By Chris Murray
If there was anything that came out of the Eagles 38-20 road loss at the hands of the Minnesota Vikings,
it was the emergence of rookie Miles Sanders as a dual threat running back. With the Eagles trailing 24-3 in the third quarter, quarterback Carson Wentz found the former Penn State star for a 32-yard touchdown pass.
He also had a 45-yard pass reception that set up another Eagles score. The way Sanders ran that pattern on the touchdown pass you would have thought he was one of the wide receivers. He caught three passes for the 86 yards and one touchdown.
So far this season, Sanders has 13 receptions for 219 yards and one touchdown. He is averaging 16.8 yards per catch and leads the Eagles pass receiving group with five receptions over 30 yards. Seven of his catches have resulted in first downs.
Judging from his success so far, he is slowly becoming the threat out of the backfield that Darren Sproles has been over the years. With wide receiver DeSean Jackson still recovering from an abdominal injury, Sanders is one of a few Birds pass receivers who has the speed to create separation from opposing defenders.
Offensive coordinator Mike Groh said that was something he expected out of Sanders when he came out of Penn State. In his entire three-year career at State College, Sanders caught 32 passes for 193 yards and one touchdown.
The way the Eagles are utilizing Sanders in the passing game he may surpass his collegiate numbers in a single season.
“I don't think we're surprised by his development as a receiver,” Groh said. “We did our due diligence on him coming out of Penn State and we felt like he was going to be a really good pass catcher out of the backfield. I would say is that any time you have I think it's six plays over 30 yards in the last four games or so, you're going to get the attention of your opponents. So, he's made an impact on our offense in that area, and I'm sure that people take notice.”
While Sanders role in the passing game is starting to increase, he will also get his share of carries in the running back. He has shown flashes of brilliance as a runner while sharing carries with veteran running back Jordan Howard.
You wouldn’t know it by his stats alone. He has 199 yards rushing on 57 carries and is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry.
In the win over the Green Bay Packers, Sanders had his best game of the season as a running back when he gained 72 yards on 11 carries including a 30-yard run. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry. In the loss to the Detroit Lions, Sanders contributed to both the passing and running. On the ground, he gained 53 yards on 13 carries.
He also had two receptions for 73 yards. He finished the day with 126 yards of total offense. As it stands now, the Eagles are looking to both Howard and Sanders to carry the load in the running game.
Howard is going to be the more physical back in the equation and will more than likely be used in situations where the Birds need to control the football and run out the clock.
Ultimately, Sanders can also be a physical runner, but what the Eagles are envisioning for him is that he has the ability to flip field position or score a touchdown with a long 30-plus run by bouncing the ball to the outside.
With the combination of a both Howard and Sanders, the Birds can be a force in the running game. Running backs coach Duce Staley recently told ESPN.com there will be some occasions during the season when Howard or Sanders will be the back to shoulder most of the running load.
“Next week it may be a lot of Jordan and a lot of Miles, and the week after that it may just be Jordan sprinkled in with Miles, you never know," Staley said. "But all of them know there's a rotation constantly going.”
Sanders is used to sharing carries with another running back. During his college days at Penn State, Sanders shared the ball with All-American and now New York Giants star Saquon Barkley, last season’s Rookie of the Year.
In Barkley’s final year with the Nittany Lions, Sanders managed to gain just 191 yards on 31 carries with two touchdowns. Sanders, who plays on special team as a kick-return specialist, is content with being able to contribute in any way possible.
Coming into Sunday’s game against the Cowboys, the Birds are going to need his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield or run to pound the defense late in the game.
“I just want to do whatever I can to help the team win,” Sanders said when asked about his effort in a losing cause against Minnesota. *