Nick Fierro
Of The Morning Call

What the rest of the teams in the NFC East, and the entire NFL for that matter, must have noticed by now about the Philadelphia Eagles is that they have compiled their 3-1 record heading into the second quarter of the season at considerably less than full strength.

How much better will they be when top cornerback Ronald Darby and top defensive lineman Fletcher Cox return? How much easier will it be for them when they finally get their full complement of safeties back?

Consider how they responded after losing top running back Darren Sproles for the season and kicker Caleb Sturgis for at least half the season. They actually got better in both areas.

This is not to be interpreted as a slight to Sproles, a true professional and an inspiration to all in the locker room, but the offensive identity of this team actually changed for the better within minutes after he was lost in the Giants game the week before.

Wendell Smallwood had a total of 2 yards on two carries in that game when Sproles went down. From that point, he’s carried 20 times for 103 yards.

LeGarrette Blount had carried three times for 28 yards in the same game before Sproles’ injury. Since then, he’s gained 175 yards on 25 carries.

Blount insisted after Sunday’s game that he hasn’t been running with a chip on his shoulder since being completely written out of the team’s game plan in a Week 2 loss at Kansas City.

His teammates might disagree.

“LeGarrette out there on the field, that man is angry,” quarterback Carson Wentz gushed. “We knew what the running backs could do all along, but to see LeGarrette breaking some of these runs like he did [Sunday], some of those runs were unbelievable.

“LeGarrette, Wendell and Corey [Clement] are all stepping up. It is good to get that run game going.”

While Blount, Smallwood and Clement have made literal strides, so have young cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Jalen Mills, which should make them that much stronger when Darby does return from his ankle injury.

The players getting better has at least a little to do with the coaches getting better, too.

Head coach Doug Pederson has seemingly learned to trust the running game more, hence his sudden commitment. Offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland on Sunday wisely had left guard Chance Warmack switch to jump sets almost exclusively, which better suits his skill set. And he was vastly improved from the week before, when he began rotating with Stefen Wisniewski.

Defensively, coordinator Jim Schwartz has dialed up way more winners than losers. Even on the 75-yard touchdown pass from Philip Rivers to Tyrell Williams, the scheme seemed right, but there was confusion on the coverage.

Then there’s tight end Zach Ertz, who not only somehow keeps getting better and more proficient as a receiver, but can be an effective blocker at times, as he proved Sunday.

Since entering the league, Ertz has gone from 36 catches as a rookie in 2013 to 58 in 2014 to 75 in 2015 to 78 last season. This year, he’s on pace after four games to finish with 104.

On Sunday, Ertz's blocking was prominent on several key runs, including the 68-yard rumble by Blount that became the game’s signature play.

“He’s worked on it,” Pederson said. “[Tight ends coach] Justin Peelle has done a great job of detailing the work. And it was probably a weakness of his last year, those cut-off blocks, but now he’s getting his head across, his steps are better and he’s really improved. But he’s taken that to heart and getting it better.”

Most importantly, Wentz’s decision-making is improving. Since he’s only played 20 games, that’s only going to continue.

“As far as just keeping him coming with the things we do offensively, with the checks and getting us in and out of protections and runs to pass, pass to runs, we continue to grow that area,” Pederson raved. “And it all comes down to his study and preparation. And anything he does at the line of scrimmage is something that we've either talked about or [practiced] during the week. So it’s not pulling something out of a hat. He's prepared. And we have a plan going into each game.”

This is the Eagles today, healthier by the day in mind, body and spirit.

And on top of their division at 3-1.