FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Wendell Smallwood and Matt Jones had golden opportunities to gain some ground Thursday night in the battle for the fourth, and possibly fifth, running-back spots on the Eagles' season-opening roster.
With their primary competition for those one or two jobs — Donnel Pumphrey and rookie Josh Adams — both sidelined with injuries, and with Jay Ajayi the only other running back scheduled to play against the Patriots, Smallwood and Jones knew they were going to get a lot of reps in the game.
"We only had three backs suited up,'' Smallwood said. "And I knew [Ajayi] wasn't going to play very long. So I knew I was going to get a lot of work.
"I knew I didn't have a backup, and Matt knew he didn't have a backup. So we had to suck it up and do what we had to do.''
They sucked it up and played a lot on both offense and special teams on a hot, clammy New England summer night.
Unfortunately for them, they didn't really do much to put any distance between themselves and Pumphrey and Adams.
The Eagles ran the ball only 16 times in their 37-20 loss to the Patriots. Smallwood had four carries for 1 yard. Jones ran it six times for just 19 yards.
The Eagles threw the ball 51 times, 39 of them by Nate Sudfeld. Smallwood was targeted four times, but had just one reception for 5 yards.
Jones had six catches for 32 yards, but had three – count 'em, three – drops in the third quarter, including one that he lost in the lights before it ricocheted off his hands and right into the grasp of Patriots linebacker Christian Sam.
Doug Pederson said he'll have to wait until he watches the film to grade Smallwood and Jones, but the Eagles coach said, "I think both of them would agree that there were plays left out on the field tonight.
"It's a great battle between those two. We've got a couple of weeks left before we have to make these tough decisions. So, we'll look at the tape and see exactly how they did.''
Last year, the Eagles had five running backs on their roster for nine of their 16 regular-season games and all three of their playoff games. Once they traded for Ajayi in late October, they carried five backs the rest of the year.
Ajayi, Darren Sproles and Corey Clement have locked up the top three running back jobs. That leaves Smallwood, Jones, Pumphrey and Adams duking it out for the remaining one or two jobs.
Smallwood is in his third season with the Eagles but is running out of time. He has been hampered by injuries and played just 172 snaps last year. He was inactive for six of the Eagles' last seven regular-season games and the entire postseason.
At 6-foot-2 and 239 pounds, Jones is an impressive physical specimen who was signed by the Eagles in May after being released by Indianapolis and Washington. The Redskins selected the University of Florida product in the third round of the 2015 draft.
Jones started the second half Thursday and picked up a first down on his very first carry, gaining 3 yards on a third-and-2 run. But on the next play, he dropped a pass in the right flat.
He caught a 6-yard pass from Sudfeld, but then had another pass clang off his hands, this one getting intercepted. He dropped a third pass a few plays later, right after a 57-yard Sudfeld completion to wide receiver Shelton Gibson.
"I definitely left some plays out there, man,'' Jones said. "I could've done some things better. But I can't rewind. I've just got to go back to work and get it on [film] there.
"I've got to be way more consistent. Definitely with catching the ball. I lost that one in the lights. Caused a pick. I tried not to get down on myself on that one. I tried to bounce back and make a play. I've got to move forward.''
Smallwood certainly had hoped to get more than five touches against the Patriots. He played 28 snaps against the Steelers a week earlier. He had six carries for 21 yards and caught two passes for just 2 yards. Jones missed the Steelers game with a leg injury.
"You want to make plays, but at the same time, the coaches want to see what you can do without the ball,'' Smallwood said. "Are you doing your job when you're not [touching it]?
"You've got to be a force either way. The reps matter. They count whether you're getting the ball or not.''
Because the Eagles threw the ball so much against the Steelers, Smallwood and Jones did get some pass-protection opportunities.
That hasn't been one of Smallwood's strong suits since he joined the Eagles. But he said he's been working hard to improve, and believes he has gotten better, though he looked a little shaky at times Thursday.
"I definitely think I'm more attune to what the line is doing and what calls they're making and where I need to be and who I need to be picking up,'' Smallwood said. "It's sort of night and day [from last year].
"I'm seeing things happen. I know what's going on. I know what's going to happen. I think I'm in a much better place as far as being one with the line.''
Both Smallwood and Jones were used a lot on special teams Thursday night, because a team's fourth and fifth running backs have to be able to contribute on special teams.
"I love that,'' Smallwood said. "I've told [special teams coordinator Dave] Fipp I want to play on every special team. I'm trying to learn every position on special teams. I know I've got to make plays on special teams as well as offense. I'm taking it real serious.''
Jones said playing both offense and special teams on a hot, sticky night took a toll on him. He said he didn't play a lot of special teams with the Redskins or Colts.
"I definitely have to do better with that,'' he said. "Playing special teams and then going straight to offense, it was challenging for me. But I'm going to bounce back next week and really home in.