With one unforgettable play, Miles Sanders went from frustrated rookie to legit NFL running back.
But it didn’t just happen. While Sanders was struggling along with one of the lowest rushing averages in the NFL, he never stopped working to become the player we all expected him to be.
“Week after week he gets better and better and smoother and smoother,” Brandon Brooks said. “I’m extremely excited for him. The biggest thing as a rookie is the game is so much faster, and there’s so much more to think about and finally for him it’s starting to slow down. He busts his ass through the week, whether it’s blitz pickups or hanging out with Duce or being with Sproles, so he knows what’s going on. But I think it’s starting to slow down for him. He’s looking better and better each week.”
Sanders still has to do this consistently, but his 65-yard touchdown run against the Bills Sunday behind a massive Jordan Howard block not only turned a tight four-point game into a 10-point Eagles lead, it really demonstrated what this 22-year-old rookie is capable of.
We’ve already seen what he can do in the passing game. He’s a beast.
He left the game early Sunday with a shoulder injury that he said isn’t serious, but not before he caught three passes for 44 yards and ran three times for 74 yards.
“Happy for him,” Brooks said. “He busts his ass. I was telling Duce, the one thing I saw, it wasn’t even on that run, it was on a kick return, you saw it, he was just really smooth in and out of his cuts, making guys miss, it was like, ‘OK, there it its, it’s coming along.’”
Sanders entered the weekend averaging 3.5 yards per carry, which was seventh-worst of 42 backs in the NFL with at least 50 carries.
His carries had gone down and Howard’s had gone up. But Pederson never completely forgot Sanders. And it was interesting that on a key TD drive in the first half, down near the goal line after the Brandon Graham strip sack, Pederson dialed up Sanders, who gained nine yards on two carries to set up a touchdown.
Sanders’ 65-yard TD was the longest by an Eagle since a 65-yarder by Bryce Brown against the Bears in 2013 and matched the longest since a 66-yarder by LeSean McCoy against the Giants in 2009.
Where Sanders has struggled this year is reading the hole and getting to the second level.
But once he does? Watch out.
In the open field, he looks strong, fast and powerful.
“Obviously it means a lot,” he said. “Rookie season. First rushing touchdown, long one, took it the house. But I have to give credit to the key block that Jordan had and the offensive line. They played a hell of a game the whole game. That play doesn’t happen unless those guys do their jobs.”
Halfway through the season, Sanders is on pace for 1,136 scrimmage yards, a 4.5 rushing average and 38 catches. Only 19 rookie RBs have had 1,100 scrimmage yards, a 4.5 average and at least 35 catches.
Sanders is only the 10th NFL player with 250 yards both rushing and receiving in his first eight career games since 1986. The others are Ricky Watters, Marshall Faulk, Terrell Davis, Edgerrin James, Jahvid Best, Saquon Barkley, Karreem Hunt and Alvin Kamara.
Sanders is the first running back with six catches of at least 25 yards since Tiki Barber in 2004.
He's second among rookies in yards from scrimmage behind only Oakland’s Josh Jacobs, who has 50 more touches. He’s seventh among all rookies — backs and receivers — in receiving yards.
“He’s just learning and learning,” Howard said. “It’s a tough league to adjust to, but I feel like he’s just getting better and better, keep making big plays week in and week out. I feel like he’s getting a lot more comfortable each week … I try to wear the defense down and when he gets in the game he has that game-breaking speed, and it worked out today.”
He’s still learning. Still getting better. Still finding his way.
But it sure looks like the Eagles have found themselves a young stud running back for the first time in a decade.
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