Darren Sproles will remain the Eagles’ lead running back, but Eagles head coach Doug Pederson said he wants to get Ryan Mathews back into the rotation and also wants the offense to be more run-oriented the second half of the season.
Even though Pederson said last week Mathews would be the team’s primary back, Sproles has emerged in that role with 15 and 13 carries in losses to the Cowboys and Giants.
It’s the first time in the 33-year-old Sproles’ 12-year career he’s had more than 10 carries in consecutive games.
“Right now, by stats and by what you’re seeing, I would say Darren is the No. 1 back right now," Pederson said Monday, a day after the Eagles lost for the fourth time in five games. "It’s still a little bit of the running back by committee.
“Obviously, we haven’t hung our hat on one guy, but we’d tend to lean more toward Darren Sproles. It’s hard to take him off the field.”
Sproles has been productive — 86 yards in Dallas, 57 yards at the Meadowlands — but Pederson is concerned about overusing Sproles because of his age and size.
Sproles is on pace for a career-high 118 carries and 168 touches. Only 20 backs in NFL history have gotten that kind of workload at 33 or older. And only two of those have been full-time returners — Hall of Famer Floyd Little in 1975 and the Bengals’ James Brooks in 1991.
“That’s a lot,” Pederson said. “We’ve talked about it coming out of the Dallas game and we’ve just got to make sure we’re doing the right thing and make sure (we) keep him available as the season wears on. Keep him healthy. ...
“As the game kind of progresses you just kind of keep feeding him, but we’ve got to be smart with how many hits Sproles takes.”
Meanwhile, Mathews — a former Pro Bowler and two-time 1,000-yard rusher — has gone from 22 carries on opening day to just four and five the last two weeks.
But if Pederson is going to run the ball more while capping Sproles' touches, where are the additional carries going to come from?
“My feeling is that I’d like to see it come from one guy and I’d honestly like to see that one guy be Ryan,” Pederson said after his presser.
“I think he’s still a dynamic running back. Circumstances the last couple games have gone the other way, but in no way am I down on Ryan. It’s not about that. He’s not in the doghouse or anything like that. If somebody’s going to get those touches, it’s going to be him.”
Eagles running backs are averaging only 23 carries per game this year, Carson Wentz is throwing 37 times per game and Pederson said he wants to balance that out moving forward.
Wentz is on pace for 550 pass attempts, which would be third-most in NFL history by a rookie. Conversely, no Eagles running back is on pace for 600 rushing yards for only the second time since 1994.
On Sunday, Pederson called just 21 running plays with the backs and 49 pass plays (including Wentz runs and sacks).
“I would love to run the ball more,” Pederson said. “I think it does help Carson [when] you’re not putting everything on his shoulders. ... I think moving forward we probably should rely on the run just a little bit more.”
What about Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner?
Both running backs have been impressive in limited roles this year. Smallwood got two carries Sunday — one for 19 yards and one for six — and is averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Barner got just one carry — and scored a touchdown. He’s averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
But Pederson said as much as he’d like to see more of them, there just aren’t enough carries to go around.
“It’s hard because you have Ryan sitting there, you obviously have Sproles, who we’ve given the ball the last couple games, Wendell and Kenjon are special teams players who have backup roles on offense,” Pederson said.
“The temptation is you definitely want to see your young players perform when they’re put in those situations and see what they can do and hopefully the second half of the season we’ll get a chance to do that a little bit.”
Pederson is in a tricky spot trying to juggle four running backs. The Eagles are on pace to have four backs with 40 or more carries for the first time since 1994 (Herschel Walker, James Joseph, Vaughn Hebron, Charlie Garner).
“It’s tough to get them all touches,” he said. “That’s four running backs. ... It’s extremely hard.”