A win over the Steelers may have been a pleasant surprise, but Wendell Smallwood getting the bulk of the carries for the Eagles' ground attack was virtually impossible to predict.
The fifth-round draft pick saw by far his most extensive action Sunday, leading the Eagles with 17 carries for 79 yards. Smallwood also scored his first NFL touchdown, punching one in from the goalline during the third quarter of a 34-3 route (see Instant Replay).
Yet it wasn't the touchdown or Smallwood's longest run of 13 that had his coaches and teammates talking after the game. It was having the wisdom to stay in bounds and keep the clock running while converting on 3rd-and-7 late in the final minutes.
"Great game for him," center Jason Kelce said of Smallwood. "My favorite play of the day was, we were in a four-minute offense and we run a little draw play to the outside, and he knows exactly where the chain is, gets the first down and comes down right in bounds to keep that clock moving.
"That's something a lot of rookies don't have the wherewithal to do. I thought it was an incredibly smart play by Wendell. A lot of times those kind of go unnoticed, but in our world, especially in clock management, even though the score was pretty much out of reach at the time, let's say it's a closer game, that's a big play for us."
"To get first downs, to be smart about the end of the game, to get the first down and stay in bounds as a rookie is tremendous," head coach Doug Pederson said. "It’s a great step forward with his development, but I’m very happy with what he did."
Smallwood's heady play drew rave reviews, but so did the rest of his game. The 22-year-old had four runs over 10 yards, including two on the touchdown drive alone. Gains of 14 and 12 set up his one-yard score two plays later, his first trip to the end zone since his college days at West Virginia.
"It was a long time coming," Smallwood said. "It felt good to get in and get my first touch, since I don't know how long, probably since late December, November.
"It just felt great, especially in a big game, as much as this game meant to us and everything that went into this week preparing for it. To get in the end zone and get the guys going, it felt like a dream come true out there."
Ryan Mathews started at running back for the Eagles, but disappeared early on with an undisclosed injury and never returned. Postgame, coach Pederson acknowledged something happened to Mathews, but had no update on the veteran's status.
That led to an increased role for Smallwood, who entered Sunday with three total touches on seven snaps. The Wilmington, Delaware, native also missed a bunch of time during training camp and the preseason, appearing in only one exhibition game.
Despite his inexperience, Pederson and the coaching staff showed tremendous confidence in Smallwood, even after he was stuffed on his initial goal line attempt — a feeling the rookie ballcarrier admitted to feeding off of.
"I really thought they were gonna send someone in because I couldn't get in, but they left me in," Smallwood said of the touchdown run. "It continued to show the confidence they have in me and how much they believe in me. They probably believe in me more than I believe in myself, so it just boosts my confidence and makes me want to go harder for them.
"He’s the same type of runner that we felt he was coming out of college and what we saw in preseason," Pederson said. "He’s a big, powerful guy. He’s a downhill guy. He’s a one-cut runner. He did a great job for us."
Smallwood also said the increased workload helped him find a rhythm as an NFL player, something he previously had not been able to do in such limited action.
"It just felt good to finally start getting a flow, getting comfortable with the game and not just being like out there like a deer in the headlights," Smallwood said. "It felt good to start getting a role, getting comfortable with the offense and getting the whole flow of the game. Instead of a couple plays, I was actually getting series."
With Mathews' status up in the air and Smallwood's emergence Sunday, it will be interesting to see whether this could lead to an increased workload moving forward. Although if running backs coach Duce Staley was telling the truth, this certainly could have been the beginning of things to come.
"Duce told me every game they're just going to keep working me in slowly, and the better I do, the more I'm going to play, so just keep getting those guys to believe in me and believe I can go out there and make plays," Smallwood said. "As long as I'm doing that, I think I'm going to play more."
Smallwood's Sunday might've been difficult to see coming for outsiders. Apparently, there are people inside the organization who have foreseen this.
In addition to Staley, Smallwood revealed backfield-mate Darren Sproles had a premonition of sorts that the kid might be relied upon heavily against the Steelers. And when you have a tutor like Sproles, a 12-year veteran and two-time Pro Bowler, you probably tend to listen.
"He's great, not only as a receiver, but as a person and as a running back," Smallwood said of Sproles. "All the things he taught me even this week, even (Saturday) before we went to the hotel, he texted me like, 'Hey, get in your playbook, we might need you this game. We might lean on you this game.' And hey, it ended up happening."
Smallwood came ready to play Sunday, averaging better than 4.7 yards per attempt, punching one into the end zone, securing the ball on 17 touches and being aware of situations. With that kind of talent, production and instinct, his being an integral part of the game plan won't be a secret or surprise for much longer.
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