He finished tied for seventh with former Penn State teammate Saquon Barkley in rushing first downs with 62. And he was eighth in rushing touchdowns with 11.
He’s going to get paid a lot of money this offseason when he’s scheduled to become a free agent. But it probably won’t be by the Eagles. Super Bowl LVII likely will be Sanders’ final game with the team.
Why? Two reasons. The first is money. The Eagles have 20 players who will be free agents after the season, including several key defensive players that they want to retain such as defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, cornerback James Bradberry, linebacker T.J. Edwards and safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson. There also need to give Jalen Hurts a hefty new deal. So, hard choices are going to have to be made.
The second reason is Kenny Gainwell.
The second-year running back out of Memphis is proving that he can do everything Sanders can do, plus a few things better. Being a fifth-round pick, he also is very affordable. His cap numbers for the next two years are $1.0 million (2023) and $1.1 million (2024).
Gainwell had just 53 rushing attempts during the regular season, 15 fewer than he had as a rookie. But he exploded for 112 yards on 12 carries in the Eagles’ 38-7 wildcard win over the Giants and had 74 yards from scrimmage in Sunday’s 31-7 win over the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game.
With the score tied at seven late in the second quarter last week, he played a big role on the Eagles’ 14-play, 75-yard go-ahead touchdown drive. Sanders scored the TD on a 13-yard run, but Gainwell kept the drive alive earlier with a nine-yard catch on second-and-11, then a four-yard run to pick up the first down on third-and-2, followed by a 17-yard run before the two-minute warning that gave the Eagles a first down at the San Francisco 24.
Fast-forward to midway through the third quarter and a 15-play, 91-yard touchdown drive that put the game away. He had a six-yard run with a nice spin move on first down, lost a yard on the next play, then hauled in a low pass in the flat from Jalen Hurts on a third-and-five from the Eagles 28, and picked up 18 yards – 15 after the catch – to keep the drive alive.
Gainwell is a more decisive runner than Sanders, with better vision and more of a willingness to put his foot in the ground and take it inside when that’s where the crease is. Sanders still has an exasperating tendency to want to take everything to the perimeter.
Gainwell also is a better receiver than Sanders. He was used as both a slot receiver and running back at Memphis. The Eagles frequently line him up on the outside in empty sets with 11-personnel. But he was targeted 21 fewer times this season (29) than he was as a rookie (50), mainly because the focus of the passing game has been on wide receivers A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith.
Gainwell has rushed for 160 yards on 26 carries in the Eagles’ two playoff wins. He also has three catches for 35 yards.
His seven 10-plus yard runs the last two games equals the number he had in the entire regular season, when he had just 53 rushing attempts. He also has 11 rushing first downs in the postseason, just six fewer than he had in the regular season.
Both the Eagles and Chiefs figure to come out throwing next week. The Chiefs had the second-highest first-quarter pass percentage in the league during the regular season (66.3). The Bengals were first at 66.6%. The Eagles weren’t far behind. They were sixth at 60.1, with 151 pass plays on 251 first-quarter plays.
The Chiefs threw even more in the second quarter. They had the second-highest second-quarter pass-play percentage (68.4) behind the Bucs (69.2), while the Eagles were 19th (59.4%). The Eagles ran the ball much more in the second half. Their third-quarter pass-play percentage dropped to 54.8 (136 pass plays, 112 runs) and their fourth-quarter pass percentage was just 36.0 (100 pass plays, 178 runs).
The Eagles have been a little more balanced in the first quarter of the playoffs. Just 19 of their 35 first-quarter plays (54.3%) have been pass plays. In their divisional-round win over the Giants, they actually ran the ball more than they threw it in the first quarter (10 runs, 7 pass plays). In the first quarter against the Niners, they had 12 first-quarter pass plays and six run plays.
In the second quarter of both playoff games, they turned to the run in a big way. Twenty-seven of their 45 second-quarter plays have been runs – 15 of 25 against the Giants and 12 of 20 against the Niners.
The Chiefs don’t have the caliber of run game the Eagles have, especially without their best back, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who has missed the last nine games with an ankle injury. The Chiefs averaged 38.3 pass attempts per game this season, the fifth most in the league. The Eagles were 23rd, averaging 31.5.
The Eagles had the league’s third most rushing attempts, averaging 32 per game. The Chiefs were 24th (24.5).
In the Chiefs’ two playoff wins, their pass-play percentages have been almost identical to what they were in the regular season. Their first-quarter pass-play percentage has been 67.7. Their second-quarter pass-play percentage has been 68.0. That doesn’t figure to change next week.
Jalen and the deep ball
Hurts was just 1-for-5 on deep balls (balls that traveled 20 or more yards in the air from the line of scrimmage) against the Niners. His only deep-ball completion was that 29-yarder to DeVonta Smith that really wasn’t a completion.
In the 13 quarters that Hurts has played since injuring his shoulder against Chicago, he has completed 4 of 13 deep balls for 174 yards. He’s 2-for-8 for 105 yards on deep balls to A.J. Brown, 2-for-4 for 69 yards to DeVonta Smith, and 0-1 to Quez Watkins.
Before the injury, Hurts had completed 21 of 51 deep balls for 738 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions.
–Eight of A.J. Brown’s 11 touchdown catches in the regular season came on deep balls. The average throwing distance on those eight TDs: 31.5 yards.
More numbers that matter
–The Eagles have been flagged for just four defensive pass interference penalties this season and haven’t had any called on them since Week 9. Two of the four were on linebacker Kyzir White. The other two were on James Bradberry and CJ Gardner-Johnson. The only team that had fewer DPIs was the Falcons (1). The difference is the Eagles gave up the third-fewest 20-plus yard completions in the league this season (40). The Falcons gave up 53.
–Hurts threw for a season-low 121 yards against the Niners. They had just 49 yards after the catch, 24 of them by Gainwell. During the regular season, the Eagles averaged 122.5 yards after the catch per game. In their two playoff wins, they’ve averaged 69.5.
–During the regular season, Dallas Goedert averaged 7.8 yards after the catch. The only wide receiver or tight end that averaged more was the Niners’ Deebo Samuel (8.9). In the Eagles’ two playoff games, Goedert has averaged just 4.3 yards-after-the-catch on 10 receptions.
–The Niners had the second-best run defense in the league during the regular season, holding opponents to 77.7 yards per game on the ground. The Eagles rushed for 148 against them in the NFC Championship Game. It was the second-most rushing yards against the Niners this season. The Falcons rushed for 168 in a 28-14 Week 6 win. Sunday was just the sixth time in 20 games that the Niners have given up 100-plus rushing yards.
–The Eagles used 11-personnel on 72.8% of their offensive plays against the Niners (51 of 70). They used 11P on 82.1% of their plays in the first three quarters (46 of 56). One hundred nineteen of the Eagles’ 148 rushing yards were with 11P.
–The Eagles used 22-personnel (2RB, 2TE, 1WR) for the first time this season Sunday. Used it on a third-and-2 play in the second quarter. Hurts ran the ball on the play for just one yard. The Eagles had used 21-personnel (2RB, 1TE, 2WR) three times during the season, but had never used 22P in Nick Sirianni’s two seasons as head coach.