Duce Staley

Eagles-Cowboys rivalry nothing new for Jay Ajayi

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Eagles-Cowboys rivalry nothing new for Jay Ajayi

Things are kind of coming full circle for Jay Ajayi. 

After spending the Eagles' bye week trying to figure out where to live in Philly and bringing up his stuff from Florida, Ajayi gets to head back home to North Texas this week for his first Eagles-Cowboys game. 

He doesn't need anyone to explain the rivalry to him. 

"In Texas, it was like a split household," said Ajayi, who was born in London before moving to Maryland and eventually to Frisco, Texas, for high school. "My dad, he was on the Cowboys' side. My mom, she loved Donovan McNabb. That was like her favorite player, so she was always rooting for the Eagles. Obviously, when I went to the Dolphins, we all became Dolphins fans. Now it's an Eagles household all the way. It's exciting to be on my mom's team. She's excited and all that."

Ajayi said he already has about 20 tickets for his friends and family members but will have even more people in attendance for the game at AT&T Stadium. His coaches from Liberty High School have been texting him this week, telling him how excited they are for him to be back in Texas. 

Sunday won't be Ajayi's first game in AT&T Stadium. He actually played there as a senior in 2010, when his high school team lost to Bastrop, 38-24, in a Class 4A Division II playoff game. 

This Sunday, Ajayi will play just his second game with the Eagles after getting traded on Halloween. In the first game, he carried the ball eight times for 77 yards and a touchdown. His role will continue to increase as he gets more and more familiar with the offense.

"I feel like I have a really good grasp of our playbook," Ajayi said on Thursday.  

Ajayi was happy to play against Denver before the bye because if he hadn't, he would have really been "itching" to play by this point. Luckily, Ajayi was able to learn enough to at least have a limited role against the Broncos. 

And the bye week came at an optimal time. In between moving his stuff from Florida, Ajayi was able to hit the playbook hard.  

"Well, it's definitely, from the classroom standpoint, slowed down, a little more teaching," head coach Doug Pederson said. "And he can go back and even watch the Denver game and take personally himself, to have some takeaways from that game. Again, this is a veteran player who has played and understands football.

"We'll just continue to grow his package and grow the amount of plays and everything that he's doing with our offense and continue to keep him coming. But that's definitely a nice way to get him kind of caught up."

Ajayi has been a pretty fast learner since joining the Eagles, which hasn't been much of a surprise. 

Frank Reich told a story earlier this week: On Ajayi's first day with the Eagles, he had a meeting with running backs coach Duce Staley. The meeting, that Reich called a "crash course," lasted several hours. And after it was over, Staley walked out of the room and told the rest of the coaching staff, "We're good. We're good. This guy's going to be fine mentally." 

Reich said when he looks at the game plan for the Dallas game, there isn't a play the Eagles run that he wouldn't feel comfortable giving to Ajayi to learn. 

"He picked up on it really quick," Carson Wentz said earlier this week. "I've seen it a little bit just talking to him in meetings and we'll see as we get going out there in practice and everything. But, like I said, right away you could tell he was a sharp kid. He came in and started picking up on things, so he'll be a big part of our offense going forward."

During the bye week, Staley remembered his meeting with Ajayi at the 2015 combine. At the time, Ajayi was a prospect from Boise State who would eventually go in the fifth round to Miami. 

That day in Indianapolis, as recalled by Ajayi, Staley wanted to know about his favorite run play and his favorite pass play from the Boise State playbook. Staley wanted Ajayi to tell him everything about the plays, not just the running back's responsibilities. 

During the first week Ajayi was with the Eagles, he said he spent some long nights with Staley, as the two went over the Eagles' offense. 

"I pride myself on knowing the playbook," Ajayi said. "Being able to show him that [at the combine] left a mark on him and it's crazy how things come full circle again. Being here and having to learn all that stuff in that quick time, showing him I can grasp it and the plays." 

So there was Ajayi, the kid who was raised in Texas, by a mother who was an Eagles fan, learning the Eagles' playbook from her favorite player's teammate. That same teammate became the guy who was impressed by her son at the combine and who now gets to coach him two years later. As they head back to Texas. 

Everything really is coming full circle. 

Duce Staley expects 'bumps along the way' with Eagles' RB rotation

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Duce Staley expects 'bumps along the way' with Eagles' RB rotation

Eagles running backs coach Duce Staley will flat out admit there might be an occasion when one of his guys isn't satisfied with his workload after a game. Staley doesn't seem to think that's a problem or a bad thing, either.

How the Eagles juggle their suddenly crowded backfield will be one of the biggest storylines to follow in the second half of the season. Both Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi and alleged starter LeGarrette Blount are known to have displayed their displeasure over a perceived lack of carries in the past. Now they're on a roster together, along with three other ball carriers.

Blount had seized the lead-back role before the trade for Ajayi. Yet, in their first game together, Ajayi was on the field for one more snap than Blount — though Blount finished with one more carry. Corey Clement wound up with more touches and snaps than both!

There were no signs of any problems after the contest, in part because the Eagles beat the Broncos 51-23. Perhaps management was able to smooth things over beforehand, too.

"It's all about communication," Staley said last week. "You have to be able to communicate with them on every level. If you communicate with them and be honest with them on every level, everything else will pretty much fall in line."

The question is whether the peace and harmony in the running backs room can last for the next seven weeks, plus playoffs — because even Staley wouldn't promise that.

"Now, not saying there won't be any bumps along the way," Staley said. "Who knows? That's just a part of the game, and that's a part of them being competitive."

"I want a guy that wants the ball 100 times. You want that guy."

Wait.

Bumps? What about the bumps? What kind of bumps?

Part of the reason Ajayi was available for trade in the first place is that the Dolphins reportedly grew tired of his complaining about carries — even after wins. Blount was famously released by the Steelers in 2014 after leaving the sideline before a game ended, upset he had not received a single carry. And these are just the most glaring examples.

But these are the Eagles. The team is 8-1, and the locker room is filled with leaders, unlike what Ajayi was probably used to in Miami.

And the year is 2017. When Blount didn't record a carry in a Week 2 loss to the Chiefs, he showed maturity and took the situation in stride.

"I don't have any problems in my room, and I don't think we're going to have any problems in my room," Staley said. "Those guys are highly competitive, which I love, and moving forward, I just think they'll all be able to help the Eagles chase the ultimate goal."

It may help that Staley has firsthand experience with this type of situation.

A veteran of 10 NFL seasons, Staley was the Eagles' primary back for roughly half of those. Then, in 2003, Brian Westbrook's role in the offense began to expand, and Correll Buckhalter was healthy and had a big piece of the pie as well.

Staley scoffed at the idea he was unhappy at the time, though some reporters seemed to remember differently. The one aspect that was definitely true is the Eagles made it to the conference title game that year.

"I have a little history with it," Staley said. "It worked when we were here. All three of us had a chance to play. We were productive, we won a lot of games that way.

"There's no reason why this can't work, and it will."

The "how" is still a little fuzzy, and the Eagles are no doubt still figuring that out themselves. It may be something that has a way of solving itself as the season moves along.

At least, that's sort of how Staley sees it, suggesting the Eagles could take the "hot hand" approach and stick with whichever back is having the most success. However the rotation winds up working, Staley is up to the challenge.

"I love the task myself," Staley said. "It's like a big puzzle you're trying to put together, and once you get it together, you're happy about it."

It should be noted that Staley no longer has autonomy over the running-back rotation, as previous head coach Chip Kelly always liked to fall back on. Those decisions are now made collectively, with current coach Doug Pederson making the final call, according to Staley.

So should the Eagles hit any of those so-called bumps along the way, Staley may have to carry those complaints back up the chain of command. If that's the case, it will be interesting to see whether the type of communication he's preaching will work both ways.

Eagles notes, quotes and tidbits: Carson Wentz is a giant faker

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Eagles notes, quotes and tidbits: Carson Wentz is a giant faker

Looking at the stat sheets can give a decent idea of how Carson Wentz is performing this season. 

It's just not the only way. 

The Eagles care about stats, sure. But they also care about the details that don't show up in the stat sheets. For example, the team even grades Wentz on his ability to carry through a fake after he hands the ball off. 

How good is he at it? 

"He carries out his fakes better than anybody I've ever seen," offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. "I think that helps us. You don't notice it a lot of times but it's those little things; the cumulative effect of those things, so that if we run play action, so that if he ever keeps something off of that. He takes a lot of pride, and it's one of the things that I think has helped him develop. 

"He works very hard and he doesn't take plays off in practice. I've never seen a quarterback carry out fakes like he carries out fakes and how serious he takes his ball handling and every aspect of it. It's excellent."

Carrying through his fakes isn't an area where Wentz has gotten better from Year 1 to 2. In fact, he said he developed the skill while in college, playing in North Dakota State's pro style offense. So he's always been pretty good at it. 

Wentz said he has always liked to see how defenses react. Fakes go both ways. He can carry through a fake after a handoff, but perhaps more importantly, he can fake the handoff into a naked bootleg. 

"Anything like that, any little thing that's going to help the play or give us an extra spilt second to get a backside cutoff block or something like that," Wentz said, "those are big things that I think … and I'm not the only one who does that. Everyone goes the extra mile to help their guys out. It's definitely a satisfaction you see when someone does have to honor that."

Let's get situational 
If you're looking for an area Wentz has greatly improved from Year 1 to Year 2, how about situational football? 

Four games into the 2017 season, Wentz has thrived in some important parts of the game, specifically on third downs. 

"In the development of becoming an elite franchise quarterback, that's something we've talked to him about from the start: really what sets you apart as a quarterback is how you perform in situational football," Reich said. "That's third down and red zone. Then what kind of a knack do you have of making big plays on first and second down? That's really what separates those elite players.

"And so becoming a playmaker on third down and in the red zone is a big part of any quarterback's development. I think he takes a lot of pride in that. I think he knows that. I think he studies it a lot. I think he has a lot of confidence in the players he's throwing to."

So how well is Wentz performing on third and fourth downs? 

Yeah, that's not bad. 

Overall this season, the Eagles have converted on 50.8 percent of their third-down situations, good for second in the league. For perspective's sake, they were 20th in the league in 2016 at 37.9 percent. 

"That, going back even to training camp, I remember you guys were always asking on the biggest thing I was focusing on and it was situational football," Wentz said. "And that comes from talking to Coach Reich, Coach (Doug) Pederson, Coach (John) DeFilippo. They were always harping that. Going back last year, watching the tape and just discussing, ‘alright, if this was the situation, what would you have done differently?' And those are things that I really took to heart, really focused in on."

While Wentz has greatly improved on third and fourth downs, there is still room to grow in the red zone. Through four games this season, Wentz has completed 9 of 17 passes (52.94 percent) for 60 yards and five touchdowns in the red zone. 

Wentz's completion percentage in the red zone is 14th in the NFL. At 55.56 percent, Wentz is slightly better inside the 10. 

Clement time
The Eagles will likely be without Wendell Smallwood (knee) this week against the Cardinals. That leaves just two of their original five running backs — LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement — healthy for Sunday's game. 

After Darren Sproles went down, Smallwood assumed most of the team's third-down duties, but now he's out. So Clement might be the next guy up in those situations. 

"It's just the nature of the game," Clement said. "Some guys go down, some guys have great opportunities in front of them. It's about what I can do to better prepare myself for this game Sunday."

As a third-down back, Clement needs to be able to pass protect as well as catch the ball out of the backfield. Those are two areas he has worked to improve since his arrival as an undrafted free agent this spring. 

While catching the ball is important, the most important thing on third downs, especially for a rookie, is pass protection. The Eagles can't put Clement on the field to block if they're worried Wentz is going to get his head knocked off. Pederson said Clement has been "improving" as a blocker thanks to work with running backs coach Duce Staley. 

Clement credited Staley, along with Pederson, offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland and his elder teammates — Blount, Sproles and Smallwood — for helping him. 

Getting back to Destiny
The Eagles might get back second-year DT Destiny Vaeao this week. That could be a nice boost for a team that's without Fletcher Cox again. 

Vaeao hurt his right wrist during the opener in Washington and has missed the last three weeks. That was a shame for Vaeao, who had a tremendous training camp, according to the coaching staff. 

"It's tough," Vaeao said about missing time. "Every Sunday that passed by, it hurts not playing. You just have to be patient and everything will come."

Quote of the Week I: "The whole (offensive) line is playing unbelievable right now. They're playing kind of pissed off. They just have an attitude about them, which is awesome to see." — Carson Wentz 

Quote of the Week II: "Hey, there's Bruce Arians!" — Brandon Graham, spotting FanRag reporter John McMullen on the sideline at practice wearing a Kangol hat

Quote of the Week III: "I thought I should have not tried to stiff arm him and just ran straight and I would have scored." — Blount's thoughts after he went back and watched his career-long 68-yard run against the Chargers.  

Random media guide note: If Rodney McLeod could be any superhero, he'd be Batman.