Howie Roseman knew that the Philadelphia Eagles needed a drastic upgrade at the running back position. Constantly neglecting it for bargain-value options can only get you so far, and the 2018 season was evidence of that. The offense couldn’t go into this season with Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood, and Corey Clement as their RB corps again, so Roseman did what needed to be done. He infused the position with better talent by trading for Jordan Howard and drafting Miles Sanders.
I’m not going to lie; I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to write this article since Sanders was drafted and we knew the Eagles would have both him and Howard in the backfield for 2019. I just couldn’t write it until they both had their simultaneous breakout game for the Eagles, which I knew would come eventually. And it did, in probably one of the most important games the Eagles will play in this season. Does one game equal consistency? No, of course it doesn’t. But the potential for both to have huge success in this offense has always been there.
Jordan Howard has been a quality runner since entering the league his rookie season and his career stats show that (3,370 rushing yards in 3 seasons with the Chicago Bears). It is important to note that his numbers did decline each season and he was traded away because he wasn’t an ideal fit for Matt Nagy’s system. He does have his limitations as he’s not an explosive or dynamic athlete. He doesn’t excel as a receiver either outside of catching passes near the line of scrimmage. But he is a very powerful runner with great strength. He’s physical at the point of attack and almost always falls forward. He’s an ideal option for a downhill running attack and in short-yardage situations.
The coaching staff has had trouble figuring out how to properly use him to start the season though. Having him in there for too many outside run designs and not utilizing him enough in short-yardage has led to criticism from fans and media. At the same time, Howard himself wasn’t running too well against the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions, often missing open running lanes and other opportunities for bigger gains.
Miles Sanders was selected for his athleticism and potential as a receiver. He’s explosive and dynamic, and even though he wasn’t used a lot as a receiver at Penn State he did flash the ability to be very good when asked to do so. Due to a lack of extensive playing time during his college career, he’s still raw as a runner though. He’s shown a tendency to rely on his athleticism too much and try to bounce a lot of runs outside. That was very evident in the first 2 weeks of the season.
That leads us to the Eagles’ Week 4 matchup against the Green Bay Packers. With the team at 1-2, they desperately needed a win. It wouldn’t be easy as the Packers came into the game undefeated at 3-0 with a stout pass defense. However, their run defense had given up 181 rushing yards to the Minnesota Vikings running backs and 144 rushing yards to the Denver Broncos running backs in weeks prior. With DeSean Jackson missing another game and Alshon Jeffery not being 100% healthy, the Eagles leaned heavily on Howard and Sanders on the ground as their plan of attack. It worked masterfully.
Howard finished with 87 yards rushing and 2 rushing touchdowns on 15 carries. He also added 28 yards receiving and 1 receiving touchdown on 3 catches. Sanders finished with 72 yards rushing on 11 carries. He also added a pivotal 67-yard kick return early in the 2nd quarter that swung momentum in the Eagles favor.
Head coach Doug Pederson did a great job of game planning. The first thing that jumped out to me was how much they mixed in runs from singleback formation. They’ve been known for running predominantly out of shotgun but having Carson Wentz directly behind center helped give a significant boost to both Howard and Sanders. You can see each of their splits below:
Miles Sanders runs vs GB Packers
– Shotgun: 6 carries, 22 yards, 3.66 ypc
– Singleback: 5 carries, 50 yards, 10 ypc
Jordan Howard runs vs GB Packers
– Shotgun: 9 carries, 48 yards, 5.33 ypc
– Singleback: 6 carries, 39 yards, 6.5 ypc
— Charles “Chux” Maranan (@ChuxMaranan) September 30, 2019
Along with running the ball in singleback formation more, the majority of Howard’s runs went inside as opposed to outside. 13 of his 15 carries were between-the-tackles run designs and gained 84 yards, good for 6.46 yards per carry. Howard also did a much better job of seeing and anticipating running lanes than he had before and getting him going downhill as opposed to sideline-to-sideline undoubtedly played a factor.
What was equally as pleasing to see though was Howard’s involvement in the passing game. Now, he’s not the type of RB that you’ll see running routes downfield; that’s not his skill set. But at the same time, he’s very capable of catching simple passes in the flat or near the line of scrimmage. Doing so on occasion benefits the offense because you force the defense to account for Howard on passing plays too and not just running plays.
A2D’s own @ChuxMaranan shows how @JHowardx24 wasn’t just a threat in the ground game against the @packers, but also in the passing game. #JordanHoward #FlyEaglesFly #ChuxTapeTakes #eagles pic.twitter.com/Zit36cDcnn
— A2D Radio (@a2dradio_com) October 1, 2019
After a rough beginning to his season, Sanders is starting to figure things out. He’s shown steady improvement with his vision and discipline as a runner. He’s getting better at understanding when it’s the right time to show patience and when it’s the right time to hit the hole immediately. It’s still far from perfect, but it is good to see that the development is there 4 weeks into the season. He also continues to be stellar in pass protection, especially from a mental processing standpoint.
Now that we’ve seen Sanders get better in that area of his game, we need to see him take that next step. He must start forcing missed tackles and creating yards for himself. He did it so well in college, and that was one of the reasons why I was so high on him before the draft. But for Sanders to eventually reach an elite level he’s got to show that he can do it in the NFL at a consistently high rate. He’s explosive, but now we need to see him be elusive.
Also, Sanders’ vision needs to expand. He’s getting better at following the structure of the run design, but there are going to be times when the anticipated lane is clogged up by the defense. There are also times when an even better lane opens somewhere else. Sanders must learn to see when those secondary/alternate holes open up and start taking advantage of them.
— A2D Radio (@a2dradio_com) September 29, 2019
Miles Sanders – All Week 4 Runs (11-72-0)
Stats are better, first level vision slightly better, burst still there.. but poor finishing & not making DBs miss in space still stand out.
— Michael Kist (@MichaelKistNFL) September 27, 2019
The benefit of having 2 running backs like Howard and Sanders who have such contrasting styles to each other is being able to do different things with them. Diversifying your running attack by having a bruising runner physically punish the defense on one play and then having an explosive playmaker rip off big gains on another play just makes the offense that much tougher to stop. It reminds me of what the Eagles’ running attack looked like back in 2017-18 with LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi. I know some fans remain insistent on having a workhorse back, but it’s been proven that in today’s NFL having a good tandem at the position does have plenty of benefits, including being able to keep both guys fresh for the year.
It’s only one game, and one game does not make a season. There’s still a lot of football to be played. Howard and Sanders have to show that they can continue to have this type of success as a duo consistently. Howard is a good and established RB who wants to prove that the Chicago Bears were wrong for trading him. Sanders is a young and physically gifted RB who wants to prove that the Eagles were right for drafting him in the 2nd round. Individually, they each have their things motivating them to be great, but together they have the potential to provide a lethal threat in the Eagles’ backfield as a “thunder and lightning” combo. That’s something the team did not have last season, and something tells me it’s going to be a huge factor in the team’s success this season.