If you thought the Philadelphia Eagles brought in Darren Sproles to keep LeSean McCoy fresh, think again.
Sure, Sproles will help reduce the burden on McCoy, who led the NFL last season in carries and touches, and was second only to the Chicago Bears’ Matt Forte among running backs for snaps. As much as you want the ball in the hands of the league’s reigning rushing champion and most elusive player, you also don’t want to see his skills erode as a result of overuse.
But the real reason the Eagles sent a fifth-round pick to the New Orleans Saints to acquire Sproles is playing out on the field at training camp. We were all aware the 31-year-old back adds a different dimension to the offense with his quickness and receiving ability. When Sproles and McCoy are on the field at the same time though?
Forget about it.
The running backs have been too much for the defense to handle even when it’s just one of them on the field. Both McCoy and Sproles have been more than just safety blankets for their quarterbacks. They’ve often been the focus of the offense.
There have been an awful lot of times when McCoy and Sproles are on the field together, though. That lends the appearance it’s going to be a little more than just a wrinkle in the offense. It almost seems like their base personnel.
That’s only a slight exaggeration. Despite the insistence from Chip Kelly and his coaching staff that Sproles is a running back, he’s been lining up in the slot with some frequency. Not starting in the backfield and motioning out wide—McCoy at halfback, Sproles at receiver. Shady has been split out on occasion, too.
That’s not to say he’s not taking reps in the backfield as well. To his credit, Sproles has looked every bit as explosive toting the rock as he has catching it. Still, the obvious truth is quite apparent during camp, that he is absolutely more than a typical ball-carrier in this offense.
There have also been instances where McCoy and Sproles are both in the backfield, one on each side of the quarterback. Talk about nightmare fuel for opposing defensive coordinators.
Last season, the Eagles went with three-wide receiver formations roughly 75 percent of the time. That won’t happen again in 2014.
I would have guessed that number dips anyway. There are high hopes for tight end Zach Ertz entering year two in the league and coming off a strong December/January. Plus, as great as Jordan Matthews has looked, he’s still a rookie, so expecting him to be on the field for three-quarters of the offensive snaps might be a bit of a stretch—particularly early on.
That being said, it seems clear that Sproles is headed for an ample amount of playing time with the Birds, and not necessarily at the expense of McCoy.
Of course, two-back sets are nothing new to Kelly. He utilized such personnel groupings on a regular basis when he was the head coach at Oregon. As Alex Kirby for FishDuck.com explains, one of the added benefits to this wrinkle is the ability to show defenses different looks in a no-huddle offense without changing the personnel.
For example, on the first play the offense can bring out its “regular” personnel and line up in a two-back set such as the one in the diagram below.
The defense may start anticipating a more smashmouth approach with this group out on the field, but with some versatility at the running back position, they can easily line up the next play in a one-back set and spread the defense out. In this next diagram, we see the same players on the field for the offense, only now the tailback is lined up in the slot and running a bubble route, in addition to the zone read play being run up the middle.
The possibilities are almost endless. One thing is for sure, and that is both McCoy and Sproles will be heavily involved in the offense, both as runners and receivers. Between the pure talent and versatility of these backs in conjunction with Kelly’s uptempo offense, defenses are going to have a difficult time even game-planning for the Eagles.