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.

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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.

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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.

 

Half-Season Review

Racing to get this one in under the wire (about 2 hours until gametime), so bare with me on any typos.  This is a somewhat abbreviated review, but I’ll try to hit the important points and come back to whatever I miss.

The Eagles have now played 8 games. They’ve gone 4-4.  It’s been a strange season from a narrative standpoint.  The team opened 3-0, and looked like the 2n best team in the league.  Since then, they’ve gone 1-4, and now sit in 4th place in the NFC East.    At the halfway point, it’s a natural time to review our preseason expectations/predictions.  That allows us to keep some perspective and not be whipsawed by the week-to-week developments.

For context: Football Outsides still has them as the #1 team by DVOA.  They also have the 3rd best point differential in the league.

So what gives?

High level – The Eagles are a good team, and almost every statistical measure has their “true” record at better than 4-4.  They’ve lost 4 close games, three of those on the road, and one of those in OT.  Football Outsides has the Eagles playoff odds at 51.9%.  538 has the playoff odds at just 26%.  Either way, playoffs are a legitimate possibility, and frankly, there’s not a single team in the NFC that I don’t think the Eagles could beat in a playoff game.  If the Eagles can get there, they can certainly win a game or two or more.

Here’s my preseason prediction post.

I projected the team to go 6-10, with a point differential of -63 points.  I predicted they’d score 20 points per game, and allow 23.9 points per game.

In reality, they’ve scored 25.25 points per game and allowed 18 points per game.  That’s a very big difference, and MUCH better than I had predicted (+5 points on both sides).  However, there’s a bit more to the story.

Since the bye week, the Eagles have scored 22 points per game.  They’ve allowed 23.6 points per game.  Basically, the Eagles tore through the first 3 games, blowing away pretty much everyone’s expectations.  Since then, though, they’ve looked very much like the team I expected, and a bit better once you consider the schedule and context.

Now let’s dig into the specifics a bit:

  • The schedule has been/is brutal.  The Eagles have played 4 of the past 5 games on the road. They’ve lost all of those road games.  Additionally, all of the team’s divisional road games were group together.  They’re 0-3 in the division and haven’t had a home game yet.  They won’t until December 11.  Each of their last 3 opponents (Vikings, Cowboys, Giants) have been coming off a bye week.  Atlanta is coming off a Thursday Night Football game, so they’ve had 10 days rest.  The data on team performance after a bye week suggest it’s not a big advantage.  However, I haven’t seen any data or studies on a stretch like this, where for 4 weeks straight the team plays a better rested/prepared team.
  • Carson Wentz has been better than expected.   To project Wentz, I pulled all of the high-drafted (top 5 and all 1st-2nd rounders) QBs from the past 10 years that started 10+ games during their rookie year.  The average stat line for QBs taken in the top 5:

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   I’ve taken some heat on twitter for being too forgiving to Wentz.  This is why.  He’s already significantly ahead of what I expected or what was far to expect.  Blaming him for not being better is just greedy.  Obviously I wish he wouldn’t make some of the dumb mistakes he has made recently, but it’s just not realistic to expect him to avoid those.  He’s doing his job as well as he can be expected to at this stage of his career. Especially with such a dreadful lack of talent at WR.

  • On the OL, this is what I said:  “Overall, I expect worse OL play this year.  Hoping for better, obviously, but betting on a resurgent season from Peters at nearly 35 years old seems overly optimistic.  The long-term neglect of the unit will really show itself this year.”  I think that holds up pretty well.  Peters has been OK, but depth is a huge problem. Kelce is a shell of his former self, whether due to physical decline or scheme change.  Lane Johnson’s absence exposed just how shallow this group was.  The is the top priority for the offseason.
  • On the WRs:  “Could they get any worse? Yes, but that’s unlikely.” Hmmm…I think this is fair too. The WRs have been terrible.  But they were terrible last year too.  I hoped for more from Jordan Matthews, but it’s clear he’s not going to be the #1 guy we hoped he could be when drafted.  I still think he can be a very good WR, but he doesn’t create space for himself/Wentz, and he also doesn’t attack the ball or fully leverage his size.  Meanwhile, Agholor has already contributed more than he did last year, but he’s also been infuriatingly ineffective.  He doesn’t run routes correctly or at full speed, and the drops are maddening.  I don’t think he’s on the team past this year.
  • The defense:“The scheme change is as big a factor as any of the personnel changes.  The 4-3 alignment fits the DL extremely well, and if Hicks can put together a healthy season, the Cox/Logan/Hicks pyramid can anchor the defense and let everyone else play downhill.  Better pressure from the DEs (I expect Graham to have a big season) will make the DBs jobs a lot easier.

    However, given the lack of depth and the injury concerns, there is a LOT of uncertainty here.  The unit could be among the best in the league.  Or it could suffer 1-2 key injuries and the entire house of cards could collapse.  Imagine if Cox and Hicks missed significant time.  In other words, there is an extremely wide range of potential performances for the defense this year.”

    The defense currently ranks #1 by DVOA, and Hicks has stayed healthy. He hasn’t been the star I had hoped for, but him, Logan, and Cox have formed a very strong core that has made everyone else’s job easier.  Happy to brag about predicting big things for Graham, but I’m hardly the only one who made that call.  Sometimes it’s nice to see things work out the way you hope/expect.  Graham might be an All-Pro this year.

  • On STs:  “Without significant reason to believe STs will be either great or terrible, there isn’t much reason to adjust the overall projection.” Way off on this one, but there’s a reason I don’t put much time into projecting STs.  The unit has been amazing (#1 by DVOA and 2 return TDs), and has been a huge boost to the overall team performance.

So where do we go fro here?  The team is very much what we thought it was. Playoffs are still in the picture, though the margin for error is small.  The final record will almost certainly be better than the 6-10 I projected, as will the point differential (from which I derive the record).

There are big flaws/holes on the roster, particularly at OL, WR, and CB, but we expected all of that coming into the year.  On the plus side, Wentz looks like a star, Marcus Smith might actually be turning into a contributing player (most shocking development in the entire NFL), and Pederson is definitely competent, though perhaps strategically inept.

The long-term future is very bright.  The team has legitimate blue chippers in Wentz, Cox, and Graham, and the Vikings might just be having the complete collapse that I hoped for/expected, even if it is happening a bit later than we wanted.  That’s a very important draft pick, so keep an eye on how the rest of the year plays out in Minnesota.

That’s all for now.  For today, the public is heavy on the Falcons.  It’s a home game, where the Eagles have played extremely well.  Julio Jones might go for 200 yards, but I think the Eagles have a very good shot at winning this game.  Eagles 31 – Falcons 28.

 

 

 

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.

Week 9 Pre-Game Notes

A few quick notes/thoughts before this afternoon’s game:

  • The Eagles are still in a strong position for a wild card spot.  As of this morning, the standings for non-division leaders in the NFC are (from PFR):

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A win over the Giants, in New York, would keep the Eagles in the lead, and put distance between them and the Giants, one of two teams currently tied for the wild card lead.

  • As far as the divisional race goes, this is a must-win.  It’s the final opportunity to get a division win on the road.  A loss here would force the Eagles to sweep their home games just to get to 3-3.  The Cowboys are 2-1 in the division.  In other words, with a loss today, the Eagles would need to win all three remaining division games AND have the Cowboys lose to either the Giants (Home) or Washington (@) just to equal the divisional record, which is the first tie breaker.  A loss would probably put the Eagles 3 wins behind the Cowboys (they play Cleveland today) with 8 games to play.  That’s a very tough hole to climb out of.
  • The Eagles are still the #1 team by DVOA.  The defense and special teams units are both #1 by that measure, while the offense ranks just 23rd.  Not much commentary to add there, but it’s important to step back and realize that, by most objective measures, the Eagles are a very good team.
  • What will the offense look like without Josh Huff?  That sounds like a silly question. Huff has just 72 receiving yards this year (10.3 yards per game).  However, he’s really the only WR that fits the bubble-screen game Pederson is increasingly leaning on.  JMatt, DGB, Agholor…none of them have the acceleration or quickness required to make those plays work.  We might see Darren Sproles line up in that spot.  However, that would require Pederson to trust Ryan Mathews as the primary RB again.  Needless to say, the offense’s complete lack of weapons will make both Pederson and Wentz’s jobs more difficult today and for the rest of the year.
  • Can Pederson rebound?  Last week was a truly horrendous performance from the 1st year head coach.  He repeatedly made the objectively wrong strategic decision (kicking on 4th and short, punting instead of trying a 53 yd fg, not using TOs to get the ball back in regulation, etc…).  Hopefully, he does some self-scouting, realizes what he did wrong, and gets it right next time.  Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of coaches who get those things wrong persistently, so it’s not as simple as “he won’t make those mistakes again”.   Additionally, while Pederson is in his 1st year as a head coach, he played QB for 11 years in the NFL and has been on coaching staffs for 7 years.  He shouldn’t have to “learn” some of these things…
  • Can Wentz find a way to push the ball downfield?  Over the past few weeks, the Eagles downfield passing game has disappeared.  A lot of that, IMO, is on the WRs and their failure to create separation.  Some of is also on Wentz, as he’s missed chances for lack of vision or willingness to throw the ball.  Today is a good chance to turn things around.  The Giants have the 3rd worst adjusted sack rate in the league. (FO).  That should provide a little more time in the pocket for Carson, which in turn should give the WRs a little extra help creating space.  At the very least, after today’s game we’ll have a better idea of how to apportion responsibility for the lack of a passing game.  It’s a combination of Wentz, the OL, and the WRs, but today the OL should be less of an issue.
  • Prediction:  Eagles win.  The Giants are a very mediocre team.  They have a win against the Cowboys, but that came in week one (Dak’s first game and his worst performance of the year prior to last week).  Beyond that, the Giants’ wins are against Baltimore (#20 DVOA), New Orleans (23), and LA (25).  Those four wins were by a combined 15 points.   

Outside of ODB, there isn’t a single guy on that offense to be worried about.  With the Eagles defense playing as well as it is, it’ll be very difficult for the Giants to score points without a TO or STs touchdown. Meanwhile, the Eagles are a better team than their record suggests, and have played very well in 6 of their 7 games so far. They seemed on the verge of blowing out the Cowboys before Smallwood’s fumble last week and some late-game choking from Pederson.  Those things will happen again, but not this week.  The Eagles finally put a full game together and roll the Giants.  28-13.

 

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?

Eagles Cowboys Preview

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

 

This is the game we have all be waiting for. Eagles v Cowboys. Wentz v Prescott. Sunday Night Football. It is one of the most anticipated games between these teams in recent memory. Here’s an advanced scouting report with a focus on key numbers and matchups that could determine the outcome of this game.

When the Cowboys are on Offense

Battle in the Trenches

Everyone will be talking about Dak Prescott v Carson Wentz, but the most important matchup in this game is the Eagles defensive line against the Cowboys vaunted offensive line. It’s a matchup of strength versus strength, and it’s no secret the two units aren’t fond of one another.

The Eagles have the number one rated pass rush in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, and their defense ranks 1st in overall DVOA, 1st in pass DVOA, and 13th in run DVOA.  The Eagles are 4th in the NFL in total sacks, with 22. The one weakness, as of late, has been the run defense. They’ve allowed 72 rushes for 381 yards 5.2 YPC and 1 touchdown in their last three games. Some will immediately blame the wide nine technique, since it creates large running lanes between the Eagles lineman to exploit, but the truth is the missed tackles have been more of an issue.

The Cowboys have the number one offensive line in the league, according to Football Outsiders. They rank 1st in run blocking, ninth in pass blocking and have allowed only 9 sacks on the season, which is the third best mark in the league.

This therefore presents a salivating matchup of two of the best lines in the league. If there was any edge, it might come down to health. The Eagles are without one of their best lineman in Bennie Logan, while the Cowboys get back their best lineman, and one of the best lineman in all of football, in Tyron Smith. Smith has missed several weeks with a back injury, and the All Pro Left Tackle returns just in time to square off against the Eagles.

For my money, the winner of this matchup will come down to whether Jim Schwartz dials up the blitz effectively. I’m just not sure the Eagles can afford to rely on their front four to generate pressure. Two weeks ago, the Eagles faced Football Outsider’s second best offensive line in football in the Washington Redskins. They rarely blitzed, got 0 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, and were gashed by Kirk Cousins and the ground game all day.

The Vikings have the worst offensive line in football according to Football Outsiders, but the Eagles were able to manufacture pressure because Jim Schwartz abandoned his philosophical aversion to blitzing by sending an extra rusher 12 times.  It worked. The Eagles got 6 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, 8 tackles for a loss and 9 passes defended.

I broke down some of these blitzes on Twitter, but never got to put up a post, so I am going to force them in here. Schwartz’s game plan was nothing short of brilliant. He sent blitzes often, varied the location of the pressure, and never let the Vikings offense get in rhythm.

If the Eagles can get pressure, the entire dynamic of the game changes. But if Prescott is able to operate with a clean pocket, the Eagles defense could be in for a long day.

Dak Prescott

Prescott has been fantastic this year. He’s completed 68.7%, for 1,486 yards, 8.2 y/a, 7 tds, and 1 int. Prescott’s 82.9 QBR is the second best mark in the league. He’s athletic, but chooses his runs smartly, and has added 3 rushing touchdowns on the year. Prescott makes smart decisions, has only two turnovers on the year, and has solidified himself as the Cowboys quarterback of the future (and perhaps, present).

I’m interested to see how Prescott does under pressure and when his team is behind on the scoreboard.  Prescott has only been sacked 9 time on the season, which is tied for the third best mark in the league among qualifying quarterbacks. Prescott has also rarely played from behind. He never trailed once against the Bears, Bengals or Packers and was behind for only portions of the wins over the Redskins. The only time he was behind for an extended period of time was against the 49ers, when he faced a 14-0 deficit in the 2nd quarter. But, that’s the 49ers, one of the worst teams in the NFL.

In other words, Prescott has benefited from playing in favorable situations throughout most of the season. That isn’t to take anything away from what he’s accomplished. But as we saw with Wentz the last two weeks, being under pressure and playing from behind changes the dynamic considerably. If the Eagles can get a lead and Schwartz can effectively dial up pressure with the blitzes, the Eagles might be the first team to make Prescott look like a rookie.

Ezekiel Elliott

Elliot has 137 carries, 703 yards and 5.1 ypc, 5 tds. If he keeps this pace up, he’s a lock to win the offensive rookie of the year award (Sorry, it’s true).

Elliot started slow during the first two games of his career: tallying 20 carries, 51 yards and 1 touchdown against the Giants, followed by 21 carries for 83 yards and 1 td against the Redskins. But since then, Elliot has been on fire, averaging 165.5 total yards and 5.93 ypc in his last four games. Granted, three of those games were against the Bears, 49ers and Bengals, who rank 20th, 29th and 23rd in run DVOA, respectively. But the Packers have the #2 rated run DVOA, and Elliot hung 28 for 157 yards on them. The kid can ball.

The Eagles are going to need to maintain gap discipline and tackle like they did against the Vikings, not the Redskins (where, by my count, they missed at least 9 tackles). The Cowboys entire offense is predicated on controlling the ball; they lead the league in time of possession; missing tackles will just make life harder on the D.

Three other stats that likely only interest me.

(1) 82 of Elliot’s 137 carries come with multiple tight ends on the field (43 with two, 39 with three tight ends). The remaining 55 come with one tight end on the field. In other words, Elliot has yet to gain a single carry without a tight end on the field. So if you see the Cowboys lining up with 4 wide receivers, odds are they won’t be running the ball.

(2) Another trend I noticed: if you see the Cowboys run a man in motion, odds are Elliot isn’t running the ball. Elliot has only 8 carries when the Cowboys put a man in motion on the season. His 129 other carries did not involve a man being put in motion.

(3) We’ve heard the old adage that runners get stronger as the game progresses. I haven’t tested whether that theory is true league wide, but it hasn’t been so far for Elliot. In his first through 10th carries of each game, Elliott averages 6 yards per carry and has 3 touchdowns. On his 11th through 20th carries, his ypc drops to 4.7 and he has 2 touchdowns. And on carries 21-30, he averages only 3.7 ypc and has 0 touchdowns.

Dez Bryant

Bryant returns just in time to face the Eagles, a team that he has performed well against during his career. In 9 career games, Bryant averages 5.4 catches, 86.11 yards and .88 touchdowns. But if we focus on the last 7 games, his numbers rise to 5.7 catches for 97.85 yards and 1.14 touchdowns. No one needs to be reminded of the damage Bryant caused to Bradley Fletcher back in week 14 of the 2014 season: 6 catches, 114 yards, 3 touchdowns. In my mind, that game — and Davis’ refusal to adjust — marked the turning point in Chip Kelly’s tenure as head coach. Bryant got off to a slow start this year because Witten and Beasely have served as Prescott’s security blankets. But  with Bryant returning from injury and the team playing in prime time, expect the Cowboys to get Bryant involved early in the game.

Cole Beasely

Speaking of Beasely, it’s time to start giving him credit as a legitimate slot receiver. He is firmly entrenched as Prescott’s favorite target, is a great route runner and has caught a ridiculous 84.6% of his targets. On the year, Beasely has 33 catches, 390 yards and 3 touchdowns, which puts him on pace for a career year. And with Ron Brooks out, Beasely will likely match up against Malcolm Jenkins in the slot, who Beasely roasted the last time the two matched up, catching 9 passes for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns. Jenkins had a terrible game against the Redskins, getting beat by Vernon Davis on a wheel route for a 37 yard gain and giving up 2 touchdowns passes. He rebounded nicely against the Vikings, but a lot of his production came as a blitzer. Outside of the battle in the trenches, Beasely v Jenkins could be a key matchup for the game. If Jenkins struggles, the Cowboys could dink and Dak their way down the field all game.

When the Eagles are on Offense

Big Picture

This matchup presents an opportunity for the Eagles offense to get back on track, as the Cowboys defense isn’t stout, but instead benefits from spending the least amount of time on the field than any other defense in the league.

The Eagles rank 24th overall offensively in DVOA, 19th in running game, 19th in passing attack. Their offensive line is about middle of the pack, which is a marked improvement over Chip Kelly’s last two years in Philly. They rank 13th in run blocking, 18th in pass blocking.

Conversely, Dallas ranks 20th in defensive DVOA, 22nd against the pass, 8th against the run.  The Cowboys have allowed only 92.2 rushing yards per game, which ranks 10th best in the league. They’ve also allowed only 2 rushing touchdowns all year, which tops the NFL.

Carson Wentz

After starting the season on a tear, Carson Wentz has cooled off significantly the last two games.  Wentz has completed 118/185 passes, completing 63.8% of his passes, for 1324 yards, 8 touchdowns, 3 interceptions, 7.2 y/a, a quarterback rating of 92.7 and a QBR of 54.1.

That Wentz has regressed after Lane Johnson’s suspension is not by happenstance. Johnson’s replacement, Big V, was an unmitigated disaster against the Redskins, giving up 3 sacks. He surprisingly played better against the Vikings, who have one of the best pass rushes in the league. But some of that was by design, as Doug Pederson provided Big V help with tight end and running back chips throughout the game. Indeed, Brent Celek and Trey Burton saw their playing time increase to 48% and Burton 22% of the snaps last week to provide Big V help. That, in turn, limited the number of pass catchers out on the field. But, it’s better than Wentz being on his backside almost immediately.

Wentz should not be under duress for most of this game. The Dallas defensive line is anemic, their 11 sacks is tied for 24th in the league and their 24 quarterback hits ranks 31st.

Eagles Receivers

Since the bye week, Wentz’s target selection has been questionable: Agholor leads the team with 17 targets, Matthews is second with 15, followed by DGB (12), Ertz (9), Sproles (8), Huff (7), Mathews (6), Burton (4) and Smallwood (2). Ertz has averaged 3 targets per game since coming back from injury.

The west coast offense is designed to spread the ball around to multiple targets. But given the limitations of most of the Eagles pass catchers, it would be wise for Pederson, Reich and Wentz to start force feeding the ball to Matthews and Ertz. Agholor just is not getting it done, and feeding him the ball at a high clip is one of the reasons the offense is struggling.

The Cowboys secondary is not spectacular, but it has improved thanks in large part to Byron Jones, who is an athletic freak at the back end of the Cowboys defense. (Not to rub salt in the wounds, but the Eagles drafted Agholor ahead of Jones — yikes). The Cowboys have also benefited from improved play from Morris Claiborne. He’s allowed just 21 catches on 40 targets for 191 yards and zero touchdowns. While he has never validated his lofty draft status (6th overall in 2012), he is finally starting to serve as a functional starter.

But make no mistake, there will be opportunities to be had for the Eagles. This secondary isn’t special, so the Eagles should be able to make plays.

Ryan Mathews

Ryan Mathews has had two critical fumbles in the last three games, one of which cost the Eagles a victory. But his issues extend beyond that. He’s carried the ball 67 times for 262 yards and 3 touchdowns. His 3.9 yards per carry rank 28th out of 40 qualifying running backs. That simply is not good enough. I thought Mathews was in for a good year based on his impressive production last year, when he was clearly the best back on the team. But now, Mathews is struggling and DeMarco Murray, who was a train-wreck last year, is one of the best running backs in football again. Because, reasons.

While the Cowboys have been effective against the run, they have struggled to stop pass catchers out of the backfield. Ty Montgomery caught 10 passes for 98 yards against the Cowboys two weeks ago, while Giovani Bernard caught 6 for 46, and the Bears running backs caught 6 for 62. In other words, Darren Sproles might have himself a decent game tomorrow.

Efficiency/Avoiding Costly Mistakes/Penalties

If I were to pick one key for the Eagles offense this week, it is to be efficient and avoid costly mistakes. As you can see from the numbers, the Cowboys defense isn’t actually very good. They instead benefit from facing the third fewest plays in the league because the Cowboys offense leads the league in time of possession.

Opportunities will be few and far between, so the Eagles must avoid beating themselves. They have a habit for inopportune mistakes; a penalty negating a big play, a drop on third down, etc. They will need to limit those mistakes so that they aren’t leaving their defense on the field for extended periods of time. If they can do so, they should have a chance to put up points. But if they don’t, this could be a repeat of the loss to the Redskins.

The Pick

I have gone back and forth on this one. The Cowboys are the more complete team playing better and more disciplined football. They should win this game — indeed, they have been favored by 4.5 points all week, a tell-tale sign that Vegas thinks the Cowboys are the better team. But something tells me the Eagles defensive line will take this game personally (as the have done in the past) and will wreak havoc on Prescott and the Cowboys offense. I also expect the Eagles offense to get back on track against a Cowboys defense that has been protected by its highly efficient offense.

Give me the Birds 24-17. 

Season record: 3-3

 

 

The Eagles Should Trade for Alshon Jeffery

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

I am preparing for an oral argument right now, so my time is limited. But I wanted to get some quick thoughts down on the rumors that first circulated on Monday night regarding the Eagles pursuing trading for a wide receiver.

The initial report involved the Eagles in talks over San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Torrey Smith, who is a 27 year-old, one trick pony on a $9.3 million a year contract. That’s the definition of meh. But Smith still presents an upgrade over the cast of characters manning the wide receiver spots not named Jordan Matthews. That of course is more of an indictment on the Eagles receivers than it is a compliment to Smith. But I digress.

So  Howie Roseman is doing his thing, working to maximize Carson Wentz’s ability to throw deep by getting him a receiver that can stretch the field. Don’t love it. Don’t hate it. Have at it, Howie.

But then Jason La Canfora dropped this:

Whether this was a “report” or educated speculation is unclear, but it gained steam when Benjamin Allbright confirmed the talks and provided further details about the potential move.

Now this is interesting.

Yes, the history of mid-season trades is not kind, and that is putting it mildly. The Professor (no, not this Professor) John Clayton broke down 10 of the most memorable midseason trades of all-time and they were mostly memorable for how spectacularly they failed: Herschel Walker to the Vikings, John Hadl (who?) to the Packers, Roy Williams to the Cowboys (ha), and Trent Richardson to the Colts (Ryan Grigson strikes again!), highlight some of the trades on this list. So if history is any indication, trading for Jeffery is fraught with risk.

But the Eagles should still do the deal. Jeffery is a 26 year old Pro Bowl receiver. He’s 6’3, 230 lbs and runs a 4.4 40.  The Bears are only considering the move because they are in rebuilding mode and Jeffery is a free agent at the end of the season. Acquiring him at a discounted rate is a rare opportunity that the Eagles should jump on without hesitation.

Sure, it likely won’t help them compete for a Super Bowl this year — learning a new playbook on the fly is no small feat (and are the Eagles really Super Bowl contenders?) — but long term? Jeffery is a complete receiver entering the prime of his career. His production — 174 catches, 2,554 yards, 17 touchdowns, on 14.65 yards per catch from 2013-14 alone —  is something the Eagles have lacked from the receiving position since they lost Jeremy Maclin to the Kansas City Chiefs. While Jefferey isn’t lighting the world on fire this season, he would still be a significant upgrade for the Birds. Consider this:

And while Jeffery doesn’t have any touchdowns this year (something that would likely change if his quarterback wasn’t Brian Hoyer and Matt freaking Barkley), his 16.3 yards per catch rank 12th in the league, according to ESPN.com. That type of deep threat would make the Eagles offense significantly more difficult to defend and would finally provide Wentz a legitimate target to attack defenses down field. I don’t know about you, but I am getting tired watching Nelson Agholor flail at that role.

And unlike Smith, Jeffery is more than just a deep threat. He is a physical receiver, good route runner, and does a great job of making difficult caches. Watch how he brakes Jalen Mills ankles on this stop and go route in week 2 and then adjusts mid-air to make a difficult catch in traffic:

 

I didn’t have the time to make more clips of Jeffery doing Jeffery-like things, so watch this Youtube video (on mute) instead.

But this isn’t just about what Jeffery can do. It’s also about what Jeffery’s presence means for other players on the Eagles offense. For starters, Jeffery’s ability to stretch the field opens up underneath routes for Zach Ertz, Jordan Matthews and Darren Sproles to exploit and takes pressure off the much maligned running game.

It also means that Matthews no longer has to be miscast as the Eagles primary receiving option, but can instead fill the roll as a damn good number two option. And this would undoubtedly help Ertz as well. I know we joke that Ertz will break out any day now, but having a legitimate receiving threat on the outside could make life a living hell on opposing team’s safeties. Right now, they are sitting on the routes Ertz runs over the middle because they don’t have to cheat to the outside to cover Agholor, Huff or DGB. With Jeffery  on the field they could no longer do that. That extra space over the middle should make life easier for Errtz (I hope).

Two final thoughts on his injury history and the expected opportunity cost. Lots of people are complaining that Jeffery is an injury prone receiver. And while I cannot totally dismiss those concerns, I do want to provide a dose of perspective:

  • Jeffery has played in 58 of 71 possible games, which amounts to an 81.69% play rate.
  • Julio Jones has played in 72/87, which is 82.75%.
  • And Dez Bryant has played in 87/103, which is 84.4% of possible games.

I wouldn’t put Jeffery on their level as a receiver (although he’s arguably not far off Dez). But this was more to show you that a receiver can still help a team even if they are missing approximately 1/5th of their potential games.

Lastly, I would be less bullish on this move if the Eagles were offering a 1st round pick. That changes the calculation entirely. But I feel much more confident trading a mid-round pick for a potential top-10 receiver just entering his prime. As I’ve explored before, the expected start rate (i.e., amount of games a pick from a specific round has started on a historical basis) for a third round pick is 34.8% of the possible games. That number drops to 23.4% for a 4th round pick, and 17.5% for a 5th. Those aren’t great odds. So if that’s all it costs to obtain a potential top-10 reciever entering his prime? Sign me up.

 

Time to Get DGB More Touches

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

When the Eagles traded backup lineman Dennis Kelly to the Titans in exchange for the talented but much-maligned Dorial Green-Beckham, expectations were low. Characterized as a classic low risk, high reward move, the Eagles took a shot in the dark that a change of scenery would help DGB maximize his potential.

At first blush, DGB’s production has been underwhelming, catching 11 passes for 131 yards and zero touchdowns. Spread out over 5 games, that yields a pedestrian average of 2.2 catches and 26.2 yards per game. But prior to last week, DGB’s production had steadily improved, a sign that the coaching staff was gaining confidence in the second year receiver:

Week Rec Yds Y/R
1 2 14 7.0
2 2 18 9.0
3 3 33 11.0
5 3 43 14.33
6 1 23 23.00

Last week would have been DGB’s most productive as an Eagle but for a block in the back penalty on Wendell Smallwood that negated DGB’s impressive 38 yard catch. While most focused on how well Carson Wentz evaded pressure, kept his eyes down field and threw an accurate pass from an impossible arm angle, DGB was equally impressive, breaking off his route to provide Wentz an open target, high pointing the ball and breaking a tackle to gain another 20+ yards:

If that play stands, DGB would have ended the day with 2 catches for 61 yards and a 30.5 average yards per catch. Not record setting, but again a sign of improvement.

DGB’s most enticing asset remains his physical profile: standing at 6’5, 237 lbs and running a 4.49 40, he dwarfs every cornerback and safety in the league and even rivals the size of most linebackers. DGB has proven adept at using that size to his advantage. Against the Lions, DGB bulldozed linebacker Tahir Whitehead, who is 6’2, 241 lbs, with a stiff arm that would have made Bo Jackson proud:

 

Green-Beckham is by no means a complete receiver, something the coaching staff will readily admit. He cannot run a complete route tree — far from it — and has had problems with drops and consistency:

While Green-Beckham’s 61% catch rate is nothing to write home about, it is on par with some of the best receivers in the game, including Julio Jones (62%), Amari Cooper (60%), Mike Evans (53%), Antonio Brown (64%) and DeAndre Hopkins (54%). I know, I know, sample size! But DGB has improved significantly over last season, when he caught only 51% of the balls thrown his way. So we should be encouraged by his improvement thus far.

With Nelson Agholor and Josh Huff failing to validate their draft position, it’s time for the Eagles to expand DGB’s role in the offense. They can do this in a number of ways.

For starters, they can continue to get Green-Beckham the ball in space. Despite his size, Green-Beckham has done well creating yards after the catch, with his 67 YAC ranking third on the team. The Eagles have targeted Green-Beckham most often with wide receiver screens, where his size and speed can turn a quick 2 yard catch into 10+ yards.

But the Eagles can also start utilizing DGB as their primary deep threat. As we saw with Wentz’s first career interception, Agholor is not excelling in that role: he lacks elite speed and isn’t strong enough to fight off more physical defenders. Green-Beckham, on the other hand, has already shown that he is capable of filling this role. He’s caught two deep passes from Wentz so far this year, both on Wentz’s favorite route, the deep in. Last week was a 23 yard catch on 1st and 20, and he made a similar catch against the Steelers during their week 3 win:

Defenses aren’t respecting Agholor as a deep threat, but they would have to respect Green-Beckham given his size. Sending Green-Beckham on a few go routes per game could open up the underneath routes for Zach Ertz (who needs to step it up), Jordan Matthews and Darren Sproles and take pressure off running back Ryan Mathews, who is averaging a woeful 3.9 yards per carry on the year.

The Eagles also need to work Green-Beckham into the redzone offense. Last season, almost 10% of DGB’s catches were for touchdowns, thanks in large part to his size, strength and ability to high point the ball on fade routes. DGB flashed that potential early in the preseason, but curiously has only gotten one such opportunity during the regular season (a pass which Carson Wentz under threw):

The Eagles rank 20th in the NFL in redzone touchdown efficiency, scoring touchdowns on only 52.63% of its drives, according to TeamRankings.com. While the Vikings have arguably the league’s best defense, cornerback Xavier Rhodes is 6’1 and Terrance Newman is 5’10. In a game where points will likely be hard to come by, it makes sense for the Eagles to take advantage of the clear size mismatch that DGB provides.

Green-Beckham has a long way to go before he can become a legitimate number two receiver. But that shouldn’t stop the Eagles from taking advantage of what he does well now, especially given the lack of weapons they have at their disposal.

 

In case you missed it: I broke down the good, the bad and the ugly on the Eagles loss to the Redskins.