Film Study: RB Sanders surging when Eagles need it

It’s hardly by design, but the Philadelphia Eagles’ playoff hopes are riding on running back Miles Sanders as much as they are on any player not named Carson Wentz.

The second-round rookie played fewer than 50 percent of the snaps in eight of his first nine NFL games, but he’s suddenly become a focal point for an offense desperately lacking weapons.

DeSean Jackson’s injury laid bare the Eagles’ lack of speed, and Sanders has provided the only explosion in his absence. Since Week 3, Philadelphia has just eight plays of more than 30 yards, second fewest in the NFL. Sanders has seven of them.

With injuries to Alshon Jeffery, Nelson Agholor and Jordan Howard further emptying the cupboard, Sanders has taken a central role, boosting his snap count and workload. That culminated with 19 carries for 122 yards, six catches for 50 yards and two total touchdowns in Sunday’s win over Washington. All but the receiving yardage were career highs.

Head coach Doug Pederson didn’t do anything wild schematically with Sanders, but he did hand him the ball twice in an uncommon situation: third-and-long. Many would criticize those calls if they failed, but Sanders delivered with his wheels.

The first came on third-and-7 late in the second quarter. As Sanders took the handoff, he had a lane on either side of left guard Isaac Seumalo, who was blocking linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton. Meanwhile, safety Landon Collins flew downhill unblocked.

Sanders jabbed left, then cut right and turned on the jets. The jab moved Hamilton and also made Collins take a false step. That was enough for Sanders, whose speed eliminated Collins’ angle. He looked at Collins and prepared to stiff-arm but didn’t need to, easily picking up 14.

Then came a third-and-10 in the fourth quarter, with Philadelphia down 21-17. Washington brought six rushers, with two unblocked off the backside. Running away from a blitz is usually ideal for the offense, but Sanders had to fly to avoid a tackle for loss.

His footwork indicated a downhill run (not outside), but with linebacker Jon Bostic closing fast from the right, Sanders took the handoff and cut immediately left, where defensive end Montez Sweat didn’t contain the outside. Bostic grabbed at Sanders’ hip instead of diving, underestimating his speed, and Sanders was loose.

Dallas Goedert got away with a light hold on Collins, but Sanders cruised by the safety easily, eating up yards and breaking another tackle. The 56-yard run was the Eagles’ second-longest play all season, behind only his 65-yard run in Week 8.

Third-and-long draws can’t be an offense’s core, but Sanders is plenty capable on any down. He found creases and gained hard yards throughout Sunday, with only two carries that didn’t gain yards, and 12 gaining at least 3 yards or a touchdown.

The Eagles’ used mostly simple zone runs, with some window dressing, but Pederson added an increasingly popular wrinkle: a “pony” package (two RBs), with Sanders at running back and Boston Scott split out, usually going in jet or orbit motion.

Pederson ran at least 10 variations with Scott in motion, whether runs (with motion spreading the defense), or short throws capitalizing on misdirection. On back-to-back plays, the Eagles ran a screen to Sanders for 18 yards and a screen to Goedert for 16, both off Scott’s jet motion.

Later that drive, Sanders ran for 11 (called back for holding) and 8 on consecutive plays — first a pitch left as Scott jetted right, then a straight handoff with Scott in orbit motion. Philadelphia also manufactured a 12-yard flip to Scott and two other 5-yard passes off jet motion.

Those plays aren’t flashy, but they keep the defense off-balance and manufacture simple yards through scheme, a necessity for a team with limited weapons. They helped Sanders produce in the passing game too, although his biggest reception came via an ad-lib play.

He had a simple flat route right in the red zone, and when it wasn’t open, he turned up the sideline. As Wentz escaped right, Sanders turned to dash along the endline, then reversed to the back corner, freeing himself from linebacker Ryan Anderson.

Wentz made perhaps his best throw all year, and Sanders also showed terrific technique (especially for a running back) on the catch. He slowed and dropped to a knee before the ball arrived, making a more comfortable grab and ensuring he’d stay inbounds for the 15-yard TD.

Pederson didn’t call many exotic designs for Sanders. There were no vertical routes — like he’s used Sanders on often this year — nor attempts to aid him with picks or clearout routes. That could change against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 16’s must-win, as the Eagles seek more explosive plays.

It also might behoove Pederson to unearth some old run-game creativity. Under O-line coach Jeff Stoutland, the Eagles had the league’s most expansive run schemes in 2017, memorably trampling the Cowboys 37-9 with 215 yards rushing. That game featured several exotic designs, including Jay Ajayi’s 71-yard run.

For whatever reason, Philadelphia has simplified things in recent years. But Sanders’ stop-start agility and acceleration could weaponize such designs and give the Eagles another dimension down the stretch.

Wentz will still determine how far this team goes, but Sanders has become a critical piece by default. So far, he’s delivering.

–David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media

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