One of the ongoing problems with the Eagles offense this season, even during their late-season resurrection, was the running game.
While the red-hot quarterback play of Carson Wentz and Nick Foles got most of the headlines last year during the Super Bowl run, the fact was that the Eagles also had one of the league’s most productive ground games.
They finished fourth in rush average (4.5 yards per carry), second in first-down rush average (4.7), first in runs of 10 or more yards (66), and fifth in rushing first downs (115), even though they didn’t have a running back with more than 175 carries or 800 rushing yards.
This year, they plummeted to 30th in rush average (3.9), 24th in first-down rush average (4.1), 22nd in 10-plus yard runs (45), and 20th in rushing first downs (98).
What Doug Pederson and Howie Roseman need to ascertain in the next few weeks is why they weren’t nearly as good at running the football this season.
How much of the blame do you attribute to the injuries to their top three running backs — Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, and Darren Sproles — who missed a combined 27 regular-season games? How much do you put on their replacements, Wendell Smallwood and undrafted rookie Josh Adams? And how much do you put on an offensive line that is supposed to be one of the best units in the league?
Earlier this week, Pederson went with the always-popular all-of-the-above answer.
“I think it’s a little of [everything],” he said. "I don’t put everything on the running back position. The offensive line has a part in that. Tight ends. And obviously injuries play a part in that.
"We’ll take a look at all of that as we evaluate. The injuries with Jay and Corey obviously lessened the position a little bit. That’s two guys that took a bunch of reps last year in 2017. So, moving forward, we’ll evaluate it, and again, do what’s right for the team."
The Eagles averaged 24.9 rushing attempts per game this season. That’s nearly five carries a game fewer than last year. Part of the reason for that was the Eagles were playing from behind much more this season thanks to chronic late starts.
But another part of the reason was that their ground game wasn’t very effective, and Pederson wasn’t hesitant to abandon it.
The loss of Ajayi, who tore his ACL in Week 5, hurt. But he was averaging only 4.1 yards per carry when he went down. He had just four double-digit-yard runs in the four games he played in.
Clement tore his ACL in Week 13. But he was averaging just 3.8 yards per carry at the time and was in and out of running backs coach Duce Staley’s doghouse much of the season. He had just 21 carries in the five games before he got hurt.
The 35-year-old Sproles missed 12 games with a hamstring injury, but he rushed for just 25 yards on 16 carries in the Eagles’ two playoff games.
Adams, who opened the season on the practice squad, led the Eagles in rushing with 511 yards on 120 carries and showed some promise. In six games from Weeks 8 to 14, he averaged 5.1 yards per carry. The 6-2, 225-pounder is a patient runner but often too patient. He had just one carry in the Eagles’ two playoff games.
Smallwood averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 87 rushing attempts during the regular season, but he averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in the postseason. He’s a hard runner but lacks great vision, and three seasons into his career, he still is a below-average pass protector.
The Eagles had just three runs of 10 yards or more in their two playoff games, and one of those was by wide receiver Nelson Agholor on a misdirection play.
"Jay getting hurt early and Corey getting hurt, that was a position that was affected [by injuries]," said Roseman, the Eagles’ executive vice president of football operations. "Those were two of the three guys who were part of the rotation in the Super Bowl last year. Really key guys.
"So we have to look at that among other positions and figure out where we are going forward. Again, we want to strengthen the roster. Make sure we’re improving the roster."
Ajayi will be a free agent in March. Before he got hurt, it seemed unlikely he’d be back. He figured to be an expensive keep, and the Eagles aren’t big on using up a lot of their salary cap space on the running back position, especially for a guy like Ajayi with an arthritic knee and a likely short NFL shelf life.
But his ACL injury almost certainly has affected the level of interest in him by other teams, or at least the money they’re going to be willing to offer him. It’s not out of the question that he ends up signing an affordable one-year deal with the Eagles, though I’m not sure bringing him back to be a limited-carry runner really is going to improve the ground game all that much.
With the Eagles expected to have at least 10 picks in the draft, they’ll almost certainly use one — probably a mid- to late-rounder — on a running back. But they’ve gone that route before with Smallwood (fifth round, 2016) and Donnell Pumphrey (fourth round, 2017).
They also could look to free agency for help (Atlanta’s Tevin Coleman? Seattle’s Mike Davis?) much like they did in 2017 when they signed LeGarrette Blount.
— The Eagles used 11 personnel (1 RB, 1TE, 3 WR) on 29 of 47 offensive plays (61.7%) against the Saints. They used 12 personnel on the other 18 plays. In their two playoff games, they used 11 personnel on 70 of 111 plays (63.1 percent). During the regular season, they used it just 53.7 percent.
— Nick Foles attempted seven passes against the Saints that traveled 20 or more yards in the air. He completed just one of them — a 37-yard first-quarter touchdown pass to Jordan Matthews. In seven starts, including the postseason, Foles was 9-for-28 (32.1 percent) on 20-plus-yard throws. Carson Wentz was 17-for-46 (36.9 percent) in 11 starts.
— The Eagles blitzed Drew Brees just twice in 40 pass plays. He completed both of his throws when they sent extra rushers. In the Eagles’ Week 11 loss to the Saints, they blitzed Brees 11 times in 32 pass plays. He was 9-for-11 for 155 yards and a touchdown, which is a big reason they didn’t blitz him more Sunday. They used a zone-blitz on Brandon Graham’s first-quarter strip-sack of Brees, dropping defensive lineman Michael Bennett into coverage and rushing safety Malcolm Jenkins.
— The Eagles scored touchdowns on both of their first two possessions against the Saints. The only other time this season in which the Eagles have put up points on their first two possessions was Week 15 against the Rams (two field goals). It was just the second time all season that the Eagles scored on their second possession.
— After catching three touchdown passes in the last two regular-season games, Nelson Agholor had just four catches for 38 yards and no TDs in the Eagles’ two playoff games.
— Tight end Zach Ertz had more than 65 receiving yards in just one of the Eagles’ last six games, including the playoffs.
— Cornerbacks need to have a short memory. But watching the film of the loss to the Saints, it looked as if rookie Avonte Maddox allowed the problems he had a week earlier with the Bears’ Allen Robinson to affect his play. He played way too soft on Michael Thomas’ 42-yard catch on the Saints’ first touchdown drive. Same thing at the end of the first half on Brees’ 21-yard throw to Ted Ginn that helped set up a 45-yard Wil Lutz field goal. He also gave up a 15-yard completion to Tre’Quan Smith on a third-and-5 on the Saints’ final scoring drive, playing outside leverage, which allowed Smith to cut inside and make an uncontested catch.
— The Saints converted three third downs on that pivotal 18-play, 92-yard, 11 ½-minute touchdown drive in the third quarter. The last of those was an absolute back-breaker — a third-and-16 in which Brees completed a 20-yard pass to Thomas. The Eagles were in zone coverage. Linebacker Nigel Bradham should have been more aware of Thomas. But Brees bought time by stepping up in the pocket. He had the ball for 3.82 seconds before finally releasing it. It was only the fourth time this season that the Eagles allowed an opponent to convert a third down of 15 yards or more without the aid of a penalty.