PHILADELPHIA – Nick Sirianni was in charge of the Colts offense the past two seasons when Nyheim Hines recorded 107 catches in 32 games.
Shane Steichen was basically in charge of the Chargers’ offense the past two seasons when Austin Ekeler piled up 146 catches in 26 games, though Steichen did not become the full-time OC in Los Angeles until Oct. 30, 2019, after Ken Whisenhunt got fired.
Ekeler’s total ranked him second in the league during that two-year span, behind only the Saints’ Alvin Kamara, who had 164. Hines’ total landed him seventh among the top 10, ahead of Ezekiel Elliott (106), Dalvin Cook (97), and Aaron Jones (96).
Obviously when running backs like Hines or Ekeler catch that many passes, the screen pass is a big part of an offense, and it will be again as Sirianni and Steichen combine forces this season for the Eagles, who are in the midst of their second of three weeks of offseason OTAs.
Both Lane Johnson and Miles Sanders alluded to the return of the screen game to the Eagles’ offense, which, struggled the past two seasons under Doug Pederson and company.
Now, fresh ideas and innovative strategies are being put to use. There are also volumes of the playbook that deal with the play-action game.
“I think they're important, they're definitely important,” said Steichen last week. “Anytime you can get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly and create explosive plays in the screen game, that's big. And obviously, the play-action game is big, too.
“When you go into games, things are going to be different week in and week out. It's your opponent. Who are you playing? What do they do on defense? What are the coverage techniques? What are the fronts they are playing? Your scheme each week can be multiple by who you're playing.”
So, which Eagles running back will be the next Hines or Ekeler?
The smart money is on Sanders, but he has some work to do to spruce up a game that regressed from his rookie season to last year.
“I believe there’s a lot of stuff that I took from last year that I’m taking into this year, as far as anything I gotta correct,” he said. “Me catching the ball wasn’t as good as I was my rookie year, as you just mentioned.
"Even my run discipline, where my eyes are supposed to be at and even pass blocking, I got to sharpen up on pass pro. So there’s always stuff.”
Sanders also missed four games last year with a variety of injuries, including the season opener.
“I don’t go out there if I physically can’t go out there,” he said. “I did do a lot of stuff different (this offseason) with my body. I started focusing on conditioning a lot more, like at the beginning of training, just to have my legs ready, and just have that good, in-sync feel with your legs and your body. I’ve been taking it from there, and my body feels great.”
The Eagles have steeled themselves in case injury again strikes Sanders, or his hands again betray him at inopportune times.
They drafted Kenny Gainwell in the fifth round, who was a noted pass catcher at Memphis. The rookie said Sirianni’s playbook is similar to what he learned in college, and it matches well with his skill set.
“As a receiving back, I can run any route that you can probably name,” said Gainwell during rookie camp. “I love the way that it’s set up for playmakers and set up for guys that come in here and put in their work. It’s not easy, but you gotta put in that work and study hard.”
Roster holdover Boston Scott who was brought back as a restricted free agent is also a pass catcher as is Kerryon Johnson, who was claimed on waivers from the Lions after the draft.
The RB room is filled with guys who have the ability to catch in Jason Huntley and Adrian Killins. Jordan Howard and Jordan Howard have to prove themselves in that area.
“It's a really good room,” said Steichen. “I’m excited about all those guys, that whole group. Our running backs Coach Jemal [also assistant head coach Jemal Singleton] has done a heck of a job with those guys so far. Really excited, like I said, to get them on the grass like we are doing right now.
“We've seen their skill sets on film, but to see it in person and let them compete. Everyone is competing. Coach preaches competition. We're all about competition here. All those guys are going to get reps, and we're going to use them like I said, to the best of their ability’s week in and week out and put them in position to make plays.”
Ed Kracz is the publisher of SI.com’s Eagle Maven and co-host of the Eagles Unfiltered Podcast. Check out the latest Eagles news at www.SI.com/NFL/Eagles and please follow him on Twitter: @kracze.