To keep Carson Wentz from getting slathered with Kansas City barbecue sauce and offered up as a ritual sacrifice to the Midwestern football gods this weekend, the Eagles probably are going to need a more effective ground game than they showed in the opener, when backs gained 52 yards on 20 carries.
“We’ve got to be able to run the ball better,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Friday, in his final remarks before his team travels to face the Chiefs.
Sunday’s matchup at K.C. offers an unfortunate contrast for Eagles fans. The Chiefs spent their third-round draft pick this season, 86th overall, on running back Kareem Hunt, from Toledo. In the Chiefs’ stunning 42-27 season-opening romp at New England, all Hunt did was rush 17 times for 148 yards (8.7 yards per carry) and a touchdown, and catch five passes for 98 more yards and two more TDs.
The Eagles, in what de facto general manager Howie Roseman called an “historic” running back draft, waited until the fourth round, 132nd overall, to take Donnel Pumphrey, from San Diego State, who was placed on injured reserve Friday after tearing his right hamstring in Wednesday’s practice. Pumphrey made little headway in the preseason and was inactive for the opener.
Of course, Pumphrey’s career isn’t over yet, though his season probably is. (NFL teams can bring two players back from IR. Given Pumphrey’s lack of impact, it seems dubious they’ll do that with him, though he should be healthy in six weeks or so.) Down the line, Pumphrey can still justify the faith Roseman, personnel director Joe Douglas and the scouting staff placed in him. But this is not a promising beginning. And he certainly isn’t going to provide help anytime soon, for an offense that showed Week 1 it could use a backfield boost.
“He’s a playmaker,” running back LeGarrette Blount said of Pumphrey. “He’s one of those things that we were thinking was going to come along over the course of the season. It’s unfortunate he went down. “
Pumphrey said he’d had tightness in the hamstring going back to training camp. He said he felt the muscle “grab” twice during Wednesday’s practice, but didn’t expect the injury to be severe.
The Eagles kept an unwieldy five running backs on their roster because they didn’t want to expose Pumphrey to waivers. There is no word yet on what they might do with Pumphrey’s roster spot.
Whatever they do with it, the move won’t help them Sunday in Kansas City. The Chiefs have a well-regarded front seven, but they allowed an average of 4.3 yards per rush last season, 24th in the NFL.
“Obviously, we didn’t have as many opportunities to run the football last week [as we wanted], but we want to continue to get the confidence of the coaches and gain those opportunities as the season goes on,” said Blount, the 30-year-old back the Eagles plucked off the free agency shelf late in the process. Blount was the Eagles’ leading rusher last week, with 46 yards on 14 carries.
At Washington, there were times when it seemed the hole wasn’t there. Other times, it seemed the hole was so wide, Blount should have been able to break a long gainer. His best run went 7 yards.
Blount said the path to greater effectiveness is to run more often.
“The offensive line is blocking their tails off. They’re doing everything they need to do to get us the yardage. We’ve just got to be more consistent by running it more,” he said. “It takes time to get to know your offensive line, how they block things. Different guys are good at different things, they have different techniques. It takes a little bit of time – more than one game. We’ve just got to be a little more consistent with sticking with the run a little bit more.”
Second-year back Wendell Smallwood got only four carries at Washington and gained just 4 yards. Darren Sproles carried twice for 2 yards. Corey Clement, the undrafted rookie running back from Wisconsin and Glassboro, was active on special teams but didn’t play in the offense. Clement said Friday he expects that to be different in Kansas City.
“I’ve been getting more reps with the ‘ones’ this week,” Clement said, though he added that running backs coach Duce Staley “likes to keep me guessing.”
Could the Eagles have done better than Pumphrey and Clement, from that rich draft class? The focus is beyond 2017, obviously, and it’s hard to fault their first-round selection of edge rusher Derek Barnett. Ditto injured second-round corner Sidney Jones, who ought to be a No.1, shutdown type in a year or two.
The picture gets murkier in the third round, where the Eagles took corner Rasul Douglas 99th overall. They think Douglas will be a starting-level player, and he should at least get on the field for special teams this week in the wake of Ronald Darby’s ankle injury, but 99th would have been a more promising slot to take a running back than 132nd.
Hunt and six other backs were gone by the time that 99th pick came around, but still on the board were some backs who managed to be active Week 1, most notably the Bears’ Tarik Cohen, who carried five times for 66 yards and caught eight passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. Cohen, even smaller than Pumphrey at 5-6, 179, went 119th overall in the fourth round, from North Carolina A&T.
Lasting even longer than Pumphrey was Marlon Mack, the Colts’ fourth-rounder, 143rd overall. He gained 24 yards on 10 carries and scored a touchdown in their opener.
“I came off the field [Wednesday], I wasn’t limping, none of that,” Pumphrey said. “I got the MRI, they said it was torn … It’s definitely disappointing. Gotta deal with it.”