As the Eagles enjoy their bye week and all that comes with it – rest, relaxation, a healing of bumps and bruises, and a lot of mental downtime – we can look forward to a second half of the season that begins with great promise. The roster is becoming more whole as players become healthier. The Eagles have discovered a bit who they are. They know how to win with late rallies. They know how to overcome critical mistakes. They've gone toe-to-toe with some of the best teams in the NFL – Pittsburgh, Baltimore – and they find themselves atop the NFC East.
What they haven't done is truly establish an identity on offense. Maybe, though, they are closer than a lot of people think.
"I see so much good with the amount of young players who are playing and getting valuable reps," Head Coach Doug Pederson said. "I just see the positive in everything. We know we have to get better. We've got to get better as an offense. I think the defense is playing really well and keeping us in these football games and, quite honestly, if they give us a chance late in the fourth quarter to make plays, our guys are gutsy enough to eek out a win. That's what it takes in this league."
Pederson bemoans "the lack of continuity" on offense, "a lot of moving parts." Many of those pieces are moving back into the lineup, and Pederson expects that continuity to come in the next week or two when running back Miles Sanders returns and the Eagles find out about right tackle Lane Johnson and tight end Zach Ertz zeroes in on his return from injury. Alshon Jeffery is expected back at wide receiver very soon.
That's significant firepower.
As Pederson and his coaching staff spent the last few days evaluating the first half of the season and planning ways to incorporate the returning players as well as the young wide receivers – including Travis Fulgham and Jalen Reagor – and tight end Dallas Goedert. Here is a need, first and foremost: The Eagles need a philosophy that includes a go-to menu of plays that they know will work. And it begins with establishing the running game and finding out about Sanders and his ability to carry the load in the final eight games of the season.
Sanders has been a missing piece for too much of the season already. We know how good he is based on what he did as a rookie in both running the football and making big plays in the passing game. In the five games Sanders has played this season, he averaged more than 6 yards per carry, with a pair of 74-yard runs. Sanders hasn't been nearly as much of a factor in the passing game – 12 receptions, 91 yards, a 7.6-yard-per-catch average – and so as Pederson and the coaching staff discuss ways to tweak the offense, no matter how much, it has to begin with Sanders.
Only twice this season has Sanders had more than 20 touches. He has been slowed by a hamstring injury suffered in Training Camp and lately a knee injury from the Baltimore game that caused Sanders to miss the past two weeks. Boston Scott has done an admirable job taking over the heavy lifting in the backfield, but the Eagles miss Sanders. Maybe the best way to give the offense an identity is to build around Sanders and spin everything off of him.
Establishing Sanders and the running game means that Pederson has to commit to that and trust that his offensive line is going to give Sanders a chance. And it means that the Eagles need to create favorable matchups for Sanders in the passing game – something that is much easier to do with Fulgham and Reagor on the field making the defense account for them, and with Ertz and Goedert teaming up at tight end. Sanders is a player defenses have taken away in the passing game by chipping him, by slowing him down at the line of scrimmage, and by devoting extra coverage his way. That's easier to do when the Eagles have injuries at wide receiver and tight end. Being whole at wide receiver – including Jeffery – and having both Ertz and Goedert available makes Sanders that much more dangerous.
So much is going to be said about quarterback Carson Wentz and his performance in the second half of the season, and rightfully so. His first half was so unusual and so un-Carson like, and the Eagles really want to get him back on track. A way to do it – to improve his completion percentage and to give him higher-percentage throws – is to make Sanders more involved in both the running game and in the passing game. A better performance on first and second down will lead to more third-and-short situations. Having Sanders as a target on wheel routes and in the screen game and on backfield releases against slower linebackers is going to lead to big plays in the passing game.
That's the thought here. The Eagles need an offensive identity. They've scuffled along offensively for eight weeks. Now that they have some pieces closing in on playing, they can find out who they are very quickly. It begins by running the offense through Sanders, first in the running game and then in the play-action game and then as a target in the passing game. He has touched the ball all of 74 times in the first half of the 2020 season. That is a number that needs to skyrocket in the next eight games and if the Eagles are able to make that happen, you will see an offense that very much knows what it is – something that is going to be tough to stop down the stretch run of this season.