It’s week 17 of the NFL season and the 6-9 Washington Football Team will be facing a 8-7 Eagles team at home at FedEx Field on Sunday at 1 PM EST. The Eagles have won both of their games since the last time I wrote this article, while Washington has lost both of its games in the same time.
The Eagles offense has been characterized by an anemic passing attack, but a prolific rushing attack, as the Eagles are currently ranked 26th in passing yards per game, but 1st in rushing yards per game, per ESPN. On defense, they are more balanced, with the 9th ranked pass defense and 9th ranked run defense in terms of yards per game allowed.
The quality of the Eagles play is largely being driven by their trenches on both sides of the ball. The Eagles OL is ranked 2nd in pass block win rate and 2nd in run block win rate according to ESPN analytics. Similarly, the Eagles DL is ranked 3rd in pass rush win rate and 7th in run stop win rate. It’s fair to say the Eagles have the best OL/DL combo in the NFL. As a result, the Eagles have been successful running the ball with a committee approach. Miles Sanders is their lead RB with 754 rushing yards, though QB Jalen Hurts also has 740 rushing yards on the season (2nd most on the team). Sanders is likely to be out for this game due to a broken bone in his hand. Additionally, QB Jalen Hurts hasn’t been rushing nearly as much since spraining his ankle week 12.
I asked Brandon Lee Gowton of Bleeding Green Nation five questions to better understand the state of the Eagles and what to look for in this game.
1) Although the Eagles are the top rushing team in the NFL, they’ve employed a committee approach at RB that hasn’t produced a single prolific rusher (possibly outside of Jalen Hurts). Tell us about the Eagles RBs, what have you seen out of them and how are they employed situationally? Do you think Miles Sanders will be extended by the Eagles?
The Eagles have some quality talent at running back but one would be remiss not to mention how their offensive line benefits them. Entering Week 16, the Eagles had 1,569 yards BEFORE contact this season, which was more rushing yardage than 16 individual teams had overall. Pretty wild.
The running backs have also benefited from Hurts’ threat as a ball-carrier. Defenses must account for his legs, which can open up space.
Getting to the actual players you asked about, the Eagles have used four running backs this season: Miles Sanders, Jordan Howard, Boston Scott, and Kenneth Gainwell.
Sanders is the lead guy and the team’s most well-rounded back. Though his longest run this year has gone for 38 yards, he’s demonstrated big play ability. He’s been pretty efficient this season with 5.5 yards per carry. That said, availability has been an issue. He missed three games on injured reserve and he’s going to at least miss this weekend’s game. Sanders has also had some issues with leaving meat on the bone, fumbling (just one this year but has had multiple near fumbles), and pass protection. All this is to say that he’s a nice player but likely not a guy who warrants a huge contract extension. The Eagles are not wont to heavily invest in running backs so I tend to think they will not extend him. They could look to franchise tag him for the 2023 season to keep him through his age 26 season. Unless he’s willing to sign a team-friendly or short-term deal, there’s a decent chance he’s gone after that.
Howard began the season on the practice squad and didn’t get called up until injuries opened up opportunity for playing time. He’s not much of a threat as a pass-catcher and he’s not going to outrun the defense to the end zone. But, unlike Sanders who can be guilty of dancing a little too much, he will consistently gain positive yardage as a more physical, no-nonsense runner. The bad news for the Eagles this week is that Howard might not play; he was listed under “did not participate” on Wednesday’s injury report.
With Sanders and Howard potentially out, the Eagles could turn to Scott as their lead back. He’s been a solid role player for the Birds, logging 4.4 yards per carry on 214 career rushing attempts. He can also contribute as a pass-catcher, especially in the screen game. Though on the smaller side at 5’6”, 203 pounds, Scott runs tough. He’s not RB1 for an entire season but he can be effective.
Gainwell has shown some promise in his rookie season. Despite this, the coaching staff doesn’t seem to really trust him just yet. He hasn’t been overly impressive as a runner at just 3.8 yards per carry. He’s also fumbled a few times. Gainwell might be most valuable as a pass-catcher. The Eagles are hoping he can become something of a Nyheim Hines for them in that regard. Gainwell was listed as a limited participant in Wednesday’s practice but he might need to step up and play through the pain with injuries elsewhere.
The Eagles also have Jason Huntley and Kerryon Johnson on the practice squad. Huntley is a small, speedy guy. Johnson offers a third-down back skillset.
2) When we spoke last year, it was clear that Eagles fans have a lot of concern over how GM Howie Roseman has been doing in the draft. Do you feel any differently this year and how has the Eagles rookie class looked so far?
Hard to look at taking Jalen Reagor over Justin Jefferson and feel completely confident in Roseman’s drafting ability.
That said, the early returns on the Eagles’ 2021 NFL Draft class are positive. DeVonta Smith is showing WR1 potential. He’d probably be shining more if he wasn’t in such a run-heavy offense and the Eagles made the decision to force feed him more often, which they inexplicably haven’t been doing. Landon Dickerson is playing well on one of the league’s best offensive lines. Milton Williams hasn’t shown up a ton in the box score but he’s generating some interior disruption. Gainwell has been up and down but there’s hope for him. Zech McPherson hasn’t been a total liability when he’s had to fill in at cornerback. Tarron Jackson is coming on as a rotational defensive end.
I don’t know that it’s necessarily the foundation of a championship core but it appears to be at least a step in the right direction for Roseman.
Of course, there’s even more pressure on him to get the 2022 NFL Draft right with the Eagles having three first-round picks. And they’re likely to land in a range where he’s struggled to find hits (see: Reagor, Andre Dillard, Marcus Smith).
3) What do you think of Gardner Minshew and should he be given more of a chance to compete with Hurts for the starting job?
I like Gardner Minshew. Fun personality. Doesn’t have the best arm but can throw with accuracy and anticipation. Limits turnovers. Had a really good game against the Jets. That much should’ve been expected, though, with New York allowing the highest passer rating to opposing quarterbacks this season.
Should he be given more of a chance? Probably not. For as much as I like Minshew, I don’t think he’s ever going to be a championship team’s franchise quarterback. He doesn’t have great physical tools or special skills. One could argue he’s an upgrade on Hurts (especially as a passer) but on the whole it’s probably a marginal improvement at best. There’s more interest in seeing what Hurts can do down the stretch and if he can prove he’s Philly’s long-term answer under center.
Barring Hurts looking like a complete catastrophe out there (say, four interceptions in and maybe a fumble or two over a half of game action), he’s going to continue to be the guy this year.
4) Doug Pederson is reportedly interviewing for the head coaching vacancy in Jacksonville. What do you think about his prospects of succeeding in a second go-around there and do you think he can develop a young QB like Lawrence without Frank Reich’s help?
I do worry about Pederson landing in Jacksonville. I fear that he might be doomed to fail there, especially if he’s going to be saddled with Trent Baalke as his general manager. The Jags have been incompetent for a long time and that starts with ownership. It’s not just about the coach, though Urban Meyer was an obvious disaster.
I’d prefer Pederson go to a team with a little more of a base going for them like the Raiders. But even if he ends up taking the Jags job, I think there’s some level of hope for him. He was a pretty good head coach for the Eagles.
And, no, Frank Reich wasn’t the driving force behind his success. Pederson wasn’t that far off from taking the Eagles to their second straight NFC Championship Game appearance in 2018, when Reich had already left. The Birds also made the playoffs again in 2019 without Reich. Reich is a good coach, to be clear. But Pederson has already demonstrated he can be successful without him. I don’t know that the Jags’ ceiling will ever be very high under Shad Khan but Pederson can probably help to lower their floor. Reminds me of how I viewed the Ron Rivera hire for Washington; credible coach from the Andy Reid tree working for an incompetent owner.
5) Big picture, what do you think are the biggest weaknesses in the Eagles organization (front office, coaching, and roster) and what are their biggest strengths? What would be your priorities to change in the offseason?
In terms of importance, the biggest weakness is the quarterback position. This isn’t to say that Hurts is without merit. Yes, he’s young, and it’s possible he improves. He’s shown signs of promise that have contributed to the Eagles having one of the most effective and efficient offenses in the league since they really committed to running the ball.
I just can’t help but feel like Hurts’ limitations cap this team’s ceiling. The best quarterback that the Eagles have beaten in a Hurts start is either Matt Ryan (of the Atlanta Falcons who rank 32nd in DVOA) or Teddy Bridgewater. I worry that Hurts can help the Eagles beat up on some bad teams but won’t be good enough to help them outperform the league’s better teams, which could be prohibitive to ever seriously contending for a title.
Hurts can’t be the Eagles’ “Plan A” this offseason. They must absolutely explore avenues to upgrade the most important position in all of sports. He can be their fallback plan, though, and it’s quite possible that they’ll have to stick with him if/when they strike out on veteran acquisitions and younger options in the 2022 NFL Draft. If that’s the case, the Eagles absolutely MUST find a way to pick up an extra first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. Putting all their eggs in the Hurts basket at this point would be unwise.
Again, it’s going to be a really big offseason for Roseman.
Thanks again to Brandon Lee Gowton for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Eagles.
As of right now, Vegas has Philadelphia as 4.5 point favorites over Washington. How would you bet?
This poll is closed
Philadelphia wins by more than 4 points
Philadelphia wins by 4 points or fewer or it’s a tie
Washington wins outright
As of now, Vegas has the over/under for this game at 45 points. Which would you bet?
This poll is closed
45 or more total points are scored (both sides combined)
Fewer than 45 total points are scored (both sides combined)
If the Eagles secure their wildcard spot and play the Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs, which team would you want to win that game? (Give reasons why in the comments)
This poll is closed