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The Eagles would have nothing to play for on Monday night if the Vikings lose to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on Saturday night, eliminating Minnesota from the race for home-field advantage, but does that mean Doug Pederson would rest the starters against the Oakland Raiders?
Pederson told reporters Friday that he does not have a dual-plan in place in terms of playing time for the starters in the event that the Vikings lose and clinch home-field advantage for the Eagles.
From the sounds of it, quarterback Nick Foles, running back LeGarrette Blount, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, and tight end Zach Ertz along with the rest of the starters will get a full game’s worth of reps to continue to develop chemistry ahead of the playoffs.
“I think it’s important that they continue to play,” Pederson said. “If we’re in that position, if we’re fortunate to be in that position to rest, I’ll make that decision at that time. I think it’s important that we continue to play.”
Pederson went so far to say that if the Eagles clinch home-field prior to next Sunday’s game against the Cowboys, it’s important that the starters continue to get work in together.
“Whether it’s one play, one series, or one quarter,” Pederson said. “I think it’s important we stay sharp.”
Regardless of how much the starters will play Monday night, Pederson has dialed back the intensity and lengths of practices this week as the regular season winds down to its final two games.
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“I just make sure I communicate with our players and see how they feel,” Pederson said. “And then it comes down to checking and tracking the data, whether it’s the GPS monitors, and then just injuries. You have to listen to the players. Having the extra day this week, we could have an uptempo walkthrough and keep them off their feet a little. The guys are feeling good. We just have to keep everybody fresh and healthy for Monday night.”
It is time to turn Jay Ajayi loose.
The 24-year-old back has been brought along slowly by the Philadelphia Eagles coaching staff since being acquired from the Miami Dolphins at the trade deadline back in late October. He’s averaged under nine carries per game to this point in Philly despite netting 7 yards a pop and flashing the type of explosive running style that earned him a Pro Bowl bid in 2016.
That approach has worked out just fine to this point. The Eagles have the No. 2 rushing attack in the league, are tops in points per game (31.1) and have the best record in the NFC. It’s a luxury they’ve been able to afford.
But Carson Wentz was the catalyst for much of the team’s offensive success. With Wentz sidelined for the remainder of the season with a torn ACL in his left knee, they’ll need to maximize the talent at their disposal to help compensate for the major loss. Ajayi has been without question the team’s most untapped resource to date.
He burst onto the scene with a 46-yard touchdown run against the Denver Broncos just days after being dealt to the Eagles. Ajayi followed that up with a 71-yard gallop in Dallas as part of a seven-carry, 91-yard day (13.0 avg.), yet he ran the ball just 14 times combined over the next two games.
“I just do what I’m told, man,” said Ajayi, reciting a familiar refrain when the question of workload has come up this season.
It appears change is on the horizon. He saw an uptick in playing time this past week at the Los Angeles Rams, rushing 15 times (a personal high since joining the Eagles) for 78 yards.
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“Obviously last week I was in there a lot more. Just taking advantage of the opportunities and just playing my game,” he said. “If that means I’m out there more … embrace the role and just continue to produce for the team.”
Doug Pederson said Ajayi has “really fit in well.” He is still learning some of the protections and routes out of the backfield, the head coach said, but has “come a long way in understanding our offense.”
Ajayi said the plan has long been to rev up the running game at this time of year to ensure that it is “on point” heading into the playoffs. And why not? In LeGarrette Blount (6-foot, 250 pounds), rookie Corey Clement (5-foot-10, 220 pounds) and Ajayi (6-foot, 223 pounds), they have the type of bruising backs that are well-equipped for December and January football. Blount has the most yards after contact (2.74 avg.) in the NFL, per ESPN Stats & Information. Ajayi is fourth (2.21). If you have a powerful, effective running game, it makes sense to lean on it at this time of year.
That’s especially true when your franchise quarterback goes down. While offensive coordinator Frank Reich and new starting quarterback Nick Foles suggested this week that the offense will stay the same, it would be a surprise if Pederson didn’t tweak the game plan to try and feature the run game, and Ajayi in particular, a bit more starting Sunday at the New York Giants.
“At the end of the day, more might be asked of us and we just have to make sure that we’re ready to do that,” said Ajayi. “More might get put on our plate. But it’s not about doing more, it’s just about executing what’s given to us. And I think it will be exciting to see how we move forward.”