Each week this season, we’ll breakdown a player, trend or scheme from the Eagles’ previous game using the coaches all-22 film. This week, we spotlight their multi-faceted run game after the addition of Jay Ajayi.
Eagles running backs rushed for a combined 197 yards and three touchdowns in Sunday’s 51-23 win over Denver. The Broncos had held opposing offenses to an average of 72.9 yards on the ground and hadn’t allowed a touchdown in their first seven games.
The blowout win allowed all five tailbacks – LeGarrette Blount, Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, Kenjon Barner and Ajayi — to get offensive snaps, and four – minus Barner — to get carries. It was a perfect storm in keeping everyone satisfied, but the depth and variety of the running backs should keep defenses off balance down the stretch.
Clement: Defenses got to stay on their toes more. You got to figure out who you want to key in on, who you want to stop. As long as we can keep rotating, and keep defenses confused as to what we’re doing, it’s going to be hard for them.
With Ajayi acquired just before the trade deadline last Tuesday, the Eagles said they would give him a handful of plays to learn before his first game.
Eagles coach Doug Pederson: Didn’t want to give him a big workload, but at the same time wanted to get him in the game and see what he could do.
Ajayi’s first three snaps came on run-pass option (RPOs) plays, but he didn’t get the ball because Carson Wentz correctly made post-snap reads to pass. But his first carry came on one of the Eagles’ staple inside zone runs – with a fake end-around wrinkle — from under center.
Pederson: The explosiveness, you can see it, it’s there.
Ajayi’s burst was evident on this run, which may or may not have had a read option. Nevertheless, Wentz’s fake paused the linebackers for a split second as the tailback powered to the second level, broke a tackle and picked up eight yards after contact.
A play later, Ajayi (No. 36) got the call again on an outside zone run. With the play designed to go weak-side, the Eagles had a numbers advantage and the offensive linemen blocked it to perfection.
Eagles center Jason Kelce: We ended up going with a down and around scheme. I pulled, the guard [Stefen Wisniewski, No. 61] dropped down on the shade, and I got the easy block right there. The down block, if the tackle [Halapoulivaati Vaitai, No. 72] can hold up on the defensive end, there is going to be a hole there.
The hole was huge, but Ajayi exploded into the open field and finished off the 46-yard touchdown with a leap just inside the pylon.
Ajayi: Offensive line – those guys created the seam and it’s just about hitting it hard and making sure you get in the end zone.
The Eagles ran a bunch of plays with an unbalanced line. Right tackle Lane Johnson flipped sides and lined up inside Vaitai. They typically ran away from the tackles and didn’t have much success on early tries. But on this third quarter stretch, Ajayi picked up five yards.
The stretch is a play the Dolphins often ran to success with Ajayi, who is almost as good vertically as he is going downhill.
Pederson: We’ll just keep increasing his workload as we go.
Blount played fewer snaps (16 of 29) than Clement (28) and Ajayi (17). He had one more carry (9) than Ajayi (8), but three fewer than Clement (12). It was only the second time all season that he had less than double-digit rushes. But there should still be a significant role for Blount (No. 29).
On this nine-yard tote, he ran off tackle behind power man blocking.
On both the above and below carries, Blount broke arm tackles.
Clement may be the running back least affected by the addition of Ajayi. Over the last two weeks, it’s become clear that he has moved ahead of Smallwood. The Eagles have been using him more on third down. He’s also become a four-core special teams player.
Darren Sproles’ injury created a void. The Eagles have been able weather his loss in the passing game because they have other options down the field. But they would love to have more success in the screen game and cashed in early on this third down pass in the red zone.
Clement (No. 30) did a great job of selling the fake by chipping Broncos linebacker Von Miller (No. 58). But his vision after the catch was exceptional as he meandered into the end zone.
Clement: Screens are normally designed for anybody. I can run it, Wendell can run it, Barner, anybody.
But none of the running backs have been able to pick up the blitz and pass protect as well as Sproles. Smallwood appeared to be improving, but he hasn’t been on the field for many third downs. Ajayi was an inconsistent blocker in Miami, but the Eagles say he has potential. Clement has a way to go, but he may be the best of the group right now.
Clement was on the field for more than third downs, though. He got the call on this first and goal speed option run that Pederson said the Eagles decided to put in the game plan after watching the Chiefs run it successfully against the Broncos the week before.
The Eagles wanted to take advantage of Miller’s aggressiveness, and one way to do that was to just leave him unblocked.
Pederson: It was just something that we happened to be on the right hash, and it was set up perfectly for that. It was one of our low, red zone plays.
Clement: I was just waiting for Von Miller to crash inside and Carson was going to pitch it out. It is kind of a two-way go; whether Carson was going to score or I was going to score.
Broncos cornerback Chris Harris: They run this college offense. They kind of run what the Chiefs do. They have the option to run, option to pass, they run the read-option, they run the real option.
Harris’ “college offense” comment likely wasn’t meant as a diss. But the option plays are just once facet of the Eagles offense. And Clement, who scored three touchdowns Sunday, is more than just a back that needs to run in space, as he showed on this 28-yard rush.
Pederson: He’s a smart guy. He’s really picking up the offense extremely well. He runs hard and he’s aggressive.
Clement: It’s not surprising to me, personally, but to everybody else it probably is.
Smallwood appears to be the odd-man out. He would have been inactive had tight end Zach Ertz not been a late scratch. But he did get some mop-up time on the Eagles’ last series, and took this handoff 26 yards.
Smallwood: With so many guys in the room you’re going to get limited opportunities, so you got to go out there and make plays with what you get. It’s going to be tough on us, but I think it makes the team better.
Clement: I am pretty sure everyone on the outside thought it was going to create some turmoil in our room, but at the same time, we are having fun. … If we can get everybody rolling – positive players get positive production.