It was 1st and 10 for the Philadelphia Eagles at the San Francisco 49ers’ 49-yard line with 2:01 left to go in the 4th quarter. With them being a 1st down away from essentially closing out the game and sealing their first win of the 2020 NFL season, they lined up in singleback formation with…. Corey Clement… in the backfield, not Miles Sanders. Ultimately the team did come away with the 25-20 victory, so it’s tough to complain about the decision. But regardless, it was puzzling not to see Sanders on the field for that final possession. At a time when the team needed a closer, Sanders wasn’t the one whose number was called for some reason, and I’m still not sure why. And that makes it two weeks in a row now we’re left wondering why Sanders hasn’t gotten more carries.
Head coach Doug Pederson has made it known since the offseason that Sanders was going to be the featured RB of the offense, and for good reason. Despite his struggles early on in his rookie year, Sanders has developed very nicely and shown why the team loved him so much in the 2019 NFL Draft. He’s a special talent with an explosive and versatile skillset, and it’s safe to say the Eagles haven’t had a talent like him at the RB position since LeSean McCoy.
Sanders was having a tremendous game in Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals. The offensive line was having success against the Bengals’ subpar run defense, and Sanders was taking full advantage. He was executing runs well and creating with his explosiveness. However, he only ended up with 95 rushing yards on 18 carries. That averages to about 5.3 yards per carry, so the problem wasn’t the yardage. The way Sanders was running the ball that game, he should have gotten more than 18 carries.
Doug Pederson stated that the reason Sanders didn’t get more carries was that he was dealing with fatigue. Sanders didn’t really practice all training camp due to a minor lower-body injury so being fatigued is understandable. However, that doesn’t explain why the Eagles didn’t run the ball more in overtime considering Sanders was on the field for a good amount of their possessions. In a game where the passing attack was struggling, they should have gone to the ground game more, especially when they were at midfield twice.
Week 4 leaves us with a different situation but ultimately the same question. The run game wasn’t having nearly the same type of success against the 49ers as it was having against the Bengals. The 49ers played the run very well and the Eagles’ run blocking wasn’t great. Therefore, you can’t blame Pederson for leaning on the passing game more. The issue, though, came during the Eagles’ final possession, as mentioned at the beginning of the article. Why wasn’t Sanders on the field for it?
It’s a question everyone watching was asking themselves at the time. Maybe Sanders was hurt, but that would have been odd since there was no report from the sideline about it during the broadcast. Well then, maybe he was fatigued again. But that wouldn’t make sense considering he had 22 touches against the Bengals the week prior but only had 15 against the 49ers at that point.
In his press conference the day after the game Pederson stated that the reason Clement was in on that final possession and not Sanders was because he’s a little bit of a bigger RB who is powerful and can run in between the tackles. Therefore he got the call because of the design of the play and the situation they were in.
I don’t know for sure if Pederson was being truthful there or if he’s protecting Sanders in a way. But if he is being truthful then I have a huge issue with his logic here. If Sanders is the featured RB then he has to be on the field in the most crucial moments of the game. I don’t care if Clement is a little bigger, he’s not nearly as good of a RB as Sanders is. You give the ball to your best players in situations like that. Plus, it’s not as if Sanders hasn’t shown the ability to close out a game in a 4-minute offense (2019 Week 16 vs the Dallas Cowboys). And to top it off, that doesn’t explain why Boston Scott was the one who got a carry on 2nd down.
Now, if this indeed is a situation where Sanders is still a bit banged up or is still struggling to get back into football shape, then that puts the pressure on Sanders. He welcomed being named the featured RB with open arms and expressed the desire and ability to carry the workload. He wanted to be “the guy” for the Eagles offense. Therefore, he’s going to have to show the durability and fitness required to be the guy. The team can’t rely on you for 20-25 touches a game if you’re constantly getting nicked up or need a breather.
This also brings up another issue the offense faces: they don’t have a reliable runner behind Sanders as insurance. The Eagles tried signing Carlos Hyde in the offseason, but he elected to sign with the Seattle Seahawks. Devonta Freeman visited with the team days before their Week 2 game against the Los Angeles Rams but ultimately signed with the New York Giants after Saquon Barkley’s season-ending injury. Aside from those two, the RB free agent market isn’t exactly teeming with options that would make sense.
The Eagles could still do one of two things: either call up Elijah Holyfield from the practice squad and see if he can be any better than Clement, or trade for a RB that has some talent but isn’t needed on their current team anymore. A guy like Royce Freeman comes to mind as a logical trade target. Regardless of what they decide to do, they need to find an upgrade over what Clement has been giving them. Scott is a dynamic player in space but he can’t be relied on as a between-the-tackles runner.
Oh & Westbrook was being modest w/ his stats. He had 1,916 scrimmage yds in 2006 & over 2,104 in 2007 which led all players that season.#FeatureMilesSanders #AttackTheWeaknessOfTheDefense pic.twitter.com/kd5TNd5kFU
— Charles “Chux” Maranan (@ChuxMaranan) October 1, 2020
The Eagles play the Steelers in Week 5 in Sanders’ hometown of Pittsburgh. It’ll be the first time he’s playing there and will want to put on a special performance in front of his friends and family who will most likely be in attendance (the team was given permission to increase fan admission to 12,000). Pederson was repeatedly insistent over the past several months that Sanders is the lead guy at RB. Now he must back up his words and prove it. If Sanders is indeed the featured RB and is as special as we all believe he is, then Pederson needs to feature him.