Philadelphia Eagles running back Miles Sanders, left, and running back Kenneth Gainwell, right, run drills during practice at NFL football training camp, Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

Back in 2019 when the Philadelphia Eagles had veteran Jordan Howard and rookie Miles Sanders as the lead guys in their backfield, I talked about how they should use more 21 personnel (two running backs, 1 tight end) packages with both of them on the field together. As a “Thunder and Lightning” style duo, they’d be able to create mismatches and problems against defenses in various situations. Unfortunately, that coaching regime under Doug Pederson didn’t agree. There were a few times where 21 personnel was used throughout the season, one of which led to Sanders’ first career rushing touchdown, but it wasn’t used as often as I had hoped.

Fast forward to today and my hopes for more 21 personnel have been slightly renewed with this new coaching regime under Nick Sirianni, and it’s not just because Sanders and Howard are still here. Sirianni has spoken about how the offense will use the running backs as part of the passing game a good amount, which is music to my ears. That’s something the previous staff didn’t do enough of. So far, those haven’t been just words, either. The actions of the whole organization have backed up that philosophy.

One of the great advantages of using 21 personnel is the threat of running the ball with one running back while still creating a mismatch in the passing game with the other running back. Furthermore, it gives you the option of presenting both as receivers out of the backfield. That was on display at the beginning of the Eagles’ second preseason game against the New England Patriots.

What’s referred to often as the “Pony Package”, the Eagles had both Miles Sanders and rookie Kenneth Gainwell in the backfield, one on each side of quarterback Joe Flacco. Right before the snap, Sanders motioned out to the flat, which drew the attention of the edge defender. After the snap, Gainwell was able to settle into the middle of the field, underneath the zone coverage, and take the check-down for a 12-yard gain.

Miles Sanders was asked about the use of 21 personnel in his press conference this past Sunday. “I love the 2-back system. We had it since I been here as a rookie, and they’ve worked to the best of our ability,” said Sanders. “Just getting more guys on the field that can catch the ball. Not necessarily just catching, period, in the passing game, we also do run plays from the 2-back system too. It’s just giving us different looks and being able to put the ball in different people’s hands, guys like Boston, and Kenny, and even Jordan. Jordan’s in there with me or with any other guys, it’s just giving a different look and having the defense play a certain way.”

Speaking of “Kenny”, the Eagles’ drafting of Kenneth Gainwell has been discussed at large this offseason. Since the moment he was taken, I projected him to be the Eagles’ version of Nyheim Hines. The article below contains my film breakdown of how the Indianapolis Colts used Hines in 2020 as a receiver, my film breakdown of Gainwell during his time at Memphis, and my full prospect evaluation of Gainwell.

“I love his game,” said Sanders when asked about his opinion on Gainwell. “Obviously you can see that his game fits perfectly in this offense. Those are the type of backs that [are being pursued] and [having] long careers in this league right now. Being able to just catch the ball anywhere, whether it’s outside the backfield or in the slot, and he’s doing both. His ability to run the ball too is pretty good.”

Sanders also mentioned how Gainwell reached out to him after being drafted. “I remember he [direct messaged] me when he got drafted and he promised me we were going to get each other better, and he’s definitely been doing that. He probably has the best hands in the room, and I’m not afraid to say that. He has very natural hands. He practices without gloves just to make it easier on him when he does put gloves on, and I like that. Just making me work ten times harder.”

Sanders’ push to work even harder hopes to pay off this upcoming season, especially when it comes to not dropping passes. Sanders showed tremendous ability as a receiver during his rookie season but struggled with drops his sophomore season. If he’s going to be the lead running back in this offensive system, being a reliable receiver is mandatory, and he’s aware of that. He knows that if he’s going to take his game to the next level and make himself known as one of the upper-tier running backs in the league, he must cement his value as a dual-threat weapon. Doing so will only give Sirianni even more of a reason to use 21 personnel more often in 2021.