six interceptions with 11 personnel last year. He has just three  this year.

 

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–Wentz has 16 rushing first downs in the first nine games. Only three quarterbacks have more: the Panthers’ Cam Newton (31), the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott (20), and the Browns’ DeShone Kizer (18). Six of Wentz’s 16 rushing first downs have come on quarterback sneaks. He’s 6 for 6 on sneaks.

–The Eagles and Cowboys are tied for the most runs of 10 yards or more. Both have 40.

–The Eagles’ run-play percentage in their seven-game win streak is 52.0. They’ve run the ball on 242 of 465 offensive plays in those seven games. That’s 34.6 rush attempts per game.

–In their last five games, the Eagles’ average drive start has been the 33.3-yard line. In their first four games, it was the 25.5. Their opponents’ average drive start the last five games has been the 26.5. In the first four, it was the 30.0. That’s a plus-6.8-yard difference in the last five games and a minus-4.5 difference in the first four games.

 

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–Jim Schwartz called nine blitzes on the Broncos’ first 14 pass plays in Week 9. He dialed it down in the second half because of the lopsided score, but the Eagles ended up sending extra rushers on 13 of 41 pass plays overall (31.7 percent). Schwartz is blitzing more this season (24.0 percent in the first nine games compared with 21.2 last year) and his unit has been more much effective with it. Through nine games, Schwartz’s defense has a 53.2 opponent passer rating when it has blitzed, compared with 89.6 last year. Opponents have completed just 46.5 percent of their passes and have averaged just 4.8 yards per attempt when the Eagles have blitzed. Last year, opponents had a 59.1 completion percentage against the blitz and averaged 9.2 yards per attempt.

Wentz’s Passer Rating

Carson Wentz’s passer rating this season started rising after the fourth game, against the Chargers. Last year, after a strong start, his passer rating began declining after the fourth game.
Passer rating for the season through the first nine games of 2016 and 2017
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This and that

 –Darren Sproles is 34. He is recovering from a torn ACL. He will be a free agent after the season. You look at the age, and you say, yeah, he’ll probably retire. Then you look at the man, and you say he’ll be back. “I don’t think he wants to go out like that,’’ said Kenjon Barner, who talks regularly with Sproles. “Knowing how competitive he is, knowing his mind-set, he wants to do things on his terms. He likes to plan. [Getting injured] wasn’t part of the plan. Don’t be surprised if he comes back.’’

–The Eagles have scored a league-high 64 points in the first quarter this season. Fifty of them have come on their first two possessions. They have scored on their first possession five times in nine games, and on their second possession in five of the nine games. Pederson, like a lot of coaches, scripts his first 15 plays. “Frank [Reich] and I, we sit down and put the game plan together,’’ Pederson said. “[The scripted plays] come down to the film study and just kind of going back and watching the teams that we’re playing each week and trying to get – whether it be a pattern or something that you can sort of trust and rely on, knowing that [if you use a] certain personnel group of formation, you can get a defense in a certain front or coverage. But at the same time, I just want to make sure, when I put these [scripts] together, that we want to keep our offense in a rhythm and start fast.’’

From the lip

–“It’s miserable. They need to get rid of the game, I think. Just play Mondays and Sundays. It’s so tough on guys. You’re beat up; you’re banged up. It’s a very violent, physical game we play.’’ – Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger on Thursday night games

–“I think it’s laughable. We don’t take it serious.’’ – Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones on reports that the league is considering trying to take the team away from his father

–“We stink. It’s just sad. It’s real sad. It’s sad that we went from a championship-caliber team to a team that stinks and nobody respects us.’’ – Broncos defensive end Derek Wolfe

By the numbers

–The Saints have won seven straight games after starting 0-2. They’re just the second team in the Super Bowl era to win seven in a row after losing its first two. The other – the ’93 Cowboys – won the Super Bowl.

–Rams QB Jared Goff is the first player in club history to pass for at least 300 yards and throw three touchdowns with no interceptions in consecutive games.

–Vikings WR Adam Thielen had eight catches for 166 yards and a TD against the Redskins last week. Thielen, undrafted out of Minnesota State in 2013, has three career games with at least 150 receiving yards. That’s the most among undrafted active players. The only other active undrafted player with multiple 150-yard receiving games is the Seahawks’ Doug Baldwin, who has two