One-Back Approach Doesn't Seem to be Working out for Eagles

Ed Kracz

The days of the three-head running back are over for the Eagles.

For years, head coach Doug Pederson admitted on Friday morning, the team had been trying to find one player who can carry the load, play all three downs with little break. They were poised to draft Dalvin Cook in 2017 before the Vikings traded ahead of them, but now they believe they found that player in Miles Sanders, a second-round pick last year.

“We knew when we drafted Miles that he was potentially and still is a guy that could go three downs for us and be a bigger part of our offensive plans,” said Pederson. “That's something that we've also talked about, I think, in the four, five years that I've been here of having that guy that we can rely on that way.”

But is a one-back approach the best?

The 2017 season would say, no, it is not.

The Eagles won a Super Bowl with a running back by committee approach.

The Eagles traded for Jay Ajayi at the trade deadline and added him to a mix that includes LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement for the final eight regular-season games. Ajayi played in just seven of the final eight games compared to eight for Blount and Clement.

Here’s the numbers breakdown from when Ajayi arrived:

  • Blount: 73 carries, 305 yards, no touchdowns; four catches for 25 yards, no touchdowns.
  • Ajayi: 70-408-1; 10-91-1.
  • Clement: 38-190-3; 8-92-1.

In the three-game postseason that ended with the Eagles winning Super Bowl LII, the numbers are equally balanced:

  • Blount: 29 carries, 130 yards, three TDs; no catches.
  • Ajayi: 42-182-0; 6-70-0
  • Clement: 6-33-0; 10-139-1.

Look at this offense now. It’s just so out of whack with one back and without any real identity. In 2017, the pounding fresh-back attack was part of that identity. Balance would seem to be pivotal.

Eagles assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley begs to differ. He believes the three-headed monster still breathes.

“I don’t think we went away from it,” he said Friday afternoon. “It still exists, it just looks a little different. You have a guy like Miles who can play all three downs then you have a guy that’s special like Boston (Scott) that you can sprinkle in from draws to screens whatever, then Corey (Clement), of course, playing special teams being that guy out there, four-core special team player then being able to bring him in, sprinkle him in. I think it’s still the three-headed monster, it just looks different.”

Statistical evidence says otherwise.

Thirty-six of Scott’s 51 carries have come in the three games Sanders has missed. That means he has had 15 runs to Sanders’ 84. Clement isn’t even a factor whether Sanders is healthy or not, with just 19 carries in nine games.

“Love Boston, love his energy, love what he's provided for our offense,” said Pederson. “He's a spark. Would like to find more ways of getting both of those guys on the field at the same time. I think it's a dynamic duo with that.

“And then we know what Corey is about. Corey has been obviously a great special teams player for us and can come in in some situational roles, whether it be red zone, short yardage, four-minute, whatever it is, and get us some valuable minutes, and obviously had a really nice touchdown run last week.

“I still think the philosophy is running back by committee. However, with Miles and what he's been able to do, yeah, we've given more touches to him.”

Sanders would be fine with splitting the touches, too.

He has always been part of a two-back system, from high school at Woodland Hills in Pittsburgh to Penn State and to his rookie season when he, Scott, and Jordan Howard shared the load, at least until Howard got hurt after 10 games and missed the rest of the year.

“I’m pretty used to sharing the ball,” said Sanders. “I’m all about winning. That’s all I really care about, so if two running backs are balling instead of one, or the running game isn’t going well and the passing game is going well, I’m not going to be over there chirping saying I still need the rock some way. If we’re winning, I don’t care. That’s just how I am.”

Howard is close to being added to the Eagles’ practice squad but must first go through COVID-19 protocols. He was released by the Dolphins and now, perhaps, he will at least bring another dimension to the Eagles’ backfield if they feel like the one-back system isn’t working like they had hoped.

“Obviously a talented player who has helped us win some games here, and we're excited to get him back,” said Pederson about Howard. “It adds depth, adds a little value. A veteran player obviously in that room. We'll see next week and see how he can just continue to help us. But yeah, we're excited to get him back.”

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