Miles Sanders or Kenneth Gainwell? Solving the Philadelphia Eagles' backfield

Eagles running back Miles Sanders has just nine carries over the past two games. Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia Eagles' running back usage to this point in the season has been interesting, to say the least.

Miles Sanders, the lead back, has 37 carries in four games, which is tied for 33rd in the NFL with Dallas Cowboys' No. 2 running back Tony Pollard and New York Jets rookie Michael Carter. Sanders was expected to be a central figure in their offensive attack, yet has rushed nine times total the last two weeks.

Rookie running back Kenneth Gainwell, meanwhile, played a season-high 29 snaps against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday and racked up 89 total yards and a touchdown compared to 47 yards in 47 snaps for Sanders, or a yard per snap.

Sanders' plummeting opportunities and Gainwell's efficiency have folks wondering if the Eagles have cooled on Sanders and are eyeing a changing of the guard -- or at least more of a timeshare situation.

As is always the case with life's riddles, the answer can be found in running back Danny Woodhead.

Coach Nick Sirianni was on the Chargers' staff during Woodhead's four seasons in San Diego. Those were some of Sirianni's formative years and he watched Woodhead, the 5-foot-8 speedster, carve up defenses game after game, particularly as a pass-catcher. When Indianapolis Colts coach Frank Reich and Sirianni took control of that team's offense in 2018 they drafted a similar style player in running back Nyheim Hines, who was a great fit for their system. It should be no surprise, then, that the Eagles selected Gainwell in the fifth round of the draft this past April.

"We kind of saw Kenny's tape ... and we were like, ‘Man, that's the guy. That's the guy that kind of fits that role of plays we've kind of schemed for guys like that who have had good success,’" Sirianni said of Gainwell, who had 51 catches for 610 yards his final season at Memphis to go with 1,459 yards rushing.

"And then you see how strong he was with the ball in his hands. Like, he's a strong dude. And he can break tackles. He's just got good lower-body strength, good balance. And you saw that not only did he have that ability to make the play within the pass game but also in the run game."

Gainwell is on his way to becoming the man, right?

Not so fast, history says.

With both the Chargers and Colts, traditional workhorse backs were paired with Woodhead and Hines. Looking back at the Chargers' 2013 season, as an example, running back Ryan Mathews ran the ball 285 times for 1,255 yards and six touchdowns, while Woodhead did the bulk of the receiving work with 76 catches for 605 yards and six TDs. It was a similar setup between Colts running back Jonathan Taylor (232 carries for 1,169 yards and 11 TDs) and Hines (63 catches for 482 yards and four TDs) in 2020.

Taylor finished third in the league in rushing yards and eighth in rushing attempts (232) last season despite Hines having a significant role. It illustrates that Sanders can be a main cog in the offensive engine even with the emergence of Gainwell. Sirianni's track record suggests he's hoping for precisely that kind of setup.

“He’s a pivotal part of this offense, one of the top running backs in the league,” quarterback Jalen Hurts said of Sanders last week. “He’s got to get his.”

One of the reasons Sanders has been light on carries of late is due to the run-pass option (RPO) system the Eagles utilize. On many of their plays, Hurts can either hand it to Sanders or pull it and throw depending on what the defense is presenting. Hurts can also keep the ball himself; the QB is actually the Eagles’ leading rusher with 226 yards. But over the last couple of weeks, the bulk of the RPOs resulted in passes instead of runs.

"We have the ultimate confidence in Miles," Sirianni said. "You saw what he did when he got a couple touches out in space [against the Chiefs] with those two plus-10-yard gains he had on catches. Again, it's nothing that he's doing. It’s just, the reads are taking the quarterback other places with the ball. But we look forward to getting him going in our offense more."

Sanders' yards per attempt (4.6) are a shade down from his career average (4.9). It's a matter of getting opportunities, and that falls to the coaches. More action should come his way starting Sunday against a Carolina Panthers team that gave up 245 rushing yards to the Cowboys last week.