Darren Sproles isn’t supposed to have nine carries and 12 touches in his 36-year-old body that is in its 15th season of taking an NFL pounding. But there he was on Sunday, helping to spark the Eagles out of a 17-0 hole in their season opener against Washington. It could be a harbinger of things to come, not necessarily for Sproles but for an Eagles running game that could be among the league’s best by the end of the season.
While DeSean Jackson deservedly received all of the headlines and the love for his two-touchdown, big-play game, the Eagles got the offense untracked in a wickedly good second half by turning to the running game. Sproles, Jordan Howard and rookie Miles Sanders ran behind an offensive line that dominated an outstanding Redskins front, and the running game opened the third quarter by taking over the action.
“We love to run it,” right guard Brandon Brooks said. “Hey, that makes everything easier. It opens up the passing game. Everybody knows that.”
Yes, but in this pass-first NFL, the air attack is what gets all the attention. At no time in the history of the league has it been easier to complete a pass. Defenders can’t touch receivers five yards and beyond from the line of scrimmage. Pass rushers have a small target area at which to aim their wrath on quarterbacks.
Drop back and throw it, and you’ll generally have success. The Eagles did, with quarterback Carson Wentz tossing three touchdown passes and making it look easy down the field.
But what could separate this Eagles offense from previous ones that have put up big numbers is a running game that looks to be on the verge of something special. While Sproles isn’t likely to get a lot of touches in the weeks to come – he’ll still be the primary punt return man, though – the hard running of Howard and the electricity of Sanders will be featured.
Make no mistake about it: Head coach Doug Pederson sees something special in Sanders, a second-round draft pick from Penn State who had 11 carries and 25 yards in his debut, along with a 21-yard touchdown run wiped out by a holding penalty. Howard had six carries for 44 yards, including a long gain of 17 yards.
Those two are the “Thunder and Lightning” backfield the Eagles haven’t had in a long, long time. The running back-by-committee approach worked well enough to win Super Bowl LII, but the Eagles could be morphing into a two-back approach with an emerging Sanders just too good to ignore.
“When you have the running backs we have, you know the touches are going to be spread around and that’s fine,” Howard said. “We’re here to win, do what it takes and do what the coaches ask us to do. I’m fine with whatever comes my way. I just want to win.”
The Eagles won the opener after an ugly first half and now they move into prime time on Sunday night in Atlanta. It’s going to be a telling game for a lot of reasons, including this: With all of the glitz and the glamour this offense has, could it be that the Eagles become a running team in 2019? Stay tuned. They might just be good enough to have that kind of offensive personality. ••