The Eagles Playoff Odds

Patrick Causey, Follow on Twitter @pcausey3

Holiday season means I have more time for writing. Here’s a quick review of the Eagles playoff push as of this morning.

If the season ended today, the Eagles would finish just outside of the playoffs, with the Washington Redskins and New York Giants securing the two wildcard spots.

Rank Team Record
1. Dallas Cowboys 10-1
2. Seattle Seahawks 7-2-1
3. Detroit Lions 7-4
4. Atlanta Falcons 6-4
5. New York Giants 7-3
6. Washington Redskins 6-4-1
In Contention    
  Minnesota Vikings 6-5
  Philadelphia Eagles 5-5
  Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5-5
  Arizona Cardinals 4-5-1
  Green Bay Packers 4-6
  New Orleans Saints 4-6
  Carolina Panthers 4-6
  Los Angeles Rams 4-6

If the Eagles win on Monday night (which is no guarantee), they would move ahead of the Minnesota Vikings by virtue of owning the tie breaker, since the Eagles beat the Vikings earlier this year. But the Eagles would still be behind the Redskins by one game, so they will need some help for the rest of the season. To make matters worse, the Lions, Giants and Redskins own the tie breakers over the Eagles so far, since they beat them earlier this season.

Below is the Eagles remaining games. You’ll notice that they play three teams with which they are competing for the wildcard spots: the Packers, Redskins and Giants.

Team Record Win%
Green Bay Packers 4-6 .400
@ Cincinnati Bengals 3-6-1 .350
Washington Redskins 6-4-1 .591
@ Baltimore Ravens 5-5 .500
New York Giants 7-3 .700
Dallas Cowboys 10-1 .909
Total 35-25 .583

I haven’t checked this site for accuracy, but according to FantasyIndex.com, the Eagles have the 5th hardest remaining schedule in the NFL, behind only the Cowboys, Chiefs, Broncos and Panthers.

Odds are, the Eagles will need to finish out the season 5-1 to make the playoffs. That’s a tall order for a team that hasn’t been consistent all year. But after getting screwed by the schedule makers earlier in the season (playing three teams coming off a bye and the Falcons coming off 10 days rest), the Eagles finally get some lucky breaks.

For starters, four of their six remaining games are played at home, where the Eagles are playing considerably better football, especially on defense.

  Home Away
Record 4-0 1-5
Points Scored 27 22
Points Allowed 9.5 29.6
Turnover Differential +4 +1
  • Additionally, the Eagles get the Packers and Bengals while the proverbial wheels are falling off their season. The Packers have lost four straight, thanks in large part to a defense that has been derailed by injuries. During that span, they have given up 33, 31, 47 and 42 points, respectively. So the Eagles offense will have a chance to get back on track this week.
  • The Bengals just lost AJ Green and Gio Bernard to injury. Green and Bernard account for 42% of the Bengals total yards gained on the year (1,637 out of 3,893). Losing them is a critical blow to a team that is already struggling to win games.
  • The Eagles have a chance to avenge their three divisional losses in the last four weeks of the season with home games against the Redskins, Giants and Cowboys. The Eagles were in position to win all three games earlier in the season, so they should have a decent shot at running the table.
  • Many have suggested that the Cowboys could be resting their starters by week 16, thereby giving the Eagles an easy victory. There’s certainly a chance that happens, but I am not as bullish about the prospects as mosts. The Seahawks are 7-2-1 on the season and are starting to look like the best team in football. That leaves the Cowboys little margin for error, and they have the third hardest strength of schedule remaining. If the Cowboys drop a game or two, they might need to beat the Eagles to secure home field advantage in the playoffs. The last thing they want is to have to travel to Seattle for the NFC Championship game.
  • On paper, the Ravens game screams trap game, especially if the Eagles win their next three. The game is on the road and sandwiched between two divisional games. The Eagles have no margin for error, so you hope they won’t over look anyone. But with the Ravens stout run defense, they could be a harder opponent than we expect.

Bottom line: the Eagles have left themselves little margin for error on the rest of the season. The loses to the Lions and Cowboys — games they should have won — are starting to loom large. The Eagles are likely without Ryan Mathews for a few weeks, and are down to their third string right tackle after Big V suffered a sprained MCL last week against the Seahawks (thanks again, Lane Johnson!). It doesn’t look promising, but they still have a punchers chance. And given our expectations coming into the season, that’s all we can really as for.

 

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Are the Eagles Pass Catchers as Bad as We Think?

The Eagles pass catchers are playing poorly and the Eagles need to improve that position this offseason. But the situation isn’t as dire as we think, and the improvement needed isn’t as drastic as many claim.

Patrick Causey, Follow on Twitter @pcausey3

The Philadelphia Eagles are competing for a wildcard spot, but are held back, in part, by the poor play of their wide receivers and tight ends. Their shortcomings have limited Carson Wentz’s and the offense’s production. It has left points on the field – quite literally, since the Eagles have dropped at least four passes in the end zone. And it has caused rampant discussion on sports radio and in the comment sections about how the unit needs a drastic overhaul this offseason.

But are the pass catchers as bad as we think?

Yes…..and no.

Let’s start with the obvious: on the season, the Eagles have one of the least productive receiving units in the NFL. That shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that has watched this team even a handful of times. To underscore this point, I charted the top three pass catchers in terms of yards for every team to compare the Eagles to the rest of the league. Note that I used only wide receivers and tight ends, and excluded running backs.

Team WR Catch Catch% Yards TD
Eagles Matthews 53/85 62% 639 3
Eagles Ertz 35/46 76% 377 1
Eagles Agholor 27/51 52.9% 264 1
Total 115/182 63% 1,280 5
Cowboys Bryant 28/58 48% 478 5
Cowboys Beasley 53/67 79% 591 5
Cowboys Witten 49/70 70% 520 2
Total 130/195 66% 1,589 12
Giants Beckham 59/98 60% 819 6
Giants Shephard 44/72 61% 476 5
Giants Cruz 26/44 59% 425 1
Total 129/214 60% 1,720 12
Redskins Crowder 47/65 72% 637 6
Redskins Garcon 48/72 66% 593 2
Redskins Reid 49/68 72% 535 3
Total 144/205 70% 1,765 11
Saints Cooks 51/75 68% 736 6
Saints Thomas 56/74 75% 681 5
Saints Snead 46/63 73% 555 4
Totals 153/212 72% 1,972 15
Panthers Olsen 54/83 65% 745 3
Panthers Benjamin 46/80 57% 683 4
Panthers Ginn 32/51 62% 374 1
Total 132/214 61% 1,802 8
Falcons Jones 61/97 62% 1105 5
Falcons Sanu 39/59 66% 430 3
Falcons Gabriel 17/23 73% 303 2
Total 117/179 65% 1,838 10
Bucs Evans 65/121 53% 916 8
Bucs Humphries 39/60 65% 430 1
Bucs Brate 37/52 71% 393 5
Total 141/233 60% 1,739 14
Packers Nelson 53/96 55% 663 9
Packers Adams 53/80 66% 663 6
Packers Cobb 48/70 68% 517 3
Total 154/246 62% 1,843 18
Lions Jones 38/66 57% 676 4
Lions Tate 52/78 66% 540 2
Lions Ebron 35/48 72% 451 1
Total 125/192 65% 1,667 7
Vikings Diggs 67/87 77% 747 2
Vikings Thielen 37/50 74% 518 3
Vikings Rudolph 39/68 57% 404 5
Total 143/205 69% 1,669 10
Bears Jeffery 40/73 54% 630 1
Bears Miller 47/65 72% 486 4
Bears Meredith 33/44 75% 430 2
Total 120/182 65% 1,546 7
Seahawks Baldwin 54/71 76% 733 5
Seahawks Graham 45/63 71% 639 4
Seahawks Kearse 28/51 54% 336 0
Total 127/185 68% 1,708 9
Cardinals Fitzgerald 74/106 69.8 749 5
Cardinals Brown 30/57 52.6 380 1
Cardinals Floyd 26/55 47.2 379 3
Total 130/218 59% 1,508 9
Rams Britt 49/71 69% 736 3
Rams Quick 29/48 60% 442 3
Rams Kendricks 37/61 60% 369 1
Total 115/180 63% 1,547 7
49ers Kerley 40/77 52% 424 3
49ers Patton 30/54 55% 362 0
49ers McDonald 18/33 54% 322 4
Total 88/164 53% 1,108 7
Patriots Gronkowski 25/36 69% 540 3
Patriots Edelman 56/87 64% 534 2
Patriots Bennett 39/49 79% 518 4
Total 120/172 69% 1,592 9
Jets Marshall 43/91 47% 601 2
Jets Enunwa 38/70 54% 534 3
Jets Anderson 22/37 59% 270 0
 Total 120/198  60% 1,405 5
Dolphins Landry 60/81 74% 686 2
Dolphins Parker 38/60 63% 485 2
Dolphins Stills 23/45 51% 408 4
 Total 121/186  65%  1,579 8
Bills Woods 42/59 71% 493 1
Bills Goodwin 18/40 45% 316 3
Bills Clay 34/53 64% 306 0
 Total 94 /152  62%  1,115  4
Colts Hilton 57/99 57% 888 5
Colts Doyle 37/47 78% 386 4
Colts Dorsett 21/39 53% 364 1
 Total 115 /185  62%  1,638 10
Titans Walker 46/68 67% 607 5
Titans Mathews 45/66 68% 605 6
Titans Sharpe 34/65 52% 453 2
 Total  125/199  62%  1,665 13
Jags Robinson 51/102 50% 567 6
Jags Lee 42/63 66% 544 1
Jags Hurns 34/69 49% 465 2
 Total 127/234  54%  1,576  9

Combine the total production from Jordan Matthews, Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor on the year, and they have caught 115 passes for 1,280 yards, 5 touchdowns and a 63% catch rate. Compared to the top three pass catchers from every other team in the league, here is how that combined production ranks, out of 32 teams:

  • Catches: T-30th
  • Yards: 30th
  • Touchdowns: T-31st
  • Catch%: T-21st

That is….less than ideal. Only two teams – the Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers – have worse production from their top three pass catchers across the board. To make matters worse, the Eagles have three receivers – Matthews, Agholor and Dorial Green-Beckham – that rank among the top 20 in drop rate according to Pro Football Focus. So in the short term, these problems are paramount.

But if we consider the big picture, the situation is not as dire as many suggest. For all of their shortcomings, Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz are above average players at their positions. Matthews is upholding his end of the bargain, drops notwithstanding. He ranks 25th in the NFL in total yards, and is on pace to eclipse 1,000 yards receiving for the first time in his career.

But Zach Ertz is on pace for 56 catches for 603 yards and 2 touchdowns. That’s well below his numbers last year: 75 catches, 853 yards and 2 touchdowns. Given that Ertz is only 25 years-old, we should expect his production to improve, not regress.

So what gives? Two things. Ertz had a displaced rib, an injury which could lead to a punctured lung if not treated properly. Like Ron Burgundy, that’s kind of a big deal. Doug Pederson also alluded to chemistry concerns between Ertz and Wentz. So Ertz missed two games because of the injury, and then caught only  9 passes for 92 yards and 0 touchdowns from weeks 5-9 when he returned. Even if you hate Ertz because he avoids contact like the plague, you have to recognize that those numbers are well-below the level at which he normally produces.

Now look at the last three weeks, Ertz is healthier and has become a focal point of the Eagles passing attack. He has been targeted 26 times, has caught 20 passes, for 187 yards and 1 TD.  And that doesn’t even include the 53 yard touchdown catch that was negated by Agholor’s boneheaded penalty. Extrapolate those numbers out over the course of a season, and the end result is 96 catches, 922 yards, 5 tds. That’s impressive; and I suspect is the kind of production the Eagles were anticipating when they signed Ertz to a shiny new contract extension this offseason.

So riddle me this: if the Eagles had two pass catchers on pace to eclipse 1,000 yards, do you think we would be as concerned about the receiving options on this team? Probably not. And that is especially true once we factor in the contributions of Darren Sproles and Trey Burton.

To be clear, I am not suggesting the Eagles are set at the receiving position. It goes without saying they need to invest in that position this offseason. But I am suggesting the position might not be as dire as we suspect since we already have two legitimate receiving threats upon which we can rely.

How Do The Eagles Improve: Internal v External Options

The question becomes, from where does that improvement come?  The Eagles were banking on Nelson Agholor filling the void this season, but that plan has gone as well as the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

Nevertheless, it’s too early to give up on him. I know – he’s frustrating as hell – and that frustration reached its zenith last week following Agholor getting called for a penalty that negated Ertz’s touchdown and dropping a pass that would have led to an approximately 40 yard gain.

In the moment, it seems like Agholor won’t ever justify his status as a first-round pick. But I remember the same thing being said about Brandon Graham not too long ago, and he’s now one of the best pass rushers in football. And there is at least some evidence of third year receivers making the jump after struggling during their first two seasons.

So there is hope. Agholor’s teammates and coaches have confidence in him. And he has provided brief glimpses, however fleeting, of the talent that caused many to compare Agholor to Jeremy Maclin and Emanuel Sanders. Ignore the result of these plays for a minute. Just watch the routes Agholor runs on these next two plays and remember that he was covered by Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas, respectively:

The talent might be there. The confidence is not. And since cutting Agholor will produce a $2.5 million cap hit next season, the Eagles are likely giving him another year to sort it out regardless. Odds are he doesn’t figure it out. But if he does? It’s just icing on the cake.

Free Agency/Draft/Trades

But the Eagles can’t bank on Agholor improving. There is too much risk associated with Agholor at this point; they need to invest in the position this offseason.

If the Eagles want to get an elite wide receiver, they will likely have to turn to the draft again. Below is a chart of the top 13 receivers from each of the last six seasons. (Somewhat intuitive, but D = draft, FA = free agent, and T = the player was acquired by trade). Of the 91 receivers listed below, 72 were acquired in the draft (79%). Only 11, or 12%, were acquired via free agency.

2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
B. Floyd (FA) C Johnson (D) C Johnson (D) J Gordon (D) A Brown (D) J Jones (D) J Jones (D)
R. White (D) W Welker (T) A Johnson (D) A Brown (D) D Thomas (D) A Brown (D) A Green (D)
R Wayne (D) V Cruz (D) B Marshall (T) C Johnson (D) J Jones (D) D Hopkins (D) M Evans (D)
G Jennings (D) L Fitzgerald (D) D Thomas (D) D Thomas (D) J Nelson (D) B Marshall (FA) A Brown (D)
M Wallace (D) S Smith (D) V Jackson (D) A Green (D) E Sanders (FA) O Beckham (D) T Hilton (D)
A Johnson (D) R White (D) D Bryant (D) P Garcson (FA) T Hilton (D) A Robinson (D) A Cooper (D)
D Bowe (D) J Nelson (D) R Wayne (D) D Jacknson (D) G Tate (FA) D Thomas (D) L Fitzgerald (D)
L Fitzgerald (D) B Marshall (T) W Welker (T) J Nelson (D) D Bryant (D) A Green (D) S Diggs (D)
C Johnson (D) M Wallace (D) R White (D) B Marshall (FA) J Maclin (D) L Fitzgerald (D) K Britt (FA)
S Moss (D) H Nicks (D) A Green (D) E Decker (D) O Beckham (D) C Johnson (D) B Cooks (D)
S Johnson (D) D Bowe (D) J Jones (D) V Jackson (D) R Cobb (D) M Evans (D) M Wallace (FA)
D Jackson (D) M Colston (D) S Smith (D) A Boldin (FA) D Hopkins (D) L Landry (D) D Baldwin (D)
H Nicks (D) A Brown (D) Colston (D) T Smith (D) D Jackson (FA) B Cooks (D) T Pryor (FA)

The Eagles have several holes on their roster, including cornerback and offensive line. So investing another high draft pick in the position is less than ideal.

But the Eagles can still find value in free agency, thanks in large part to Howie Roseman, who has proven especially adept at unearthing a diamond in the rough. Malcolm Jenkins, Connor Barwin, Darren Sproles and Rodney McLeod are all examples of mid-tier free agents/trade targets that out played their perceived value.

So I’m confident that Roseman will find one to two effective receivers in free agency. Here is a list of pending free agents that Roseman can target. I’ll be brief since we will have plenty of time to address this topic in the offseason:

Free Agents:

  • Alshon Jeffery: He is the cream of crop; a potential top 15 guy that will change the dynamic of this offense. But, despite advocating for acquiring him early in the year, I think his recent suspension changes the dynamic. Lane Johnson just missed 10 games this year. Investing in Jeffery means the Eagles would have a considerable portion of their salary cap tied to two players that could miss most of the season with just one mistake. It says here that the risk is too great for Roseman’s liking. I think they pass.
  • Desean Jackson: some have expressed concerns about signing Jackson, who turns 30 this year. In the past, speed guys didn’t age well. But Jackson has become a more complete receiver as of late, and as we have seen from guys like Steve Smith and Darren Sproles, 30 is the new 27. So if Jackson comes at a discount, I’d welcome his return.
  • Michael Floyd: hard pass. He’s talented, but too inconsistent, as evidenced by his 53% catch rate.
  • Terrelle Pryor: He’s one of my favorite free agents. He’s 6’6, 240 lbs and ran a 4.38 40 during his pro day. Hue Jackson has finally tapped into his athletic potential, and Pryor has caught 56 passes for 724 yards and 4 touchdowns so far. Most importantly, he’s a big play threat that could help the Eagles stretch field vertically. Given their cap space and dearth of talent on their roster, the Browns will likely try to re-sign him this offseason. But if he’s available, he’s worth a look.
  • Pierre Garcon: Like Jackson, Garcon is 30-years old. But again, I’m not as concerned about that age anymore given the number of productive players on the wrong side of 30. Plus, he’s a possession guy, so his skill set ages better than pure speed guys. Oh, and did I mention that the dude can actually CATCH THE DAMN FOOTBALL? He’s caught 64%, 62%, 65%, 65% and 67% of his targets since coming to Washington. Sign me up.
  • Robert Woods: since Watkins was injured, Wood has emerged as Taylor’s favorite pass catcher. He’s on pace for 876 yards while catching 70% of his passes. He’s also only 24 years old. I would be shocked if the Bills let him walk, but if they do, he would be near the top of my list.
  • Kenny Britt/Anquan Boldin/Kendall Wright: not sure these guys make much since. Britt has enjoyed a resurgence in LA, but part of that is likely just because he is one of the few competent receivers on the team. Boldin is a guy I wanted the Eagles to sign this offseason, but at 36, it’s fair to wonder if he’s reached the end of his rope. And while I like Wright’s production, he is primarily a slot guy, which is where Jordan Matthews makes his living. I just don’t think any of these guys make sense.

Pick two players on that list, say, Jackson and Garcon, and pair them with Matthews in the slot and Ertz at tight end. Add in a 3rd or 4th round pick plus Agholor, and the Eagles all of a sudden have competence at the position. And considering the inept play we have seen the last two seasons, that would be welcomed.

Key Match-ups in Eagles/Seahawks

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

The Philadelphia Eagles are 6.5 point underdogs against the Seattle Seahawks, who are 6-2-1 on the year. The Seahawks have a decided advantage at home thanks in part to the SEC-like atmosphere created by their raucous fans. In their last 40 home games, they’ve gone 35-5. And oh, Russell Wilson is finally healthy again and has been lighting defenses up over the last two weeks. In other words, all signs point to an Eagles loss.

BUT, not all hope is lost. The Eagles have risen to the occasion more often than not this year, have yet to look like they don’t belong to with the big boys, and have a chance to surprise people with an upset. If they are going to pull it off, here are three key matchups in the game that will likely have to break in their favor.

Jordan Matthews against Jeremy Lane

While Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor continue to play at a high level, the Seahawks secondary is vulnerable against slot receivers. Over the last four weeks, journeyman cornerback Jeremy Lane has struggled against Julian Edelman (7, 99), Robert Woods (10, 162), Willie Snead (6, 56) and Larry Fitzgerald (9, 70) out of the slot.

This bodes well for Jordan Matthews, who has quietly become Carson Wentz’s security blanket over the last three weeks. He’s been targeted a combined 35 times over that span, catching 23 passes, for 226 yards and 1 td. Yes, J Matt still has momentary lapses of foolishness — like his key drop before the first half last week that arguably robbed the Birds of 3 points. But he’s otherwise has played very well and is on his way towards another 1,000 yard season. Expect a heavy dose of passes over the middle to Matthews in order to keep the pressure off Wentz and the offense moving down the field.

Eagles Running Game v. the Seahawks 2nd ranked run defense 

The Seahawks have the 2nd ranked run defense according to Football Outsiders DVOA rankings, and have limited teams to 871 rushing yards on the season, 7th best in the NFL.  But with Michael Bennett out, teams have been able to achieve some level of success running the football against the Seahawks. The Saints went 35 for 135 and 1 touchdown, the Bills went 38 for 162 and 2 tds, while the Patriots went 28 for 81 yards and 3 tds. None of those rushing attacks were highly efficient, but they used the running game to sustain drives and avoid the twin strengths of this Seahawks defense: its secondary and pass rush.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Eagles actually rank 11th in the NFL in total rushing yards, gaining 1070 yards on 251 carries (4.3 ypc). Did anyone actually suspect that? I sure as hell didn’t. Frustrating fantasy owners everywhere, it is a true running back by committee, with no running back gaining over 400 yards on the year: Ryan Mathews has 396 yards, Darren Sproles has 304, and Wendell Smallwood has gained 205.

As we saw last week, the Eagles offense is most efficient when Ryan Mathews and the run game enjoy success.  Part of that success is due to the offensive line steadily improving since Lane Johnson’s suspension. It goes without say that the Eagles will need that improved play to continue. Their outside receivers have a snow ball’s chance in hell against the Legion of Boom, so the Eagles will need their running game to be at least somewhat productive if the offense is going to have any level of success.

The Eagles dominant defensive lines verse the Seahawks offensive line

There is one consistent theme throughout the Eagles five victories this season: their defensive line has controlled the line of scrimmage. They have an opportunity to replicate that success this week against a Seahawks offensive line that has struggled for most of the season.

According to Football Outsiders, the Seahawks offensive line ranks 24th in run blocking and 19th in pass blocking on the year. Comparatively, the Eagles defensive line ranks 4th against the run and 2nd against the pass according to those same metrics.

But, don’t assume this will be a repeat of the Minnesota Vikings game. The Seahawks have a young offensive line that has improved over the last couple of weeks, aided by the return of second year guard Germain Ifedi and the rapidly improved play of rookie left tackle George Fant.

The Seahawks are also helped by Russell Wilson, who is as adept at avoiding pressure as any quarterback in the league, finally overcoming the ankle and knee injuries that plagued him earlier in the year. Over the last two weeks, Wilson has completed 71.4% of his passes for 630 yards, 5 touchdowns, 0 interceptions and a QB rating of 130.8.

A player to keep an eye on is Brandon Graham, who is one of the best 4-3 defensive ends in the league. Graham has spent his entire career playing under the cloud of not being Earl Thomas. It says here that Graham has had this game circled on his calendar all year and will be looking to make a statement to silence his detractors (if there are any left).

Bottom line: if the Eagles are able to consistently get pressure on Wilson, the Eagles have a legitimate chance to pull off the upset. But if the Seahawks keep the Eagles defensive lineman at bay, it could be a long day for the Birds.

Bonus point: I alluded to this earlier, but the significance of the Seahawks losing Michael Bennett for another game cannot be understated. With apologies to Brandon Graham, Bennett is arguably the best 4-3 defensive end in football. His versatility — he is lined up all over the Seahawks defensive line, is a nightmare rushing the passer but is equally effective against the run — is unmatched. While the Seahawks defense has still been effective since he has been injured, they have not been nearly as dominant. In addition to the aforementioned success that opposing teams have enjoyed running the football, teams have also found it easier to come by points in his absence. Consider this: before Bennett’s injury, the Seahawks gave up an average of 17 points per game. But since his injury? That number has risen a full touchdown to 24.6 points per game. The Eagles offense isn’t going to set the world on fire, but they shouldn’t be completely shut down either.

Prediction: There is significant concern that the Eagles are getting the Seahawks at the worst possible time, right as Wilson gets healthy, their offensive line’s play has improved, and they have finally found Marshawn Lynch’s replacement in rookie RB C.J. Prosise. Add in the Eagles traveling cross country to face the Seahawks on their home turf, and it’s easy to see why the Seahawks are favored by everyone and their mother. But screw it. Why not. I’m taking a flyer on the Birds. I have a good feeling about this game, especially given the Birds potential advantage in the trenches. Give me the Eagles 24-21.

 

 

Mid-Season Evaluation of Carson Wentz, Part II

Note: This is a two-part evaluation of Carson Wentz. You can read part one here, which compares Wentz’s production to top rookie quarterbacks drafted since 2009. In part two, I break down the film on areas in which Wentz can improve.

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

It’s pretty clear that Wentz is playing at a high level for a rookie quarterback. There are only a small handful of rookie quarterbacks in recent history that have matched Carson Wentz’s production. And as I’ve documented before, Wentz’s tape is equally impressive; from his precise ball placement, to his demonstrated ability to perform the advanced aspects of quarterbacking, like adjusting plays at the line, working through his progressions, and manipulating defenders with his eyes. I don’t want to rehash all of that, so for brevity’s sake, you can review my thoughts here:

I instead want to dig into some areas in which Wentz can improve his game, most notably (1) throwing under pressure, (2) deep passing, and (3) red zone decision making and accuracy. I’m also going to touch on his wide receiver play, because it is clearly impacting his production to date.

Handling Pressure

Because PFF no longer provides the public with access to its advanced statistics (if anyone is aware of another site that tracks pressure, please let me know), I have to get creative in order to evaluate Wentz’s performance under pressure. An imperfect way to evaluate this is to look at the number of times Wentz has been hit or sacked. Of course, pressure can occur without a QB hit or sack, but we will have to make do for now.

Weeks QB Hits Per QB Sacks Per INTs
1-4 4.5 1.75 1
5-9 6.2 2.4 4

As you probably guessed by now, week 5 was the first game that Lane Johnson missed due to suspension. Big V’s play has undoubtedly improved since his first start, but the offensive line simply is not as good with Johnson on the sideline.

Wentz had issues sailing passes in college, especially when he was under pressure. That issue went largely unnoticed in the first quarter of this season, but has, perhaps not coincidentally, reared its ugly head after Johnson was suspended.

A prime example of this was the first interception Wentz threw against the New York Giants. Kelce tripped over backup guard Stefan Wisneiwski, allowing his man to collapse the pocket on Wentz. Wentz didn’t react well to the pressure; he did a half-ass scramble to the right and threw off his back foot after after Big V lost engagement on his man. Sloppy mechanics led to sloppy accuracy, and the pass sailed on Wentz and was intercepted with ease.

ezgif.com-video-to-gif-4.gif

Wentz needs to be smarter here. He could have stood tall in pocket and delivered an accurate pass, as Pederson recognized after the game: “I felt like he didn’t have to move. He could have stayed right there in the pocket and delivered the football.”  And while Wentz could not technically throw the ball away since he was inside the pocket and subject to intentional grounding rules, he could have essentially accomplished this by spiking the ball in Agholor’s direction.

On the following drive, Wentz tried to step up in the pocket to avoid pressure. The below clip stops right as Wentz is about to release the ball so you can see how close he is sandwiched between Brooks and Kelce.

ezgif.com-video-to-gif-5.gif

Pederson thought Wentz had enough space to deliver the football: “The pocket was clean enough to deliver the football…but that quick pressure, from a quarterback standpoint, makes you throw a bit high.” It’s hard to tell from this angle just how much space Wentz had to operate. But regardless, you can see that Wentz stops short on his follow through, which caused the pass to sail.

Almost every quarterback struggles throwing under pressure. It’s why you hear defensive coordinators talk about pressure being more important than sacks. So we should not be overly concerned here. But it is an area that Wentz can and should improve moving forward.

Improving Mechanics/Timing on Deep Ball

Wentz has excelled at throwing the deep ball at times, but like most rookie quarterbacks, his deep passing is inconsistent. On the season, Wentz has completed 33.3% of his passes over 21 yards in length, with 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions, according to ESPN.com.

The issue I’ve noticed comes down to mechanics and timing. When Wentz has a clean pocket, he is usually mechanically sound and delivers a beautiful deep ball. But if Wentz is under pressure or his mechanics are off, his deep passing suffers.

I want to highlight two examples. The first comes against the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football.  The Eagles dial up a play action pass with the hopes of hitting Nelson Agholor on a deep go route. It’s a routine 7 step drop, but as you will see, Wentz takes 10 steps, which throws off the timing of the play:

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This might seem like nitpicking, but NFL passing attacks are predicated on timing. As Ron Jaworski once pointed out, each route is synced to a quarterbacks drop down to the millisecond: “You’re throwing a skinny post, and you have 2.1 seconds on a five-step drop, and the weight is on the back foot and, bang, the hips open, and boom, the ball is right there when the receiver makes his break at 19 yards. You drop back 100 times, you have to do that 100 times properly. Not 50 or 75. The mechanics have to be perfect every single time. Weight on back foot, snap the hips open, drive, consistent throwing slot.”

In other words, those three extra steps made the difference between hitting Agholor in stride for a touchdown and Agholor having to stop and come back to fight for the ball.

Against the Browns, the Eagles ran a similar play, but with Jordan Matthews running the go route.  Wentz comes out of play action with his back to the defense, which is something quarterbacks are taught not to do because it limits the amount of time that a quarterback has to examine the defense:

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You can see the impact it has on the accuracy of the throw, which was about 7 yards too deep and too far towards the sideline. Matthews had no chance on the ball, and this stemmed from Wentz’s sloppy mechanics coming out of the snap.

The good news is that these lapses in mechanics are common for rookie quarterbacks. Wentz has shown the ability to be mechanically sound, so Pederson & Co. do not need to completely revamp his mechanics. Wentz should be able to iron these issues out over the next few seasons.

Improving Redzone Decision Making and Accuracy

First the good news: Wentz has zero turnovers inside the redzone. The absolute worst thing that you can do as a quarterback is take away points from your team. Wentz has avoided that altogether, and for that, he deserves credit.

Now for the bad news: the Eagles rank 25th in red-zone efficiency on the season, scoring touchdowns on only 47.22% of their drives, according to SportingCharts.com. There are a number of reasons behind this. Pederson’s play calling has, at times, been too conservative for my liking. Receivers have dropped easy touchdown catches. And, Wentz has had a couple of plays that he would probably like back.

Jimmy Kempski did a good job breaking down one play I wanted to highlight: Wentz’s misfire to Jordan Matthews on the last play of the Giants game. I won’t rehash Kempski’s analysis. He’s spot on. So go check it out.

Another play happened this past week against the Falcons. The Eagles are are faced with a 3rd and 10 in the 4th quarter. The Falcons are showing press man coverage with a single high safety. The Eagles run man beaters on the bottom of the screen: DGB runs a quick slant while Agholor runs a corner route towards the flag.

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The play works as designed. DGB gets inside leverage on his defender and has plenty of green field ahead of him to get the first down (and possibly a touchdown). But Wentz misses him. It looks like Wentz had predetermined that he was targeting Agholor, because he never looks DGB’s way.  This isn’t the wrong decision, per se, since Agholor has a half step on his defender. But Wentz sails the throw, putting it high and further up the field, a spot where Agholor doesn’t have a chance to make a play.

By now, you should have noticed a common theme among the issues I’ve covered: they require minor tweaks, not wholesale changes to Wentz’s game. That is a great sign for Wentz’s potential moving forward. Wentz should be able to fix these issues in the coming offseasons, which will only make him a more complete quarterback.

Poor Wide Receiver Play 

We cannot fully evaluate Wentz without examining the shortcomings of the players that surround him. That is most notable with his receivers, who are arguably the worst receiving unit in the league. To be more direct, outside of Jordan Matthews, the Eagles wide receivers stink.

I was hopeful that Dorial Green-Beckham might evolve into a functional wide receiver, but he has completely fallen to the wayside over the last two weeks. Meanwhile, Nelson Agholor has never eclipsed 65 yards in a single game in his career. We are probably past the point at which we can reasonable expect Agholor to turn it around.

The Eagles receivers aren’t even making routine catches anymore, and it’s created significant issues for the Eagles offense. Kempski created this video of all of the 24 drops by the Eagles receivers. I’m just going to warn you that this is depressing and infuriating all at once.

Based on Kempski’s calculations, 22% of Wentz’s incomplete passes were the result of dropped passes. If those passes were caught, Wentz’s completion percentage would rise from 65% to 72.6%.

What’s worse, I counted four passes that were dropped in the end zone. Add those four touchdown passes to Wentz’s total, and his TD% rises from 2.9% to 4.18%. Wentz would rank 6th in TD% of the 19 rookie quarterbacks I examined (as opposed to 13th) if those passes were caught.

Of course, every quarterback deals with dropped passes, so it’s unreasonable to give Wentz full credit for those stats. But, Wentz still ranks 5th in the NFL in passes dropped and the 5.14% drop rate is 4th overall. Compare that to Dak Prescott, who has only 4 dropped passes on the entire season, and it’s not hard to see how Wentz is being held back by his teammates poor play.

Bottom line

While Wentz’s play has regressed over the last five weeks, he is still playing at a high level from a historical perspective. The areas in which Wentz can improve his game generally involve minor tweaks, not wholesale changes. And we should expect to see even better production from Wentz once the front office is able to improve the talent at his disposal.

 

Mid-Season Evaluation of Carson Wentz, Part I

Note: This is a two-part evaluation of Carson Wentz. You can read part two here

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

When Donovan McNabb was traded to the Washington Redskins for a pair of draft picks on April 4, 2010, it marked the beginning of a six year odyssey for the Eagles to find his replacement. There were moments of hope — Michael Vick in 2010, Nick Foles in the second half of 2013 — but the majority of the last six years has involved watching false prophets fail to rise to the occasion: from Vick, to Foles, to Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez, to name a few. Watching each season with the Eagles shorthanded at the most important position in all of sports was like reading a book for a second time and hoping for a different ending. The inconsistent play at quarterback brought an inevitable sense of doom that hung over the team’s fate like an anvil.

For once, salvation seems like a realistic possibility, and it comes at the hands of a 6’5, 235 lb. rookie quarterback from Bismarck, North Dakota. It is somewhat fitting that the Eagles effectuated the trade with the Cleveland Browns to acquire that draft picks used to select Wentz on April 21, 2016, just days from the six year anniversary of trading McNabb. Wentz’s sensational start to the season provided a level of excitement this city has not experienced since McNabb’s second year in the league: a mix of reveling in the moment with dreams of unlimited possibilities in the future; 10-years of continued success, multiple Pro Bowls,  and perhaps, a parade down Broad Street.

Of course, that early season success was unsustainable, especially given the weapons at Wentz’s disposal. He was bound to regress, and regress he did. Just compare his performance through the first four games to his performance in the last five games to see the difference:

Games

Record

Y/G

Cmp%

TD%

INT%

Y/A

Rate

1-4

3-1

251.75

67.79

5.2%

.07%

7.5

104.07

5-9

2-3

222.80

61.69

1.1%

2.2%

6.38

74.54

But all hope is not lost. Wentz has not suddenly forgotten how to play football. Nor is he headed down the same path as RGIII, whose career represents the modern reincarnation of a Greek tragedy.

Instead, the numbers and tape suggests that, while Wentz undoubtedly has areas of his game in which he can and must improve, he has a chance to be a franchise caliber quarterback.

By The Numbers

I compiled the season averages for every quarterback drafted in the first two rounds since 2009 that started at least 10 games in their rookie year, and threw in Russell Wilson and Dak Prescott for good measure. While there is a difference in the amount of games played by each quarterback, these numbers still provide a good baseline by which we can judge Wentz’s performance to date.

QB

Yards

CMP%

TD

TD%

INT

INT%

Y/A

Rate

Carson Wentz

235.7

65.0

.9

2.9

.5

1.6

6.8

87.6

Jameis Winston

252.62

58.3

1.375

4.1

.9375

2.8

7.6

84.2

Marcus Mariota

234.83

62.2

1.583

5.1

.83

2.7

7.6

91.5

Blake Bortles

207.7

58.9

.785

2.3

1.214

3.6

6.1

69.5

Teddy Bridgewater

224.5

64.4

1.076

3.5

.92

3.0

7.3

85.2

EJ Manuel

197.2

58.8

1.1

3.6

.9

2.9

6.4

77.7

Andrew Luck

273.4

54.1

1.43

3.7

1.125

2.9

7.0

76.5

Robert Griffin III

213.3

65.6

1.33

5.1

.33

1.3

8.1

102.4

Ryan Tannehill

205.9

58.3

.75

2.5

.81

2.7

6.8

76.1

Russell Wilson

194.9

64.1

1.625

6.6

.625

2.5

7.9

100.0

Cam Newton

253.2

60.0

1.31

4.1

1.06

3.3

7.8

84.5

Blaine Gabbert

147.6

50.8

.8

2.9

.73

2.7

5.4

65.4

Christian Ponder

168.5

54.3

1.18

4.5

1.18

4.5

6.4

70.1

Sam Bradford

219.5

60.0

1.125

3.1

.93

2.5

6.0

76.5

Matthew Stafford

226.7

53.3

1.3

3.4

1.53

5.3

6.0

61.0

Mark Sanchez

162.9

53.8

.8

3.3

1.3

5.5

6.7

63.0

Matt Ryan

215.0

61.1

1.0

3.7

.68

2.5

7.9

87.7

Joe Flacco

185.7

60.0

.875

3.3

.75

2.8

6.9

80.3

Dak Prescott

252.2

66.5

1.5

4.8

.25

.8

8.1

104.2

You can look at these numbers in a variety of ways. I decided to break them down with charts comparing (1) Wentz’s production to the average of every quarterback listed above; (2) Wentz’s production to the average of every quarterback drafted in the top 5; (3) where Wentz ranks compared to the other 18 quarterbacks in each respective category; (4) how Wentz compares to known busts; and (5) how Wentz compares to the five quarterbacks that have gone onto have the best careers of the group.

Wentz v. Average of All 19 QBs

Name

Y/G

Cmp%

TD%

INT%

Y/A

Rate

QB Avg

213.09

59.13

4.05

3.01

7.0

80.87

Wentz

235.7

65.0

2.9

1.6

6.8

87.6

Wentz v. Average of QBs Drafted with Top 5 Pick

Name

Y/G

Cmp%

TD%

INT%

Y/A

Rate

Top 5 QBs

225.91

58.73

3.79

3.24

7.08

79.68

Wentz

235.7

65.0

2.9

1.6

6.8

87.6

Wentz’s Rank in Each Category (of 19 total QBs)

Name

Y/G

Cmp%

TD

TD%

INT

INT%

Y/A

Rate

Wentz

5th

3rd

8th

13th

3rd

3rd

10th

5th

Wentz v. Average of Busts: Sanchez, Ponder, Manuel and Gabbert

Name

Y/G

Cmp%

TD%

INT%

Y/A

Rate

Busts

169.05

54.42

3.57

3.9

6.22

69.05

Wentz

235.7

65.0

2.9

1.6

6.8

87.6

Wentz v. Average of 5 Best QBs: Newton, Wilson, Luck, Mariota, and Ryan

Name

Y/G

Cmp%

TD%

INT%

Y/A

Rate

Top 5

234.26

60.3

4.64

2.78

7.64

88.04

Wentz

235.7

65.0

2.9

1.6

6.8

87.6

No matter which chart you look at, the same general conclusions emerge: Wentz is playing at a high level for a rookie quarterback, recent regression be damned. That is especially true when it comes to completing passes and protecting the football.

The two areas of below average production — Y/A and TD% — deserve a dose of perspective.  As I wrote about two weeks ago, Wentz’s low Y/A can partially be explained by Pederson calling a fairly conservative gameplan. He is content on attacking defenses with the short passing game and relying on his defense to keep the game close, and has limited the opportunities that Wentz has to attack defenses downfield. The low TD% is the result of a number of factors: the Eagles receivers have dropped several easy touchdowns, the Eagles tend to rely on the run once inside the red-zone, and Wentz has left some plays on the field (as we will see in a moment). In other words, there is no reason to expect that Wentz cannot improve in these areas as he continues to grow as a player.

Here are 5 other observations from these numbers:

  • Wentz ranks in the top 3 (of 19 quarterbacks — or top 15%) in 3 out of 8 of those statistical categories (Cmp%, INT, and INT%), the top 5 (approximately top 25%) in 5 out of the 8 categories (the aforementioned 3 categories plus yards per game and QB rate), and the top 50th percentile in every category except two: Y/A and TD%. That’s high marks considering the quarterbacks on this list.
  • The “five best” group was picked based on personal preference, but I don’t think the end result would change too much if you tinkered with that list. Regardless, Wentz is right on par with the production we saw from Newton, Wilson, Mariota, Luck and Ryan during their rookie seasons.
  • While it is too early to crown Wentz as a franchise quarterback, it might not be too early to breath a sight of relief that Wentz is not a bust. Look at the chart comparing Wentz’s production to the “busts” then consider this article written by Bill Barnwell on Wentz and Prescott. Barnwell used data to attempt to answer how soon we can know whether a young quarterback is destined for stardom. While you usually need to wait two years for the best to separate from the pack, you don’t have to wait long for the worst quarterbacks to stick out like a sore thumb: “The lesson to take away from all of this, as best I can tell from history, is that the excitement around Prescott and Wentz is justified, in part because they’ve managed to avoid failing immediately. The washout rate for players who struggle at the very beginning of their professional careers, even first-round picks, is higher than I expected. Whether by a lack of opportunity or an inability to adapt, cases like that of Brees (who struggled early then rebounded to become a Pro Bowler) are few and far between.”
  • Anyone else notice how the quarterbacks drafted in the top 5 have worse averages than the group as a whole?
  • Part of that is because Dak Prescott is playing at a historic rate. It’s fair to question how much Prescott benefits from the talent around him (especially his offensive line). And it’s fair to wonder what would happen if we had Wentz and Prescott switch teams. But we cannot completely write off Prescott’s production, either. He is playing extremely well and the Cowboys look like they found their quarterback of the future.

Again: it’s early. We are only at the halfway point of Wentz’s first season. As Barnwell suggested, we likely need 2-3 seasons before drawing definitive conclusions. But from an historical perspective, the early returns are promising.

 

Five Big Things from the Eagles Loss to Giants

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

The Philadelphia Eagles left MetLife Stadium in a more precarious position than that in which they entered. 4-4 overall, 0-3 in the division, and having lost three of their last four games. With tough games against the Falcons, Seahawks, and Packers over the next three weeks, the Eagles are at the crossroads between staying in the playoff hunt and their season ending before December.

With that said, here are five big things from the Eagles loss to the Giants.

1.  Zach Ertz played his best game of the year

Zach Ertz had his best game of the season, catching 8 of 8 targets for 97 yards. Wentz looked to him early and often, and Ertz repaid that confidence, turning in the type of performance we had hoped to see all season.

You would have never guessed it had you jumped on social media during the game, as Ertz was lambasted by Eagles fans who have lost patience with the third year tight end. Some of it is understandable. Ertz’s production doesn’t match his big, shiny new contract and he avoids contact like DeSean Jackson despite being built like Brent Celek.

But the criticism has gone too far. At one point during the game, Ertz was ripped for not getting a first down on this pass from Carson Wentz:

Had Wentz hit Ertz in stride, that is likely a first down. But given the ball placement, there simply was no way for Ertz to have gotten the first down. That didn’t matter to some, who were quick to criticize Ertz for falling short of the sticks.

It seems like we are letting our (legitimate) frustrations with what Ertz is not distract us from what he actually does well. Ertz is not going to transform into a human wrecking ball in the mold of Brent Celek — carrying guys an extra 5 yards for a first down. But Ertz is still a talented player. He’s a great route runner and, as the still shot above shows us, is capable of making spectacular catches.

If the Eagles continue to feed him the ball, he should continue to produce at a high level. And for a team starving for anyone to make a play, this is welcomed news.

2. The refs were bad, but did not cost the Eagles the game

In each of the four losses this year, the officiating has seemed especially egregious. Perhaps I am magnifying these mistakes when the Eagles lose, but it’s hard not to notice some fairly blatant calls being missed by the refs.

But let’s be honest. The refs aren’t the reason the Eagles are 4-4. The Eagles are. Consider this:

  • The refs didn’t allow the Lions to score 21 points in the first half;
  • The refs didn’t force Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor to drop easy touchdown catches against the Lions;
  • The refs didn’t cause the Eagles to miss 9+ tackles against the Redskins;
  • The refs didn’t prevent the Eagles defensive line from sacking Kirk Cousins a single time;
  • The refs didn’t force Carson Wentz to throw 5 interceptions since the bye week;
  • The refs didn’t cause the Eagles to blow a 10 point lead in the 4th quarter against the Cowboys;
  • The refs didn’t force the Eagles receivers to drop 6 passes last week in the loss to the Cowboys;
  • The refs didn’t cause Doug Pederson’s questionable play calling and clock management against the Cowboys or Giants;
  • The refs didn’t cause Doug Pederson to refuse to kick 2 field goals yesterday, which made the difference between the game;
  • The refs aren’t the reason the Eagles have the 20th rated run offense in total yards; and
  • The refs aren’t the reason the Eagles have the 21st worst red zone offense in the NFL (which might be worse after yesterday’s poor performance).

I could go on, but you get the point. If the Eagles did their jobs, we wouldn’t be talking about the refs, we would be talking about the playoffs. So while it’s fair to criticize the refs, we shouldn’t let that distract from how poorly the Eagles have played.

3. Doug Pederson continues to look like a rookie

There is an argument to be made that Pederson is the chief reason behind the Eagles losses to the Giants and Cowboys, as his questionable decisions this week and indefensible decisions last week came at the most inopportune of times.

I’m not going to rehash the mistakes he made. You saw the game. You already know them off the top of your head. I instead want to offer some perspective.

Pederson is expected to go through growing pains, especially since this is the first time he has ever called plays at the NFL level. While the 40 second play clock seems like an eternity when watching casually on TV, a lot has to be processed and decided during that period of time, including:

  • What is the down and distance;
  • What calls have we already made that have worked and not worked;
  • What is the defensive personnel;
  • What type of coverage does this defense prefer with that personnel on the field;
  • What play calling works best against that personnel;
  • What is the defenses tendencies on this particular down and distance;
  • Who do we have in the game;
  • Do we need to make a substitution.

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera… Even veteran head coaches struggle with this at times (hello, Andy Reid). So of course a rookie head coach who has never called plays before is going to be prone to mental lapses.

That’s not an excuse for all of Pederson’s mistakes. Some if them were bad, even after you take into account his lack of experience. But it is an explanation for why mistakes that seem so obvious and avoidable are happening with increased regularity.

I know we live in a react now society, where hot-takes and instant analysis are preferred over looking at things with the long view, but we should tap the brakes on crushing Pederson for now. He was hailed as brilliant after the Eagles started 3-0. He didn’t just become a bad coach in a matter of a few games. He’s learning on the go, is running a simplified version of his offense to make things easier on Wentz, and his offense is almost devoid of talent. If he makes these mistakes next season, then we should be concerned.

4. Ditto Carson Wentz

I am going to go into more detail on Wentz’s struggles later this week, so I will be brief here. The warts I saw in Wentz’s college tape — poor deep ball accuracy, faulty mechanics, tendencies to throw high — were noticeably absent during his first three games of the season. While he has improved overall on these issues, they are starting to rear their ugly head again, particularly since the bye week.

The most obvious explanation is that these types of mistakes happen when a rookie quarterback is under pressure (real or perceived). The first thing to go in that situation is the mechanics. On both interceptions yesterday, Wentz was pressured and made two high throws.

I am not overly concerned with his performances. As I wrote during the middle of his impressive 3-0 start, I expected him to struggle at times. That’s par for the course with rookie quarterbacks.

Bottom line: when you are evaluating Wentz’s play, keep in mind that (1) he’s a rookie going through typical growing pains, and (2) he has almost no help on offense, as I mentioned yesterday on Twitter:

5. The division is almost certainly out of the question, but the wild card isn’t.

Breaking news: at 0-3 in the division, the Eagles are almost certainly out of competing for a division title. Even if they win their remaining three division games, it would take a pretty significant collapse from the other NFC East teams for that to matter. While I am not ruling it out entirely, the chances aren’t in the Eagles favor.

The good news is that at 4-4, the Eagles aren’t technically out of the wild card. They have left themselves almost no margin for error for the rest of the season. Here is a list of the teams competing for the two wild card spots in the NFC. Notice that the three teams at the top have already beaten the Eagles and thus (at least for now) own the tie breaker:

Team Record Eagles Record Against
Giants 5-3 0-1
Redskins 4-3-1 0-1
Lions 5-4 0-1
Packers 4-4 0-0
Saints 4-4 0-0
Cardinals 3-4-1 0-0
Buccaneers 3-5 0-0
Panthers 3-5 0-0
Rams 3-5 0-0

The Eagles don’t play the Saints, Cardinals, Bucs, Panthers or Rams this year, but they do play the Packers, Giants and Redskins. If the Eagles have any shot of securing the wild card, they must win those three games. Otherwise, they will have 7 losses (assuming they win the rest of their games), and will likely not own a single tie-breaker with the teams with which they are competing for those wild card spots. Yikes.

The Eagles have legitimate gripes about the way their schedule has unfolded. They have played three straight games against a team coming off their bye week and have the red-hot Falcons next, who have had 10 days off thanks to playing on Thursday Night Football.

To make matters worse, the Eagles schedule only gets harder from here. They have the hardest remaining strength of schedule for the rest of the season, and their next three games are particularly brutal, facing the Falcons (6-3, .625%), at the Seahawks (4-2-1, .643%), and home versus the always dangerous Aaron Rodgers led Packers (4-4, .500%).

The good news for the Eagles is that they have yet to look like they don’t belong with the big boys. They blew out the Steelers and Vikings, and arguably should have beaten the Cowboys and Giants. So they should be competitive in these games. They just need to limit the schmorgesborg of mistakes that have plagued them since the bye week.

And if the Eagles just miss out on the playoffs this year, we will likely look back at these winnable games we let slip away with even more despair.

It’s Time to Take the Training Wheels off Carson Wentz

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.

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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.

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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):

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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?