The numbers aren’t lying: A running game the Eagles think can be dynamic and consistent and dominating hasn’t yet gotten all the way untracked. After a strong opening game against Washington that featured 26 attempts and 116 yards from the running backs, the ground attack was stuffed Sunday night in Atlanta with Miles Sanders and Jordan Howard combining for just 46 yards on 16 rushes.
The Eagles have a game to win on Sunday against Detroit and to measure the level of urgency, here is how tight end Zach Ertz describes the mood in the locker room: “As high as it can possibly be. This is a game that we need to win. There’s no other option right now. We’ve got to be 2-1 after this game.”
As for the running game, Howard thinks the Eagles are close to breaking out.
“Little things here and there,” he said. “I definitely feel like we’re going to get it going, and when we get it going, it’s going to be hard to stop.”
Corey Clement is out for Sunday’s game with a shoulder injury, so the Eagles are down to Sanders, Howard, and Darren Sproles. That’s a bunch of firepower. The Eagles hope to establish things early in the ground game with Sanders leading the way.
The rookie from Penn State has had his typical “teaching” moments. He’s taken a couple of handoffs and tried to hit home runs instead of taking what the defense gave him. He sees it when he watches the film. He cringes when a hole is there and then it isn’t and he’s bounced out to create something on his own. Sanders is a smart kid and a student of the game. He wants to do whatever it takes to be a great football player.
In Game 3, Sanders looks to take his next professional step.
“Every day, every game, I’m learning,” he said. “I think I had some chances in Atlanta where I could have gone more north and just moved the ball forward instead of trying to break one. I see that. I’m going to learn from it. I have no doubt what my abilities are and how we’re set up in the running game. We’re going to get this thing going. I think everybody is looking forward to Sunday and getting back on track.”
Sanders will get to the point where he’s to and through a hole quickly and then into the second level of a defense where he can make his moves. But he’s got to be more consistent on his efficiency to and through the hole. The Eagles are looking for him to do that on Sunday.
"The hole isn't going to be where you can drive a truck through it,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “It's going to be tight. So he has the ability to slither through there, and that's what we want him to do. We want him to see that, and that just comes with more time on the field, more snaps, more reps.”
What is the offense going to look like on Sunday? We really don’t know. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson (abdomen) is out for the Lions (along with Clement, defensive tackle Tim Jernigan (foot), and offensive tackle Jordan Mailata (back)). Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (calf) and tight end Dallas Goedert (calf) are listed as questionable to play.
For the Eagles to win, Pederson is going to need a great game plan and tremendous flexibility within the afternoon. Detroit comes into Lincoln Financial Field feeling pretty terrific about its 1-0-1 start to the season. The Lions haven’t given up much on defense and last week they shut down the Chargers.
The Eagles know, no matter who is playing, they need to get the running game cranked up and keep it that way.
“It’s always an important part of the offense, and we’re working on it to make it better,” Sanders said. “We want to have it at the very beginning of the game and keep it producing. I know I’m getting better. I’ve made my mistakes and I learn from them and get better. That’s all I can do.”
This isn’t to suggest that the Eagles are suddenly going to be a run-first offense, but they want to be in a position where they can lean on the ground game at crucial times and know the production will be there. That could start against Detroit. That has to start against Detroit. A 1-2 start is no place the Eagles want to be.