After a rough start, Eagles' faith in Miles Sanders should pay off down the stretch

After a rough start, Eagles' faith in Miles Sanders should pay off down the stretch

Remember when Miles Sanders fumbled the ball twice in a five-play span against the Lions?

That seems like an eternity ago.

On Sunday against the Bears, with the game on the line, Sanders had the last two carries of the game to set up Jake Elliott’s 38-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter of the 22-14 win. Sure, Jordan Howard was banged up by then, but the Eagles trusted Sanders in a crucial moment and he didn’t let them down.

“They drafted me for a reason,” Sanders said. “I’m coming here every day, getting better and when they call my name, I’m going to go out there and execute.”

The Eagles’ faith in Miles Sanders has already paid off and it looks like it’s going to continue to pay off.

Sure, Howard might be the bell cow runner at certain points, but the Eagles never benched Sanders when he was struggling earlier in the season. They just gave him a different role and he’s been getting better and better. In the last two wins before the bye, Sanders accounted for 191 yards from scrimmage. Only Howard has more in those two games (194).

Early in the season, we saw flashes of Sanders’ ability, but now we’re seeing more consistency from the second-round rookie.

“I think each week he's just learning from the week before,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “Just learning and watching the tape and Duce (Staley) has done a great job of coaching him up and seeing the things that he can benefit moving forward with. We're finding different ways to utilize him, whether it's in an empty package or in a backfield with Jordan or running routes.

“So I think that consistency is just coming from the more he plays and the more he's seeing himself on film and making the corrections.”

Sanders, 22, has been the most explosive piece of the Eagles’ offense through nine games. And without DeSean Jackson for possibly the rest of the season, the Eagles are going to need him to continue to rely on him as they make their playoff push coming off the bye.

Without Jackson, it seems like the Eagles are going to have to use more 12 and maybe even 21 personnel to generate offense. That means that Sanders is going to have to provide chunk plays for an offense that otherwise might not have them.

The Eagles have 12 plays of 30-plus yards this year and Sanders has accounted for seven of them (5 catches, 2 runs). Across the NFL, just Stefon Diggs (9) and D.J. Chark (8) have more. And no other player has at least two receiving and rushing like Sanders does.

It wasn’t a smooth beginning to his NFL career, but give credit to the Eagles for sticking with the rookie and to Sanders for getting better.

“I learned a lot about myself,” Sanders said. “I’m very hard on myself. I don’t think anyone is more critical on myself than me. Working with Duce, he sees a lot in me. He appreciates me coming in every day and just trying to get better, wanting to get better. Everyone else appreciates that too.”

The NFL season is a long one and, remember, Sanders had just one season at Penn State as a starter. In 2018, Sanders played in 13 games. But since then, he had to prepare for the draft and the combine, then learn a new playbook, go to minicamp and training camp and then into the season.

The rookie wall can be a real thing for some players.

“I feel good,” Sanders said heading into the week off. “Got a bye week to get my body right, my mind right and get on this next stretch.”

The Eagles are going to need him.

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10 reasons to be optimistic about the Eagles

10 reasons to be optimistic about the Eagles

There’s a lot of negativity surrounding the Eagles right now, and some of it is understandable considering how disappointing the wide receivers have been, how badly the Eagles were blown out by the Vikings and Cowboys and how high expectations were coming into the season.

Still, despite it all, the Eagles are 5-4, tied for first in the NFC East, winners of four of their last six games, and they have a 62 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight.com.

Sometimes we all have to be reminded that maybe things aren’t quite as bad as they seem.

There’s two ways to do that: 1) Stay off Twitter for a while, and 2) Read this list of 10 reasons for Eagles fans to be optimistic going into the final seven games of the season.

1. DOUG: He has his quirks, but the bottom line is Doug Pederson is 38-24 as an NFL head coach, and that .613 winning percentage is 4th-highest among the 32 active NFL head coaches. The Eagles have the 8th-best record in the NFL since Pederson took over as head coach in 2016. Bottom line is the Eagles are in good hands. Pederson knows how to get the most out of his players, and he knows how to win.

2. CARSON: It’s mindblowing that there are still be fans out there blabbering about Nick Foles. Dude’s a folk hero around here but it’s time to move on. It’s impossible to argue with the job Wentz has done this year with minimal contributions from his wide receivers. How do you have 15 TDs and 4 INTs without any wide receivers consistently contributing? Over the last three years, Wentz has started 33 games and had two bad ones – Saints last year, Falcons this year. In his 31 other games, he’s got 68 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He’s 21-12 since opening day 2017, the 7th-best winning percentage among NFL. As long as he’s the Eagles’ quarterback, they have a chance to win every game.

3. THE LINC: The Eagles have the second-best home record in the NFL since 2016 at 23-7 for a .767 winning percentage. Of those 30 games, there’s only been one the Eagles lost by more than a touchdown – that was a 14-point loss to the Packers in 2016, and even that was a four-point game in the fourth quarter. The Eagles are in every game at the Linc, where they play four of their next six games.

4. FLETCHER: One of the most encouraging developments of the past couple weeks has been Fletcher Cox really returning to form. Cox is finally healthy after that foot injury he suffered in the playoff loss to the Saints, and having their one-man wrecking crew back at full strength is going to be huge down the stretch.

5. THE CORNERBACKS: Not that long ago the Eagles were running Craig James, Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas and Orlando Scandrick out there. Now Jalen Mills, Ronald Darby and Avonte Maddox are all back, and Cre’Von LeBlanc will be back soon.  That’s a monumental upgrade.

6. JORDAN MATTHEWS: He became their best wide receiver when he walked through the front door of the NovaCare Complex. Hey, I don’t know how much Matthews will help, but he’s a solid pro, he’s got great chemistry with Wentz, and he knows the offense. He instantly makes this a better wide receiving crew.

7. THE RUNNING GAME: Over the past seven weeks, the Eagles are averaging 140 rushing yards per game, 6th-best in the league. The Miles Sanders-Jordan Howard tandem behind this massive o-line has proven to be formidable. It’s not the offense the Eagles planned on, but their running game has developed into one of the league’s best.

8. PASS PRESSURE: After recording an NFL-low three sacks the first four games of the season, the Eagles have 22 in their last five games, second-most in the NFL. Brandon Graham has come to life, Derek Barnett is showing flashes and Cox has been his old dominating self. The Eagles are 20-7 under Pederson when they get three or more sacks. They’re 18-17 when they don’t.

9. THE COWBOYS: The Eagles’ only competition in the division is a team that lost to the Jets. That’s not only embarrassing, it’s huge for tiebreaker purposes. The Eagles have wins over the Packers and Jets, and the Cowboys lost to both. If the Eagles and Cowboys split the season series and both finish with 4-2 division records, the team with a better record in common opponents wins the division. If the Eagles take care of business, that will be them.

10. THE SCHEDULE: Which leads us to the schedule. Even if the Eagles lose to the Patriots and Seahawks, as long as they beat the Cowboys at home they’ll reach 10-6 by beating the 2-8 Giants twice and the 1-8 Redskins and 2-7 Dolphins. In that case, the only way the Eagles lose the division is if the Cowboys go 6-1 in all their other games. That is not going to happen.

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Tim Jernigan might help Eagles’ DTs move past Spinal Tap drummer territory

Tim Jernigan might help Eagles’ DTs move past Spinal Tap drummer territory

When asked about Tim Jernigan on Monday, Eagles defensive coordinator began talking about the defensive tackle position as a whole and couldn’t help himself.

He tossed in a Spinal Tap reference.

“A lot has been made of our linebacker situation or our corner situation,” Jim Schwartz said, “but defensive tackle … there's some drummers from Spinal Tap that would rather be a drummer for Spinal Tap than — you guys got that one?”

If you don’t understand that reference about the fictional band, it’s OK. Schwartz said his players don’t understand his references like that either.

Just know that Spinal Tap went through a lot of drummers, who all met their untimely demises. Likewise, the Eagles have gone through plenty of defensive tackles this season — and it wasn’t supposed to be like that.

Finally, in the Bears game before the bye week, Tim Jernigan returned after missing six straight games with a foot injury. He played just 16 snaps, but it was a start and a small step back to some level of normalcy at the position next to Fletcher Cox.

“He didn't play a ton, and it was probably unrealistic to think he was going to play more than that,” Schwartz said, “but it was a good start for him and we'll just see where that goes week-to-week.

“I think that it will be nice to have him out there for significant reps over the course of the year, but we just have to take it as it goes.”

Getting Jernigan back could be huge down the stretch, but it’s hard to image the Eagles can really rely on his ability to stay healthy; he’s struggled with that. Still, getting a healthy Jernigan back for the final seven-game playoff push could go a long way to help salvage some of the depth they were originally supposed to have.

To steal a phrase from Schwartz, the Eagles have been “star-crossed” at the defensive tackle position this year.

They came into the 2019 season with Cox, Jernigan, Malik Jackson and Hassan Ridgeway. Sure, the Eagles lost some depth from 2018 at defensive end, but this depth was supposed to make up for that.

Then Jackson suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 1.

Then Jernigan hurt his foot in Week 2.

Then Ridgeway went on IR with an ankle injury suffered in Week 7.

“Going into the season, really felt good about Malik and Timmy and Ridge and all of a sudden we're looking at none of those three,” Schwartz said. “Took a little while to get some new guys in there and solidify things. A little bit like some of those other guys, getting those guys back on the field, there's nothing like having those contributors back on the field.”

While they waited for Jernigan to get healthy, the Eagles had Akeem Spence for six games before cutting him. They played Bruce Hector, Anthony Rush and Albert Huggins — all undrafted players in their first or second seasons. It’s been a rotating cast of mediocre players next to Cox, who has come on strong recently, but faces double teams at an alarming rate.

At the very least, Jernigan can beat an occasional 1-on-1 and is stout against the run on first and second downs. A healthy Jernigan next to a finally healthy and resurgent Cox sounds pretty good.

“I think that it will be nice to have [Jernigan] out there for significant reps over the course of the year,” Schwartz said, “but we just have to take it as it goes.”

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