Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3
We are almost at the halfway point of the regular season and are getting a better understanding of the make-up of the Philadelphia Eagles. They have a strong defense, mediocre offense, and excellent special teams. Add in a penchant for self-inflicted wounds (drops, fumbles, penalties, missed tackles, and coaching brain farts), and it’s easy to see why the Eagles are 4-3 instead of 5-2 or 6-1.
The temptation is to look to the outside for help: a receiver that can consistently catch the football or a running back that can run five steps without fumbling would be a welcomed addition. The Eagles flirted with this idea before the trade deadline but didn’t pull the trigger, a likely smart choice given the poor track record of midseason trades. So Terrell Owens in his prime is not walking through that door (although the 41-year old version would if presented with the opportunity); the Eagles only chance to improve is from within.
This can happen in a number of ways. For starters, the Eagles can be a better version of themselves. I know that sounds like the start of a cheesy motivational speech, but if the Eagles catch and tackle like professional athletes should, limit penalties and improve their 22nd ranked redzone offense, they could win 10 games. They won’t be sexy. They won’t set scoring records. But they will have a shot at the division and playoffs. In other words, they will closely resemble the team that Andy Reid has built in Kansas City.
But another way in which they can improve their chances to win is by putting more responsibility on Carson Wentz. For a team that lacks legitimate playmakers on offense, giving Wentz — who has the potential makeup of a franchise quarterback — more responsibility and opportunities to make plays just makes sense.
That starts with opening up the vertical passing game. Wentz’s critics cite his 24th ranked 6.69 yards per attempt as evidence that Wentz is nothing more than a Checkdown Charley. But this ignores the limitations that are imposed on Wentz by Pederson’s conservative play calling.
Pederson has combined the short passing concepts of the West Coast offense with a heavy reliance on running back and wide receiver screens. It’s a defensible strategy to an extent; Wentz is a rookie, the Eagles have question marks on their offensive line and lack legitimate skill position players on the outside.
But Pederson has become so conservative over the last too weeks that it’s becoming counterproductive. Through the first five weeks of the season, Wentz averaged 7.632 yards per attempt. Against the Vikings and Cowboys, Wentz averaged a comically bad 4.815 yards per attempt. The short passing game made some sense against the Vikings given their dominant defensive line and pass rush. But the Cowboys do not have a strong defense, and Pederson’s reluctance to stretch the field allowed Dem Boyz to sit on the short routes and sell out to stop the run.
Based on my film review, only 16 of the 71 plays run by the Eagles involved at least one receiver running a deep route (totaling 20 yards or more). That’s less than one-quarter of all plays run by the Eagles on Sunday night and only 37% of the 43 pass plays. And the numbers look worse upon closer examination, as five of those plays did not present a realistic chance of actually throwing deep:
- One deep route was used as a decoy to clear out space for a running back screen to Darren Sproles;
- Three other plays involved Agholor running a go route to clear out underneath routes for receivers — Wentz did not even look at Agholor on the plays;
- And one play would have been virtually impossible to hit the deep route simply because of the play design. Wentz ran a bootleg to his left off play action and had Jordan Matthews running a deep route on the same side of the field. Wentz dumped the ball off to the short check down, but hitting Matthews in stride would have required him to either throw across his body on the run (never smart) or stop, plant, and throw to Matthews before the defense got pressure (never easy).
Remove those 5 plays, and that leaves only 11 plays where Wentz even had the opportunity to attack the Cowboys vertically.
Of those 11 plays, I could find only two examples in which Wentz passed on an opportunity to throw deep when he should have let it rip. With 9:02 left in the third quarter, the Eagles lined up with trips right and Dorial Green-Beckham isolated at the bottom of the field. Wentz completes a 14-yard pass to DGB for a first down. Yes, one of the best examples I could even find involved Wentz completing a pass for a first down.
But look at Jordan Matthews (second receiver from the top). He’s running a go route from the slot, has inside leverage on his defender and no safety help over the top. If Wentz throws that towards the center hash, odds are Matthews is coming down with it for a huge gain and perhaps even a touchdown. But again, Wentz threw the ball for a damn first down. It’s hard to call this a bad decision.
The other play occurred with 14:50 left in the second quarter. The Eagles were at their own 25 yard line on a 1st and 10, and Wentz dumped the ball off to Ryan Mathews for a gain of one yard.
But watch the play develop at the top of the screen, you can see a tight opening for Wentz to hit Ertz for a big gain. The defense was in Cover-2 zone, so there is a risk that the cornerback could have dropped back into that space. But the tight window was there, and Wentz was not under pressure. He could have taken the shot if he wanted.
On the few times Wentz attacked the Cowboys deep, his receivers dropped the football. This clip shows two different plays with the same result: Jordan Matthews and Dorial Green-Beckham dropping catchable passes for big gains (although the DGB pass technically didn’t travel over 20 yards):
That’s four plays where the Eagles could have realistically attacked the Cowboys deep. Again: the Eagles ran 71 plays total.
There’s a delicate balance between being too aggressive or too conservative. We obviously don’t want Pederson calling four verticals all game, but we also don’t want him turning Wentz into Alex Smith or Sam Bradford. We’ve already read that book and know how it ends.
So how do the Eagles fix it? The most obvious answer is to start drawing up plays with more vertical passing concepts. Profound stuff, I know. But Pederson called more deep passes earlier in the year, and Wentz excelled at it. It’s unclear why Pederson has become so reluctant to attack defenses vertically the last two weeks — perhaps it was the game killing interception that Wentz threw against the Lions, or Pederson lost faith in the receivers or was simply trying to protect Big V — but regardless of the cause, Pederson needs to give Wentz the opportunity to attack defenses deep.
Pederson also should consider making some personnel changes with the receivers. Agholor simply cannot serve as our primary deep threat anymore. He’s not explosive enough to blow by defenders, not strong enough to out muscle them, and is only catching 58.3% of his passes. I don’t want to give up on a first round pick after a season and a half, but he hasn’t earned the amount of opportunities he is receiving.
While Pederson’s options are less than ideal, he should divvy those deep passing opportunities between Ertz and DGB. I know fans are growing tired of the Ertz talk — and rightfully so — but beggers can’t be choosers. Ertz is one of the only receivers on the team with good size, that runs great routes and has shown the ability to make tough catches. While DGB has a case of the drops, he at least gives Wentz a size mismatch to exploit.
Pederson should also consider calling more designed runs for Wentz. I’m not suggesting we turn Wentz into RG3, but he has only 19 runs on the year according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Using Wentz’s athleticism 3-4 times a game gives defenses another thing to worry about and could make life easier on Ryan Mathews and the Eagles anemic rushing attack.
We are at a turning point in the season. The Eagles face a must win game against the New York Giants (they cannot afford to start 0-3 in the division), and have a tough sled of games against the Falcons, Seahawks, Packers and Bengals to follow. So it’s time for Pederson to take the training wheels off Carson Wentz. There’s a risk it backfires — Wentz is just a rookie — but we’ve already seen that the conservative approach isn’t working. So what’s there to lose?