So yeah, the Eagles ran the ball a lot last year, and they were really good at it.
Losing Darren Sproles early in the season hurt, but the trio of LeGarrette Blount (766 yards, 4.4 Y/A), Jay Ajayi (408 yards, 5.8 Y/A), and Corey Clement (321 yards, 4.3 Y/A) combined for 1,495 yards on the ground and an average of 4.7 yards per attempt. There were two games in which they rushed for more than 200 yards as a team, a 215-yard effort against the Cowboys and a 214 yard performance against the Chargers, and two others in which they rushed for more than 190 yards.
This year, injuries have decimated the Eagles’ running game. Once again, Sproles has missed virtually the entire season, but a season-ending injury to Ajayi removed the one true playmaker in the Birds’ backfield, Clement has been a shell of last year’s version of himself, and Wendell Smallwood and Josh Adams have had their moments, but neither is a top option running the football.
Smallwood leads the team with 261 yards on the ground with a 4.2 Y/A. Ajayi, despite having played in just four games this season, is 2nd on the team with 184 yards and a 4.1 Y/A average. Clement has gained just 180 yards with a paltry 3.3 Y/A, and Adams has 154 yards on the ground, albeit with an impressive 5.7 Y/A.
That’s 779 yards by those four players for an average of 4.1 Y/A. Their high this season in rushing yards in a game is 152, against the Colts in Week 3. They had a 133 yard effort in Week 8 against the Jaguars and a 117 yard performance in Week 4 against the Titans. In four of their nine games, they have failed to rush for over 100 yards.
The Eagles lost all four of those games.
One of the biggest areas in which the Eagles have regressed this year is in overall 3rd down conversion rate. Last year they had the 2nd-best rate in the NFL at 44.69%, this year it’s 41.18%, 12th-best in the league. Much of last year’s success was due to facing fewer yards to go on those 3rd downs, and the running game was a big reason why.
The Eagles averaged 4.7 yards per attempt on first down last year. This year, that number is 4.4. The difference is even larger on second downs, though, where they averaged 4.2 yards per attempt in 2017 but this season are only averaging 3.5 Y/A.
There is also the obvious lack of explosiveness by the Eagles running backs this season. Last year, the Eagles led the entire NFL in rushing plays of more than 20 yards, with 19, and had three rushing plays of more than 40 yards. This year, they have had four plays of 20+ yards, tied for 24th in the NFL, and have not had a single rushing play of 40+ yards.
You simply haven’t seen any plays like this from the Eagles this season.
Needless to say, problems along the offensive line have hurt. Jason Kelce tweaked his knee in early September and appears to be a step slower than he was last year. Jason Peters, in addition to being a 36-year-old left tackle, is trying to play through a torn bicep. And Lane Johnson is trying to grit out a sprained MCL. He missed last week’s game against the Cowboys but appears good enough to go this Sunday against the Saints.
A lack of cohesion on the offensive line, injuries, a talent drain in the backfield and a lack of commitment to the run by the offensive coaching staff has essentially made the Eagles a one-dimensional team, one constantly faced with challenging 3rd downs that they haven’t converted nearly as often as last season. The running game hasn’t broken big plays the way they did last year, adding further pressure on Wentz and forcing the third-year QB to feel like he has to do it all.
There may not be an answer to this problem in 2018, either. The team will certainly address the position this off-season in free agency or the draft, but for right now, they have to use what they have and hope Mike Groh, Duce Staley and Doug Pederson can figure out a way to get the running backs to be more productive.