For much of last Sunday's game in Minnesota, running back Brian Westbrook was a caged animal, surrounded by a tenacious, physical defense. His numbers were down, his impact minimal. Then Westbrook caught a screen pass, zig-zagged 71 yards and reminded any doubters that he still has it and that he needs to have the football in his hands for the Eagles to be successful.
But as we close in on the Giants game, and as the media and the fans weigh in during the week, there is a question out there about how much the Eagles should rely on Westbrook on Sunday. When the teams played in December in Giants Stadium, Westbrook carried 33 times as the Eagles operated a heavy-run offense in tremendously windy conditions. The Eagles had 10 days off from their previous game, against Arizona, and backup Correll Buckhalter wasn't available to play.
This week, Westbrook is ready to play. He isn't practicing this week, or won't practice much at all, but that's kind of been his M.O. the entire season. A series of injuries -- ribs, knee, ankle, total body aches -- have Westbrook spending far more time in the athletic training room than on the practice field.
How much can he give the Eagles on Sunday? How much should he be asked to give the team, also considering the availability of Buckhalter, the under-used back who is averaging 4.9 yards per carry this season and who ripped off a key 27-yard run last week to set up a field goal?
It is an interesting question, and one the Eagles coaching staff will monitor closely. Westbrook is a superstar running back who has been a huge problem for the Giants during his career. New York simply has not found a consistent answer to corral Westbrook in the running game and in the passing game. He is too quick in the passing game, and his ability to duck down behind blockers and then emerge in the open field gives the Giants fits. Heck, those skills give every team fits.
Will the Eagles look at Westbrook on a carry-by-carry basis and see what kind of burst he has in this game? Will they just go with him, no matter what, and hope that even if he struggles early, Westbrook will make a game-changing play in the fourth quarter as he did against the Vikings? Or will the Eagles have Buckhalter in the game plan and force a few touches to him early, just to give New York a different look?
Complicating the picture is the fullback situation. Dan Klecko has a shoulder injury that makes him a question mark for the game. Both Buckhalter and Kyle Eckel are taking the reps at fullback in practice, which adds another ball-carrying weapon for the Eagles in the variety of formations they use. In the world of X's and O's, maybe, the coaches and draw up some curveballs and use Westbrook as a receiver and Eckel as a fullback and Buckhalter as a halfback in a third-and-short situation. Would it be a shocker to see the fullback get a handoff there? Or see Westbrook on an end around? Or simply to use Westbrook as a decoy?
See, whenever Westbrook is on the field, the Giants are going to account for him. They can find him easily if the Eagles use him as a halfback on every snap, but that won't happen. Marty Mornhinweg is going to move Westbrook around the formation and get him the ball in a lot of different ways. Can the Giants cover Westbrook when he lines up in the slot as a receiver? Or when they split him out wide and have a big, ole linebacker out there backtracking in fear?
The Eagles have to use Westbrook, but they have to use him wisely. They need to get Buckhalter involved, at least 5 or 6 carries, to give the Giants something to think about and another tempo out of the backfield to consider.
Of course, the offense has to convert third downs to keep drives going or all of this is out of the window. For the Eagles to use Westbrook a healthy amount, and to get Buckhalter involved, and maybe to sneak in an Eckel carry or two, the offense has to run 65 snaps. They have to sustain drives and do what they did against the Giants in December.
If the Eagles can get Westbrook 22 to 25 touches, and give Buckhalter his work, and maybe use Eckel on a third-and-short situation or two, the offense is going to be successful and, yes, balanced. The coaches need to be smart here. They need to see how Westbrook feels before the game and then how much success he has early on. A premier player makes big plays in these kinds of games, as Westbrook did in Minnesota.
Just don't ask him to do too much. Be smart. Trust the other backs, especially Buckhalter, and give everyone a chance to contribute.