McMullen: Balance is When Eagles are at their Best
PHILADELPHIA (973espn.com) - It probably took a little too long but the Eagles have finally chosen a bell-cow back in undrafted rookie Josh Adams.
Doug Pederson has favored a committee approach since he was named the head coach in Philadelphia before the 2016 season but that's because he's had multiple competent options -- first Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles and then LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi.
Without Ajayi, who is done for the season with a torn ACL, and Sproles, who has played in only one game due to persistent hamstring issues, Pederson has bounced back-and-forth between Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement this season before finally succumbing to the obvious, the reality that Adams, despite his draft pedigree, is by far the best runner available to the coach.
Like most young backs Adams is still a work in progress when it comes to pass protection and catching the football out of the backfield but his combination of power and speed is a level above Pederson's more experienced options.
That realization actually came before the blowout in New Orleans.
"I thought Josh played well," Pederson said after the disappointing home loss to Dallas. "He's improved each week. Do I think he can have a few more touches? I do. So that will answer everybody's questions right there. I do feel like he could touch the ball a few more times."
The lopsided nature of things vs. the Saints meant that didn't materialize until Sunday when the Eagles were able to finally carve out clearly defined roles during a 25-22 comeback win over the New York Giants with Adams serving as the guy and Clement spelling him and fitting in as the primary third-down back.
Adams was given 22 carries against the Giants, piling up 84 yards, a one-yard touchdown and the subsequent two-point conversion which put the Eagles on top for the first time in the fourth quarter. He also showed off his big-play ability with a 50-plus TD run that was called back on a borderline holding call from Jason Kelce.
“I think it's something that has always been there," Pederson said of the revived run game on Monday. "We've seen glimpses of that this season when we've rushed the ball for close to thirty times a game. That's been a good recipe. If you go back and look at the wins, we've been pretty successful doing that. The games that get lopsided obviously it’s a different story because you have to rethink your plan just a little bit.”
The last time a Philadelphia runner got as much traffic as Adams was back in 2016 when Mathews got it 22 times in Pederson's debut as a head coach against Cleveland. Later that season against Baltimore Mathews also got 20 carries for 128 yards in a loss.
Blount topped out at 16 during the run toward Super Bowl LII while Smallwood had been the high point with 18 in the first contest against the Giants back on Oct. 11 this season.
In a town where too many think the modern NFL is still about running the football and good defense, the uneducated cling to one stat like a life raft, the 5-6 Eagles are 5-0 when Pederson dials up the run 25 times or more.
To call that an oversimplification is being generous of course and the bigger concern for Pederson as a play-caller is the idea of balance, something that usually can't be created easily if either part of the offense -- the passing or running games -- are ineffective.
“Any time we stay balanced I think as an offense, good things happen and you're able to score points and sort of control the ball,” the coach said on Monday. “I think you look around the league, the common theme of teams that have that balance are winning games."
So while the laser focus stayed on the number of runs, ironically, it was the passing game that not only won the game against the Giants but also bolstered the number of runs in what turned out to be a clock-siphoning denouement, a 10-play march that took nearly 5 1/2 minutes off the clock and left the limited Eli Manning with just 22 seconds to answer.
Adams actually ran it for six of the nine offensive plays but only garnered a total of seven yards on the march starting things with a two-yard push before Carson Wentz and Alshon Jeffery erased a second-and-long with a 21-yard hookup. The run then actually put the Eagles behind the sticks with a one-yard loss before Ertz got most of that back by sitting down for a 10-yard gain.
Philadelphia was stoned on 3rd-and-1, though, forcing Pederson to go for it on fourth down where a blown coverage on a mesh concept left Nelson Agholor wide open in the middle of the field for 12 yards, moving the Birds into field-goal position.
Adams then closed it out with three runs for only six yards before Jake Elliott booted the 43-yard difference.
The runs drained the clock but only because the pass produced conversions.
That's the balance Pederson is talking about.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen