The Philadelphia Eagles are 7-7, fresh off of a prime-time win, and playing hot after taking their lumps as a young team early in the season. If they don’t feel like a December sleeper pick for playoff spoiler, I don’t know who does.
To be fair, there are a few teams that fit that bill. San Francisco is still favored to make the playoffs despite a loss to the Titans on Thursday night. The Colts have won five of their past six and, like the Niners, are dominating on the ground (and just got a big win over the conference rival Patriots). But nobody—not the playoff spoilers nor the clear contenders alike—is running the ball as well as the Eagles. They’re the first team to rush for at least 175 yards in seven consecutive games since the ’85 Bears; Miles Sanders’s consecutive 100-yard rushing performances are the first that Philadelphia has seen since prime LeSean McCoy in 2014.
The success of the running game is nothing new in Philadelphia—the commitment to it is something else. For the first seven weeks of the season, Nick Sirianni’s Eagles passed the ball on early downs more than all but seven teams in the league; since Week 8, no team has run the ball more than the Eagles in the same situations. Credit goes to Sirianni for adjusting course, turning the efforts of his coaches and players to maximizing the running game first, and letting the passing game come as it might.
And that success in the running game is hugely to the credit of Sirianni’s key player: Jalen Hurts. Hurts has established himself as not just a good scrambler or solid runner—he is second perhaps only to Lamar Jackson in terms of quarterback run ability in the league. He’s explosive as all get out, big and strong enough to win through contact, and has mean change-of-direction ability in the backfield. The Eagles have used Hurts on designed keepers or option plays in short-yardage situations accordingly, and with great success.
It would be easy to believe that the Eagles’ running game is good solely because of Hurts, but this doesn’t fully capture the picture. The Eagles are tied for fifth in the league in EPA per attempt on pure handoffs—no read options added, no designed quarterback runs. Even though the Hurts’s keeper will always float in the corner of the defense’s mind, the running game is working for the Eagles outside of Hurts’s influence.
And here, some of that credit now goes to Miles Sanders, the Eagles’ third-year running back who has shown improvement in two key areas: decision-making and vision. Sanders is still good for a couple of runs a game in which he careens into the back of his own blocker, or rushes a decision and puts his blocker in a bad position. You can see center Jason Kelce, on this viral play, throw up his hands in frustration that Sanders didn’t wait for him to make the final block and pave the way to the end zone.
Sanders was probably just trying to avoid the cornerback that Kelce couldn’t see, but the examples of Sanders’s impatience and mistakes are diminishing in frequency. Behind the Eagles’ zone blocking, Sanders is showing better tempo and understanding, and behind their pullers, he continues to be an explosive threat who is willing to hit the hole with physicality.
But again, the entire story here remains untold. For as good as Sanders has looked during his past two games of strong production, the Eagles’ running game still ascended during his absences. From Week 8 to Week 10, the Eagles’ backfield was a three-headed beast between Boston Scott, Jordan Howard, and Kenny Gainwell and still produced an EPA per play of .097 on designed runs, third to only the Ravens and Colts over that stretch. On the season, Sanders is averaging 5.5 yards a carry—Jordan Howard is right there at 5.2, and Scott is just behind him at 4.7; Howard’s yards after contact actually beats out Sanders’s, with Scott again just behind at.
So Sirianni is running it more, and Hurts is really good at that; but it isn’t just Hurts, it’s also the performance of the backfield, which isn’t just Sanders, but also the backups who have played behind him. With me so far?
The fact that everything is working so well in Philadelphia’s running game reminds us of an important truth of NFL football: There’s rarely, if ever, just one reason for something starting or stopping working. In Philadelphia, things are working well because of Sirianni, Hurts, Sanders, and how all those pieces coalesce. Exactly how those pieces coalesce is the fascinating part of this discussion and folds in the most important part of any running game: the offensive line, and what they’re capable of blocking up.
Some teams run the ball well because of the personnel packages they have available. The Ravens have 74 more rushing attempts this year with two backs on the field than any other team in the league; they’re also sixth in EPA per attempt on such rushes. The Browns have 99 total rushes with three tight ends on the field; the next closest team is the Titans with 65, and the Browns are eighth in EPA per attempt on such runs. These personnel packages can force extra linebackers on the field or widen surfaces in the running game to create advantageous angles for different running schemes. The Browns and Ravens are also first and third in the league, respectively, in running power and counter, which are common concepts that utilize those extra bodies to pull blockers and create new gaps in the running game. They’re second and 10th respectively in EPA per attempt on such runs.
Those blocking schemes also inform body types at those positions. The Buccaneers love running duo in part because they’ve got a deep tight end room, a great blocking wide receiver in Chris Godwin, and maulers on the interior of their offensive line. Nobody runs duo more; only four teams have a better EPA per attempt. The Titans, Vikings, and Packers lead the league in zone runs, in that all three run schemes are inspired by the Kyle Shanahan–Sean McVay tree. The Vikings built their offensive line a little lighter, prioritizing quickness and speed, to let Dalvin Cook pick and choose his way through the defensive flow; the Titans built their line with more power to create inside running lanes for Derrick Henry to rumble vertically upfield.
This conversation details why running the football is so hard. It’s something that Eric Eager at PFF has been writing about this season: how much more valuable a perfectly blocked running play is than a play with even one block graded negatively by PFF charters. One mistake from one of the many bodies working in concert to block up a running play is so limiting to the play’s success that teams often major in one specific blocking scheme. They build an offensive line with a wide zone or duo or power in mind, and then they make it their bread and butter: They become so good at it that even when the defense knows it’s coming, they can’t easily stop it. And then the offense pitches some changeups, sprinkling in the variety necessary to break tendencies and force the defense to honor alternatives.
The burden for both that mastery and the subsequent changeups often falls on the offensive line and their coaches, whether that’s the running game coordinator, the offensive line coach, or both. Legendary offensive line coaches have hung their hats for years on their ability to build such a specialized, but flexible unit. In Cleveland, where the running game was dominant in 2020, offensive line coach Bill Callahan elevated the Browns’ wide zone running game and folded impressive diversity into their approach. In Baltimore and in San Francisco alike, Greg Roman has majored in the designed QB running game by incorporating a wide variety of college-inspired alignments that keep defenses on their toes.
That brings us back to the Eagles and a critical aspect of their running game we’ve yet to discuss: their blockers and their blocking scheme. What is it that the Eagles are doing on the chalkboard?
This is where the discussion of the Eagles’ running game gets really fun. Dive into the numbers, and it’s impossible to identify exactly what the Eagles’ bread and butter is. No matter which personnel the Eagles have on the field—one tight end and three receivers, two tight ends and two receivers, three tight ends and one receiver—they can still run out of their single-back looks with success. They can put Hurts under center and run traditional NFL concepts; they can drop him into the gun, changing the timing and angles of their blocking schemes and incorporating more college ideas. The Eagles are a top 10 team in rushing efficiency almost no matter what they’re running.
Eagles’ Rushing Performance by Context
This is pretty wild. When watching the Eagles play, it feels like their go-to concept is zone, and they build their play-action boot game from that—but it doesn’t have to be. There isn’t a pitch the Eagles are throwing in the running game right now that isn’t working. There isn’t a blocking scheme the Eagles want to run that their offensive line can’t handle. (OK, so they don’t run duo at all, but who cares about that when everything else is working so well?). The Eagles’ players deserve tons of credit for how well they’re performing, but to make all of this diversity coalesce and to create this running game chameleon that cannot be easily pinned down on tendency and strength, we have to credit the Eagles’ running game coordinator and one of the most underappreciated coaches in the entire NFL: Jeff Stoutland.
Wanna know how I know Stoutland is a good coach? He was hired by the Chip Kelly Eagles in 2013, and they had a pretty good running game, if you remember correctly. He then survived a head coaching change and stuck on Doug Pederson’s staff for Pederson’s entire tenure, including the Super Bowl season when the Eagles’ offensive line was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated for their performance. He then survived another head coaching change and is now both the offensive line coach and the running game coordinator, a role he was given in 2018. He is the only coaching holdover from the Pederson era. That level of staying power is rare at the NFL level, where positional coaching positions are almost always cleared out and replaced when new management comes to town.
And look at the offensive line that the Eagles are fielding. Their left tackle is Jordan Mailata, the 233rd pick in the 2018 draft and a former rugby player who had never played a down of organized football in his life before being drafted. He was a moldable ball of clay dropped into Stoutland’s lap; three years later, Mailata is the starting blindside protector playing on a brand-new extension. The center is Jason Kelce, who has once again gone viral for his athletic feats, but is arguably the smallest offensive linemen in the league. Maximizing and working around a player with such a unique skill set takes a deft hand.
Meanwhile, the guard positions have been lambasted with injuries for the third consecutive season. The Eagles finally played the same offensive line for a four-week stretch in November—their longest streak since the beginning of the 2019 season—and the explosion of the running game was credited to the offensive line’s continuity and improvement after losing left guard Isaac Seumalo and right guard Brandon Brooks to injured reserve. But right guard replacement Jack Driscoll fell in Week 12 to a high ankle sprain; now Nate Herbig has to start there. Then replacement left guard Landon Dickerson fell on the COVID-19 list for the Washington game; here comes Sua Opeta off the bench. These are the sort of offensive line injuries that, when other teams suffer them, you hear about it because the drop-off in play is so evident in the on-field product, but not in Philadelphia, where the running game continues to hum.
And yes, this offensive line is afforded the same benefits we discussed above. A rushing quarterback makes the math easier. The commitment from the head coach empowers the team. Good tight ends and quality veterans at key positions on the line can fill in the blanks. But for as many benefits as Hurts and Kelce and Sanders may provide, I’m not sure how anyone gets more credit than Stoutland, who simply has the Eagles doing everything well in an area of football in which it’s extremely difficult to do just that.
The Eagles’ offensive line is playing at a ludicrously high level. Go back and watch the clips of Hurts and Sanders—not for the ball carrier this time, but for the line blocking for them and the extra work done by the tight ends, the backs, and the receivers. That’s J.J. Arcega-Whiteside leading the way! All 170 pounds of DeVonta Smith getting after it in the running game! There are rookies and backups playing all across that line! But you’d never believe it, given how well the unit is performing—and all this, without the added benefit of pouring tons of resources into one system. The Eagles’ running game is so dangerous because it is so multifaceted, so multifarious, and so variable. It bobs and weaves, hits you from different angles, never tips its hand. It’s impossible to get an edge up on it, and even when you do, it turns out the guys carrying the footballs are pretty good at what they do as well.
Seven consecutive games with 175-plus rushing yards is pretty sick, and I don’t see that number stopping anytime soon. With three divisional games left and a wild-card berth all but guaranteed should they win out, the Eagles will dance with the ones who brought them down the December stretch: Stoutland, the offensive line, and this absurd running game.