PHILADELPHIA ( - When Jordan Howard went down with a shoulder/stinger injury the veteran running back had developed into the identity of the Eagles' offense post-DeSean Jackson, a volume, chain-moving runner who served as the default setting for Doug Pederson best evidenced by Howard's 45 touches over a two-week span against Buffalo and Chicago earlier in the season.

A seven-week absence sent the Eagles braintrust scurrying again until recent weeks when rookie runner Miles Sanders stepped up as the type of dual-threat Philadelphia envisioned when they took Saquon Barkley's former backup at Penn State in the second round back in April.

With the season on the line in Week 17 against Barkley and the New York Giants Pederson will again likely have his top two backs for the first time in nearly two months.

So, the obvious question is how do the Eagles use them?

"We have to see how the week goes first and see where [Howard] is at," offensive coordinator Mike Groh explained Tuesday. "I am sure Coach [Head Coach Doug Pederson] and [Executive Vice President/General Manager] Howie [Roseman] will have an announcement later in the week."

Sanders has not been alerted of any potential change in his role and even if Howard is cleared for contact and ready to go, the veteran had been shut down for six-plus weeks to allow a nerve issue to calm down and regain the strength in his shoulder.

Occam's Razor applies here in that Sanders, who has used his extra touches over the prior weeks to pile up more all-purpose yards than any rookie in Eagles history will be the lead horse and Howard will mix in from there.

“I think Miles has grown in so many areas," Groh explained. "… Certainly he’s been able to handle everything that we’ve given to him. He’s approached it like a true veteran throughout the course of the season, and you can see he’s getting the results."

Those results -- especially as a runner -- weren't necessarily there for Sanders early in the season as he was a little indecisive hitting holes and tried to bounce too many runs outside to take advantage of his speed. Running backs coach Duce Staley has preached patience with Sanders, the willingness to trust perhaps the best offensive line in the NFL and allow the blocking to develop.

Sanders really seemed to turn the corner with 122 yards on the ground at Washington, a career-high.

"It’s not an accident," Groh assessed. "It’s through a lot of hard work. There’s been no shortcuts to where we are. Duce has done a great job in getting him coached up and ready to play, and he’s taken the coaching to not only to practice but into the games and performed.”

For the Eagles coaching staff, however, having two proven options is a nice problem to have with Week 17 serving as a postseason play-in game. If Philadelphia can win up the Jersey Turnpike it will win the NFC East and host a playoff game against the loser of San Francisco-Seattle on Sunday night. If the Eagles lose, they have to hope Washington beats Dallas or the 2019 campaign is over.

“Whenever it is that Jordan is deemed ready to be able to come back, we’ll work him back in,” Groh said.

Pederson has typically preferred a committee approach and on paper now has the mix he wanted at the beginning of the season in Sanders, Howard, and scatback Boston Scott, who has taken full advantage of his opportunity stemming from the injuries to Howard and Darren Sproles.

“Whatever the plan is, that’s how it’s going to go,” Sanders said Tuesday.

Because of the injury, Howard hasn't been around the locker room and available to reporters but Sanders noted that the pending free agent has been staying engaged from a mental perspective.

He’s in every meeting, still taking notes like he’s playing each week," Sanders said. "… We’re a better team with him. I’m looking forward to him coming back if he does.”

Sanders himself has busted through the so-called rookie wall, playing his best football late.

“I just feel like I’m getting better each week," he said. "... I still don’t think I’m playing my best ball yet. I think I’m still trying to grow and get better as it keeps going.”

The only way Sanders and Co. can assure it keeps going is with another win.

“I’ve been in big games all my life,” Sanders said. “... I’m just going to go out there and be me and do what I can to help the team win.”

-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for You can reach him at or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

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