Maybe one of the more underrated pieces to the Eagles’ 32-27 survival over the Washington Redskins in Sunday’s season opener was the run game.
Both running and stopping the Redskins from running.
In this modern, pass-happy NFL world of the 21st century, those are two things have seemingly taken a back seat. Yet both ingredients remain a vital part in the recipe for winning, and, once again, the Eagles discovered why.
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They began the second half with the ball trailing 20-7. The Eagles embarked on a 12-play drive that ended with a 5-yard touchdown pass from Carson Wentz to Alshon Jeffery, but the drive chart shows nine of those 12 plays were of the running variety.
With those nine runs, the Eagles gained 56 yards of the 75 traveled to the end zone. The drive consumed 7 minutes, 10 seconds of clock, nearly half of the third quarter before Washington saw the football.
“Even a couple times in the first half, I thought we kind of controlled the line of scrimmage,” said head coach Doug Pederson. “We had some nice runs. Second half, kind of challenged the guys at halftime and said, ‘Hey, offensive line, control the line of scrimmage,’ and they did.
“Made those two long drives there in the second half and really dominated by the offensive line and hats off to those guys. Helped us really get ourselves back into this football game and helped us win.”
Then there was the 19-play drive that basically sucked the winning life right out of the Redskins. The Eagles got the ball with 12:05 left in the fourth quarter and leading 29-20.
They didn’t give the ball back to the Redskins until after Jake Elliott made a 22-yard field goal with 3:10 to play. Of the 19 plays, eight were kept on the ground, with Jordan Howard doing most of the damage, carrying five times for 37 yards and adding a catch for six more yards. The drive ate 8 minutes, 55 seconds of clock.
“We never had the ball,” said Washington head coach Jay Gruden. “They held the ball. You kick off to them and they go down and score a touchdown and hold the ball for eight or nine minutes. We get the ball and we have a run and then another pounding. We get third down-and-long. We try a screen pass and we have to punt and then we don’t get the ball again for another seven or eight minutes.”
The Eagles had nine rushes in the first half for 22 yards. They ended the game with 31 runs for 123 yards.
The ability to control the ball helped the Eagles win time of possession, 34:27 to 25:33.
On defense, the Eagles shut down Derrius Guice in his professional debut, a year after missing his rookie season with a torn ACL. The Redskins had just 28 yards on the ground in 13 tires for a 2.2 yards per rush average.
For the Eagles, Darren Sproles led the ground attack with 47 yards on nine carries, Howard was second with 6-44 and Miles Sanders was third with 11-25, but had a 21-yard touchdown run nullified due to a holding call on fellow rookie J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, which wasn’t a hold at all, but Josh Norman did a good job selling it.
The only quibble one could have was the workload carried by Sproles. He posted 109 total yards on Sunday, which leaves him 54 yards short of moving into fifth place all-time in NFL history in total all-purpose yards.
The Eagles’ running back by committee approach has been successful in the past, but Sproles can’t be overused early or you risk losing him or wearing him down later in the season.
Howard, though just 24, is a veteran back who should be getting the heaviest workload early in the season, and where was Corey Clement?
Clement played just three snaps on offense and wasn’t involved in the game plan.
“Some of it was by design, some of the plays that were effective,” said Pederson when asked why Sproles was used so much over his younger backs. “As you know, when we construct games, we have multiple run schemes and they are designed for different guys. The ones that were kind of clicking today were the Darren ones, and so just kept calling his number there.
“Those other two guys (Sanders and Howard) I thought ran well, also. Unfortunate we get the late holding call late in the game there on that one, but Miles is explosive, as you know. Jordan ran extremely hard. So excited for all three of those guys.”
Clement was never mentioned, though that doesn’t mean he won’t play a role at some point, because, yes, the running attack is still an important piece to winning.