An Eagles issue flying under the radar

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An Eagles issue flying under the radar

While a lot of the focus for the Eagles' recent inconsistency has been on Nick Foles' erratic play and the defense allowing big plays, one other area has emerged as an area of increasing concern.

The running game.

The Eagles, among the NFL's best teams running the football much of the season, have struggled to run consistently the last month.

The first 11 games of the season, the Eagles ranked second in the NFL with 148 rushing yards per game and third with 4.7 yards per carry.

The last four games, they're 23rd in the league with 106 rushing yards per game and 24th at 4.0 yards per carry.

That's a huge dropoff.

"In the running game, there's still a lot of positive signs," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Wednesday morning.

"It tends to come and go in waves. We're still extremely confident in the schemes and the players getting it done. We feel like we've made good progress. Always trying to find new ways and creative ways to put our players in position and that's our job as coaches and we'll just continue to do that."

On Monday night, the Eagles started out strong, with 53 rushing yards on 12 carries in the first quarter.

The rest of the game? They were 9 for 25.

"Whenever it’s stalling, it’s easy to get away from it as a play-caller, I think," Jason Kelce said. "We just have to do a better job executing; that’s what it comes down to.”

The Eagles rushed for 150 or more yards five times through the Bears game in Week 12 but none since.

Their 78 rushing yards against the Raiders were their fewest since they had 58 on opening day against the Redskins and their fewest at home since a game against the Redskins late in 2015.

"It's been solid," head coach Doug Pederson said Tuesday. "We weren't as consistent (Monday) night, obviously. I wouldn't say there were assignment errors but give the Raiders credit. There were some good plays by them defensively. We got some penetration in there that just stopped some of the runs.

"When you have that kind of penetration on the D-line, it's hard for our guys to get up to second-level defenders. Just missed on a couple opportunities (and) a couple holding penalties and things of that nature set us back."

The natural question is how much the quarterback change is affecting the running game.

Certainly, Carson Wentz's ability to run changes the way teams defend the Eagles. Wentz ran for 299 yards with a 4.7 average in his 12½ games. Foles has three rushing yards this year.

But Pederson said the Eagles are still seeing the same concepts defensively.

"We're still seeing seven- and eight-man boxes, just like we did with Carson in there," he said. "With the ability of the RPOs (run-pass options), you're going to have an eight-man box with safeties and things of that nature. We're still seeing it even with Nick."

"The run game, defensively, we're not seeing anything real dramatically different between the two."

LeGarrette Blount's dropoff has been dramatic.

The first 11 games of the season, he averaged 4.8 yards per carry — seventh-best in the NFL during that span.

The last four weeks, he's at 2.6 yards per carry — third-worst during that span.

He's the first Eagles back with four straight games with five or more carries and an average of 3.5 or lower since Duce Staley — now his position coach — in 2001.

But Pederson said he doesn't see any difference in Blount and doesn't plan on changing the rotation the Eagles have used all year.

"I'm not seeing that," he said. "We'll continue with the plan that we've had set forth when we got Jay (Ajayi) in. They're both effective, and Corey (Clement) is a nice change of pace as well. We just have to continue to keep working at it."

Ajayi is averaging 5.8 yards per carry and Clement 4.4.

But Pederson said he doesn't plan on changing the current rotation.

"I think about that, but I'm big on, ‘If it's not broke, don't fix it,'" he said. "We've just got to get better at it. The plan would still be to continue the way we're going."

Another sign of a declining running game: The Eagles had an NFL-best seven runs of 30 yards or more the first 11 weeks.

They have none the last four.

"Still really close," Pederson said. "We've just got to keep working on it."

Zach Ertz missing Brent Celek as he takes his leadership role

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Zach Ertz missing Brent Celek as he takes his leadership role

There was a noticeable difference in the NovaCare Complex when Zach Ertz arrived on Monday for the first day of the Eagles’ offseason workout program. 

No Brent Celek. 

Celek, the 11-year pro, was cut earlier this offseason after a tremendous career with the Eagles. For the first time in Ertz’s six-year career, Celek won’t be around. 

And weirdly, Ertz will now assume Celek’s old role as the veteran leader in the Eagles’ tight end room. 

“It’s tough, obviously,” Ertz said on Tuesday. “He was the guy that when they brought me in, he was the guy, the veteran tight end in Philadelphia. He was the guy everyone knew about. And he didn’t treat me as a guy who was a competitor to him; he treated me as the guy who could help him further his career, where he didn’t have to take every snap. So it’s tough. That guy has been with me from the beginning, pretty much taught me how to be a pro in Philadelphia. 

“Even a couple years back, when the playing time began to increase in my way, he let me kind of take on a leadership role. He wasn’t overbearing by any means. He kind of let me lead in my own way. Even though he was the leader of the room, per se, he let me lead and slowly earn more of a leadership role in our room. He kind of set me up for this moment. I owe a lot of my success to Brent, the way he was a dominant blocking tight end, I was able to learn from that for a lot of years. I’m extremely thankful for him.”

While Ertz learned how to be a pro from Celek, he always tried to become a top-notch tight end like the Cowboys’ Jason Witten. He’s long admired his game. While some would argue Ertz finally had a breakout season in 2017, his last three years have been elite. Since 2015, he has 227 catches for 2,493 yards and 14 touchdowns. The only other TEs to put up those numbers or better over that span are Travis Kelce and Delanie Walker. And in 2017, Ertz did something Celek never did: he made a Pro Bowl. 

Celek was released and Trey Burton signed a lucrative deal to become the top tight end in Chicago, so Ertz is the only player left from last year’s tight end room. The Eagles brought in Richard Rodgers as a free agent and have a few younger prospects already on the expanded roster, but the Eagles’ brass has commented about how good of a tight end draft this is, so it would make sense if they add one later this month. 

If the Eagles do draft a tight end, the 27-year-old Ertz is going to try to be a strong veteran presence for the young player … kind of like what Celek was for him. 

“I told the guys the other day, I’m here to help however I can, whether that be talking football or just allowing them to watch how I approach things,” Ertz said. “I kind of was able to learn from Brent how to treat young tight ends coming in, young players coming in, so that’s one of the things that he kind of told me as he was leaving: that I kind of set the blueprint for your success. He didn’t say that verbally, but that’s how I took it. I want to repeat that for whoever comes in.”

Celek is gone, but through Ertz, his impact is still going to be felt in the NovaCare Complex for years to come. 

Jordan Hicks trying to shed his injury-prone label

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Jordan Hicks trying to shed his injury-prone label

Jordan Hicks missed all but four games of the 2012 season at Texas with a groin injury, then missed all of 2013 with a torn Achilles. He missed eight games as a rookie in 2015 with a torn pec and then missed nine games and the postseason last year with another Achilles.

So over the last six years, he’s played in 48 games and missed 42.

When he’s played, he’s been very good. But that’s a season-ending injury four of the last six years, and so far Hicks’ accomplishments have been overshadowed by the games he’s missed.

Hicks spoke Tuesday about how frustrating the injuries have been and how important it is for him to find a way to stay healthy.

“I don’t think I need to do that for anybody else but myself,” he said. “I want to play this game. I love playing the game of football, I love being out there with the guys, and when I’m not out there — and I think everybody feels this way when they can’t help the team — you feel like you’re letting down the team because you know you can be out there making an impact.

“So it’s more disappointing to me than … anyone else. I have to make sure I’m out there. My motivation is within. And obviously it stems from the guys around me. I want to have that accountability and let the guys know I’ll be there for them no matter what.”

Hicks, a third-round pick in 2015, has seven interceptions, two sacks, five fumble recoveries and a forced fumble in 31 NFL games.

“I don’t have any question in my mind that if I’m healthy I’ll be productive,” he said.

Hicks got hurt last year in the second Washington game. He had been dealing with a left ankle injury for several weeks when he blew out his right ankle.

“I think that had something to do with it, but I’m a professional athlete and if you put me in a position to go play then I’m going to compete as hard as I can,” he said.

“That’s just my makeup and I think that’s the makeup of this locker room. 

“When you’re dealing with one thing, you’re susceptible to another. That’s just the way your body works. As I become a pro and as I’ve become a pro, you’ve got to learn there’s a level of being smart and understanding when enough is enough and when you have to say no at some point.

“Whether it’s pride or whether it’s the things in my head, those questions have to be answered. I decided not to come out, I decided to tough it out. I played vs. the [Chargers, Panthers and Cardinals]. All with a bum ankle, and at the end of the day, hindsight is 20/20.”

Hicks is six months out from his latest injury but as voluntary minicamp begins, he declined to put a timetable on his return.

“Doing really well,” he said. “It feels like since Day 1 I’ve been ahead of schedule. Currently progressing every day, trying to get stronger, constantly trying to get my explosion back.”

Hicks, whose contract is up after this coming season, knows his value will depend tremendously on his ability to stay healthy.

“If I focus on what I need to do every single day, if I focus on getting back and focus when I’m back on making sure I’m detailing my work and I’m taking care of my body, everything is going to fall into place,” he said. 

“When you start worrying about everything else is when you get out of your game, and that’s when you can really start forcing issues.”