Eagles

Even with Jay Ajayi, Eagles still 'counting on' LeGarrette Blount

Even with Jay Ajayi, Eagles still 'counting on' LeGarrette Blount

Frank Reich's message to LeGarrette Blount was a simple one.

"'Keep doing what you're doing,'" Reich said. "'You're a big reason we're 7-1. You're a big reason we've made the strides we've made in the running game.

"'Your tenaciousness running the football, the attitude that you've brought, the toughness that you've brought, the unselfishness that you've brought, is a big part of our identity.'"

Blount, the Eagles' leading rusher the first half of the season, suddenly found his role up in the air Tuesday when the Eagles made a trade-deadline deal to acquire Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi from the Dolphins in exchange for a fourth-round pick in 2018 (see story).

Other than the Chiefs game, when he mysteriously had no carries, Blount has gotten between 12 and 16 carries in every game this year. Blount and Ajayi rank 10th and 12th in the NFL in rushing yards, although Blount's 4.7 average is much higher than Ajayi's 3.4.

But Ajayi ran for nearly 1,300 yards in his 2016 Pro Bowl season, and the Eagles didn't bring him here to ride the bench.

So what happens to Blount?

And what happens with promising rookie Corey Clement, second-year pro Wendell Smallwood and veteran Kenjon Barner? Not to mention injured rookie fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey?

There are a lot of backs and only one football.

"LeGarrette continues to be our starter and [we're] just really excited to have that group and add a good player," Eagles executive vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said.

"We like our running back group. This was an opportunity that came to us. We thought [he] was a good player who could add to our team. He’s a young player who's under contract for the next couple years (through 2018).

"At the same time, everyone has seen the way LeGarrette has run. Wendell has had really good games for us. Corey. We brought Kenjon back, as well. It just adds to the group, and all that stuff with playing time is sorted out by the coaches.”

Roseman said he spoke to Blount as soon as the deal was finalized to reassure him that he wasn’t being replaced.

“LeGarrette's awesome,” Roseman said. “He wants to win. He's won. He's all about winning. He's been in situations before where there have been productive backs on the team. He's been a tremendous team guy since he's walked in the building and a leader for this football team. Nothing changed today.”

The Eagles, who own the NFL's best record at 7-1, have the fourth-ranked running attack in the NFL, although they've been held to 3.8 yards or lower in each of the last four games.

Smallwood has 143 yards and a 3.8 average, Clement 131 yards and a 3.6 average and Barner 34 yards and a 2.8 average (see story).

"LeGarrette has been productive when he's gotten the ball," Roseman said. "He's a warrior. He's a two-time Super Bowl champion and we're really glad to have him.

"So, you know, I really shouldn't get into starter roles. That's really up to the coaches, but we are counting on LeGarrette going forward here.

"This [trade] is no reflection of any of those running backs. This was a good opportunity for the Philadelphia Eagles, and our job is to add good players who fit what we do and we believe Jay Ajayi does that."

Blount, who turns 31 in a few weeks, wasn't available for comment on Tuesday. The Eagles return to practice on Wednesday.

But Reich said he isn't concerned at all about Blount.

"The guy is a pro, man," Reich said. "He's a big part of why we are where we are right now, the leadership, his attitude.

"I really give him a lot of credit. Because you understand, personally — you can say all you want about team, but we all know [running backs want the football]. We all know. So a lot of credit to LeGarrette."

So what does the rotation look like moving forward? Reich wouldn’t speculate but insisted the Eagles are happy with all the backs on the roster (there are seven, including injured Pumphrey and Darren Sproles).

"We’ll have to see how it all plays out," Reich said. "I think that’s the only fair way to say it. We are happy with all the guys that we’ve got in the building.

"This business is a very competitive business. To get a spot in this building is not easy, and when you get a spot in this building, it means we love you and you're ours. You're our family and you get treated like that, with the respect that you've earned your way here.

"So every person, whether it's the top guy or the quote-unquote bottom guy on the roster, every spot is valuable."

And how do you keep five running backs happy?

"Keep winning," Reich said. "Winning has a way of keeping everybody happy."

NFL fines Carson Wentz for low hit on DeMarcus Lawrence

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USA Today Images

NFL fines Carson Wentz for low hit on DeMarcus Lawrence

Carson Wentz helped the Eagles pick up another big win last Sunday, but his wallet is a little lighter after it. 

Wentz was fined $9,115 for a low hit on Cowboys defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence in the fourth quarter Sunday. 

The low block came after Zach Ertz fumbled the ball before he crossed the goal line on a two-point conversion attempt. The Cowboys recovered the ball and started to return it the other way. Wentz was trying to tackle Justin Durant, who was returning the ball, but Lawrence got in his way and the Eagles' quarterback went low. 

The Eagles went for two-point conversions after all four of their second-half touchdowns because kicker Jake Elliott was concussed. This was the only one they didn't convert. 

Eagles' run defense faces toughest test yet vs. Bears' attack

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Eagles' run defense faces toughest test yet vs. Bears' attack

The Eagles may boast the No. 1 run defense in the NFL these days, but that ranking will be put to the test Sunday by the Chicago Bears (see matchups to watch).

“If we can’t stop the run, it’s going to be a long day,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said this week. “Let’s not get that mistaken.”

Few teams are as committed to the ground attack as the Bears, and even fewer are more productive. Since rookie quarterback Mitchell Trubisky became the starter in Week 5, Chicago ranks seventh in the league in rushing attempts. For the entire 2017 season, the offense is fifth with 131.8 rushing yards per game.

The Eagles are limiting opponents to nearly half that total at 71.0 yards per game. They’ve also faced only a smattering of backfields as talented as Chicago’s, if any. Plus, many offenses have abandoned the run — a strategy the Bears aren’t likely to attempt regardless of the score.

“We know they’re going to run the football,” Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham said. “They even run the football a lot of times on third-and-long. It’s something they’re going to do.

“There’s a reason why they’re fifth in the league in rushing.”

Given the nature of their passing attack, the Bears’ best shot at pulling off an upset at Lincoln Financial Field is to keep the Eagles' offense on the sideline.

“Even if it’s not getting you a whole lot," Jenkins said, "if you can slowly move the chains and control the game, I think that’s something that they’ll continue to do.”

Trubisky, selected with the second-overall pick in the draft, has begun making strides in recent weeks. He completed 60.0 percent of his passes and avoided throwing an interception in each of the last two games, both one-possession losses. In fact, the Bears haven’t lost any of Trubisky’s six starts by more than eight points, and are 2-4 since he’s taken over.

Trubisky wasn’t asked to throw the ball much in those two victories, either — a combined total of 23 pass attempts. Instead, Chicago was able to lean on running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen.

“It’s kind of like a thunder and lightning situation," Bradham said, "kind of what we had here at the beginning of the season with (LeGarrette Blount) and (Darren Sproles).”

Howard is the workhorse back and is often overlooked as one of the NFL’s bright, young stars due to the quality of his team. The 23-year-old was the runner-up to the rushing champion as a rookie in 2016 with 1,313 yards. Ten games into his second season, he’s up to 841 yards with a 4.4 average and five touchdowns.

A fourth-round pick from FCS school North Carolina AT&T in 2017, Cohen has immediately emerged as one of the league’s scariest change-of-pace/receiving backs. The 5-foot-6, 181-pound ball carrier has 537 total yards from scrimmage and leads the team with 33 receptions.

The duo is featured prominently in just about everything the Bears do on offense.

“They put both backs on the field at the same time a little bit, too,” Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said. “Sometimes it's two-back sets, sometimes it's one.

“Traditionally there's a fullback back there in two-back sets, but not so much with the Bears. They can put two guys back there. It spreads you a little bit thin. You have to be very assignment-sound. It'll test us in the run game.”

Cohen, in particular, has caused defenses some problems because, much like Sproles for the Eagles, he can line up all over the formation. Some teams have even opted to roll coverages to his area of the field, though that might be as much about Chicago’s dearth of receivers as it is respect for the 22-year-old.

Whatever the case, Jenkins doesn’t expect the Eagles to roll coverages, adding that’s not something they’ve done all season. Regardless, with three run or pass plays of 35 yards or more this season, Cohen is a home run threat — although the Eagles aren't giving up many home runs (see story).

“He’s definitely a matchup issue, and they put him all over the place,” Jenkins said. “He’s at receiver, he’s in the backfield, he’s in the slot. Everybody is going to have to hold up. Whether he’s on a linebacker or a safety or a corner, we’ve seen him make plays at every position.

“He’s running post routes on corners and making the play. Then they’re able to line up and run the ball at pretty much anybody, so we’ll have our hands full with that.”

Howard is a threat to rip off long gains on the ground as well, with three runs of 50 and over. Then Trubisky is capable of taking off, too, with 163 yards rushing.

“His ability to make plays with his legs has been a positive,” Jenkins said. “He’s a mobile guy. When all else fails, he can escape the pocket and extend the play.

“Whether it’s scrambling for a first down, or scrambling to get somebody open, that’s always tough on the defense.”

Up until last week, it was beginning to look like there may not have been a running game in the league that the Eagles needed to fear. Then the Dallas Cowboys posted 112 yards last Sunday — tied for the most the Eagles have allowed all season and the most since Week 2. And Dallas was without All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott, who is suspended.

Then again, if the Bears are only able to muster 112 yards rushing this week, the Eagles might consider that a victory in itself.

To put those numbers in perspective, exactly half of the league is allowing more than 112.0 yards rushing per game this season. In other words, the Bears are probably going to have to fare a lot better than that to knock off the Eagles.

“I think we set that bar awful high,” Schwartz said. “Some people might get a pat on the back for that.

“It's a tribute to the players in the locker room that that's a poor performance for them, and they consider it a poor performance.”