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Wendell Smallwood injury, stout Cardinals defense raise a running question for the Eagles

Les Bowen, STAFF WRITER

Updated: Thursday, October 5, 2017, 8:08 PM

Eagles running back Wendell Smallwood runs with the football against Los Angeles Chargers free safety Tre Boston.

The Eagles found success through the running game the last two weeks, and have even begun to forge an identity as a team that runs to set up play-action, Doug Pederson suggested this week. That identity might be hard to maintain Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, for a couple of reasons.

One is that Wendell Smallwood, the back shouldering the bulk of Darren Sproles’ former duties in receiving and blitz pickup, hasn’t practiced this week because of knee swelling, and will be listed as questionable when injury designations are made Friday afternoon, a source close to the situation said.

Another is that the Cardinals aren’t the Giants or the Chargers. Eagles center Jason Kelce said Thursday that Arizona much more closely resembles Kansas City, the team whose defense basically lulled Pederson into abandoning the run, ruining offensive flow, in the 3-1 Eagles’ only loss of the season.

Losing Sproles for the season in the Giants game was a blow, but Smallwood showed great potential to mitigate that last Sunday. He caught four passes for 45 yards, on six targets, and rushed 10 times for 34 yards. Pro Football Focus said Smallwood hadn’t been targeted that much since his junior year at West Virginia. Though LeGarrette Blount was the rushing star, with 136 yards on 16 carries, Smallwood (44 snaps) was on the field much more than Blount (26) or rookie Corey Clement (19). The coaching staff seems to trust Smallwood to protect Carson Wentz from blitzers more than it trusts Blount or Clement.

The way it was shaking out, Smallwood was looking like the most versatile guy, the back best suited to the passing game. Blount was becoming the workhorse, but Clement (10 carries, 30 yards) was often getting the nod over Blount in short yardage, where Clement offers both strength and quickness.

Blount said the rotation goes by the flow of the game, though he couldn’t delineate that. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich said play design determines which back gets the call. It’s tough to envision exactly how that would work without Smallwood, though Blount insisted Thursday, as he has in the past, “I can catch the ball.” Blount’s 1-yard touchdown catch against the Redskins was the second of his eight-year career.

“The play calls and the play designs, I’m not always the first read,” Blount acknowledged. He caught one pass for 20 yards against the Chargers. Reich said “in no way should that ball have gone to LeGarrette,” Reich complimenting Wentz on making a great scramble play.

“Obviously you’ve got guys like Alshon [Jeffery] and Torrey [Smith] and [Brent] Celek and a bunch of guys that are used to catching the ball more than I am,” Blount said.

Four of Clement’s 10 carries against the Chargers moved the chains.

“To be a rookie, and have the faith of my coach to put me in on those crucial situations, means a lot to me,” Clement said.

Reich said Clement shows “great balance, strength, no fear. He’s just a powerful runner.”

Arizona ranks 10th in rushing yards per game allowed (88), sixth in yards per carry allowed (3.2). By comparison, the Giants rank 27th and 25th in those categories, the Chargers rank 31st and 27th.

“They got guys who are stout up front, who get off the ball and work well together,” right guard Brandon Brooks said, when asked what makes the Cards tough to run on.

“They do a good job of putting an emphasis on stopping the run. Stack the box, they’re going to give you different fronts to make it difficult for you to run the ball inside,” Kelce said.

“They do a lot of Cover 1, safety down in the box. You’re not going to get a lot of number-favorable matchups. They’re very similar to Kansas City, in that respect. They’re not quite the same defense.”

It was a sore point with the offensive line that fans and reporters came out of the Kansas City game thinking the Chiefs had stuffed the run. (The backs had 52 yards on 13 carries). It was more that Pederson stopped calling runs. So the offensive line isn’t about to concede that it can’t run on a similar group.

But it seems safe to say that Blount won’t be romping through the second level as much this week, stiff-arming safeties en route to 68-yard rambles, as he did against the Chargers. The Cards have allowed one 20-plus-yard run this season, a 30-yarder to Ezekiel Elliott, in Dallas’s 28-17 victory. Elliott gained 50 yards on his other 21 carries.

Hybrid linebacker-safety Deone Bucannon – the Cards call him their “dollar linebacker” – and safety Tyrann Mathieu aren’t as easily trampled as their Chargers counterparts.

“They’re very athletic guys. They’re going to get to the ball a little bit quicker,” on runs to the second level, Kelce said. “They do a lot of jumping around blocks – most likely they’re not going to take you on and butt you.”

Blitz pickup also might be critical this week for the backs.

“Mathieu is a very special player. He’s all over the place. They’ll blitz him; on any down and distance, he’ll be coming off the edge potentially, and you have to be ready to handle that,” Kelce said. “He’s an excellent blitzer, great tackler. He’s just an all-around good player.

“That secondary, in my opinion, is what allows them to do so much inside. The same way with Kansas City. When you have DBs that you feel comfortable leaving one-on-one out there it allows you to stack the box.”

If Smallwood is sidelined or limited, we might see Kenjon Barner working in the offense for the first time since his return, in the wake of Sproles’ injury. Barner, who played only special teams last week, probably is a better pass-game option than Blount or Clement. At 5-9, 195, he might be overmatched in blitz pickup.

Les Bowen, STAFF WRITER

Read full story: Wendell Smallwood injury, stout Cardinals defense raise a running question for the Eagles

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