Eagles Must Lean on Sanders Down the Stretch
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - Things haven't gone as expected for the Eagles this season but the show goes in on the dismal NFC East.
In a typical year at 5-7 with three-quarters of the season gone, fans generally tend to shift their focus to the cottage industry of meaningless mock drafts. However, the only real hurdle between a division championship and home playoff game for Philadelphia -- the Dallas Cowboys -- are imploding before your very eyes.
While there are many convoluted ways the NFC East could go in the final four weeks, the most likely scenario remains that the Week 16 game between the Cowboys and Eagles will essentially serve as a division title tilt.
That means Philadelphia has two weeks to figure out its own issues and perhaps four to get ready for a better team in the postseason if the Eagles can solve Dallas with Ezekiel Elliott, something they've never done.
Offensively, an identity that hasn't existed since Jordan Howard went down with the shoulder/stinger issue which had cost the usually durable back three games already and will more than likely keep him out a fourth Monday night against the New York Giants.
The lone stretch where the Eagles have played arguably good football came game in Weeks 8 and 9, against two solid opponents in Buffalo and Chicago.
It's no coincidence that's where Howard's touches spiked after starting the season No. 2 on the depth chart behind rookie Miles Sanders. The former Pro-Bowl selection, who was acquired from the Bears in the offseason, carried it 23 times (a high in the Doug Pederson era) for 96 yards against the Bills and followed that with 82 yards on 19 carries against his former team, a number curtailed because he left for a time with the stinger.
Overall the touches were 24 and 20 when you add in a reception each game and more importantly, a productive default setting Pederson and Mike Groh/Jeff Stoutland could count on.
"Jordan brings a different style, I guess, just his dynamic style. He’s more of an in-between-the-tackles guy," Pederson admitted.
In Howard's absence, Sanders has been fine from a statistical standpoint, running it 40 times for 184 yards and adding 10 more receptions for 54 yards. Anyone watching, though, understands any perceived success is just that with the bottom line being three consecutive losses without Howard and the inability to call on the steady presence to calm down a struggling offense.
"I really felt last week we took some steps with RB Miles Sanders," Pederson said Saturday. "I thought he had a really good game rushing the football. Offensive line has done well and we continue to show improvement there with Miles. Jordan has been a big part obviously early part of the season, and hopefully we get him back soon."
With time running out and Howard still not cleared for contact by Friday, Pederson is trying to prop up Sanders in a week where he is squaring off against the back who kept him on the bench at Penn State for so long, Giants star Saquon Barkley.
“It’s going to be real special,” Sanders admitted. “But really at the end of the day I’d be pretty selfish to tell you that I’m focused on Saquon. I’m really just focused on getting this 'W' because we’ve got some stuff to handle and we’ve got a future ahead of us depending on what we do in these last four games.”
Behind the scenes the take on Sanders is like many rookies, occasionally he's not where he's supposed to be whether it's in pass protection, as an outlet receiver, or trying to bounce things outside when the blocking scheme is designed for that ability to stick one's foot in the ground and go.
"I think from the style or the types of rushes and schemes that we did with both of those two, might affect that a little bit," Pederson admitted when asked by 973espn.com if the dichotomy of having both options has shifted things. "But other than that, Miles has done a great job. I’d love to get Jay [Ajayi] a few more touches and get Boston [Scott] in the mix so we're not obviously wearing Miles down here this last month of the season."
Without Howard, though, and Ajayi clearly not yet back to his pre-ACL form, Sanders is the Eagles' best option to restore their post-DeSean Jackson identity. There are also no more rookies 13 games into a season.
It's time to take the reins off Sanders and to make him the bell cow over the final month.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen