The Good, the Bad and the Ugly from Eagles/Redskins

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

The Philadelphia Eagles have done what they always do: provide a false sense of hope to its long-suffering fans for just long enough to suck us back in, only to turn around crush our dreams in glorious fashion.

After starting the season a surprising 3-0, capped off with a 34-3 romp over the Super Bowl contending Pittsburgh Steelers, it should come as a surprise to no one that the Eagles subsequently lost to the lowly Detroit Lions and mediocre Washington Redskins.

And while the losses weren’t entirely shocking — again, this is the Eagles, and, this is the NFL, where parity exists by design — it’s the way the Eagles lost that has to leave the greater Delaware Valley exceedingly frustrated.

Penalties. Missed tackles. Bad coaching. Bad quarterback play. All of it was on full display in 60 minutes of football that likely took at least 2 years off my life and left me with a few more gray hairs than I started with.

So without further ado, here are the good, the bad, and the ugly take-aways from that terrible loss to the Redskins.

The Good: most of Carson Wentz’s 2nd half

I know what you are thinking: Wentz played his worst game of the season. He completed 11-22, for 179 yards, 0 tds, 0 ints, and a 77.7 quarterback rating. How on earth can you say he played well?

For starters, there wasn’t much else from which to choose. But I also thought Wentz rebounded nicely for most of the second half, making some spectacular plays to carry the Eagles back into a game they had no business being in.

Wentz has been criticized by some for not attacking defenses down field. As I’ve explained before, the criticism seems to conflate the infrequency with which Wentz attacks defenses downfield with an inability to actually do so. While the numbers support the former, there is no support whatsoever for the latter. Look no further than this sublime 54 yard completion to Jordan Matthews between two defenders.

#AirYards

Wentz has also impressed all season long with his athleticism. But unlike most athletic rookie quarterbacks, Wentz is not using his legs to take off at the first sign of trouble, but is instead using his legs to extend plays while keeping his eyes down field looking for an open receiver. That skill takes some years to cultivate, while others (see, RGIII) never figure it out.

Late in the 4th quarter with the Eagles down 7 and facing a 3rd and 9, Wentz navigated the pocket to avoid pressure, kept his eyes down field and delivered a strike to Nelson Agholor for an 18 yard gain and a first down.

Wentz’s best play of the game did not even count, thanks to a block in the back penalty on Wendell Smallwood. Wentz again used his athleticism to avoid the sack, kept his eyes down field and released the ball while being tackled to the ground. That is an Aaron Rodgers/Big Ben-esque play from a rookie quarterback making only his fifth start.

The Eagles offensive line looked like they were training for a matador bull fight. The Eagles receivers reverted back to dropping passes at the most inopportune times. And yet, Wentz persevered, rebounding from a slow start to put the Eagles on the cusp of victory. We obviously want to see more consistency from Wentz moving forward, but it was hard not to be impressed with his performance during parts of this game.

The Bad: Wentz’s 1st half (plus end of the game) and Doug Pederson

While Wentz played well in the second half, he played poorly in the first. Wentz was hit early, as the Halapoulivaati Vaitai experiment was an unmitigated disaster. This seemed to throw Wentz off his game, as he completed only 3-8 passes for 28 yards, 3.5 ypa and a 47.9 passer rating. And Wentz reverted back to his college tendency of missing receivers high. I counted at least three high passes in the first half alone which contributed to the stalled drives and played a part in allowing the Redskins to jump out to a big lead.

Wentz’s poor play continued at the worst possible time: during the Eagles final drive of the game as they tried to comeback from a touchdown deficit. Wentz was sacked twice on second and third down, thanks in large part to Wentz taking too long in the pocket to get rid of the football. These sacks were entirely avoidable. Throw the ball away. Scramble. Do anything but take the sack. They were rookie moments at the worst possible time and effectively ended the Eagles chances in the game.

Doug Pederson had a few rookie moments of his own on Sunday.  Fifth round draft pick Halapoulivaati Vaitai was making the first start of his career and faced off against Pro Bowl outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan. Yet, Pederson left Vaitai out on an island for most of the first half and at critical junctures in the second.

It’s hard to blame the rookie. Pederson either misread Big V’s readiness to start or failed to adjust quickly enough to provide him the help that he needed. While I am surprised that Pederson is sticking with Big V this week against the Vikings’ vaunted defense, Pederson needs to avoid making the same mistakes twice. Provide Big V help more frequently, and if that doesn’t work, pull him and go to the veteran Stefan Wisniewski.

Pederson also confirmed  Eagles fans’ worst fear by replicating Andy Reid’s porous clock management at the end of the game. To set the scene: the Eagles were facing 4th and 20+ yards with about 1:40 left in the game, down 7. Pederson (correctly) chose to punt the ball, hoping that the Eagles defense would get a quick 3 and out and give the ball back to the offense with enough time to tie the game.

Inexplicably, Pederson took a timeout before punting the football, leaving the Eagles with only two timeouts on the ensuing Redskins drive (remember, it was past the two minute warning by this point, so there was no other way to stop the clock).

It didn’t end up mattering since the Redskins converted on 3rd down and ran out the clock to win the game. But it could have have mattered if the Eagles got the stop on third down and had no way to stop the clock. The outcome should not overshadow the process.

Pederson deserves a pass since he has exceeded expectations so far this season. But he will need to step up his game with the undefeated Minnesota Vikings coming into town this week.

Runner up: Malcolm Jenkins: there is no way to sugarcoat this. Jenkins had one of his worst games wearing an Eagles uniform. He missed tackles, got burned by Vernon Davis on a wheel route for a big play and gave up at least one touchdown in coverage (the second was in zone coverage, so Jenkins deserves only part of the blame). Jenkins has been one of the Eagles best players for the better part of the last two seasons, so we shouldn’t be concerned about this continuing. But it was a bad game from the safety.

 

The Ugly: Referees and the Defense

Last week, I held off on writing a piece that highlighted just how bad the officiating was in the Eagles loss to the Lions. It would have sounded like sour grapes, especially since the Eagles played so poorly in the first half.

The Eagles played bad again on Sunday, but the officiating was terrible for a second week in a row. The Eagles were called for 13 penalties for 134 yards after being called for 14 penalties totaling 111 yards the week before. Combined, that’s 27 penalties for 245 yards, compared to 11 penalties for 93 yards called on their opponents.

These things usually even themselves out in the long run, and the poor officiating seems to be a league wide epidemic, but it’s hard to ignore that the Eagles have received the short end of the stick in the last two games.

Here are two side by side comparisons of calls made against the Eagles but not the Redskins. To be clear: this is not to suggest the calls against the Eagles were wrong, but this is to say that the officiating missed more blatant penalties committed by the Redskins.

With that said, the Eagles don’t deserve any excuses. The coaches and players lost this game on their own merit. Perhaps most egregiously was the performance from the defense. I counted (at least) 9 missed tackles in this game, many of which were the byproduct of players taking bad angles, using bad technique, or giving bad effort. Here is each missed tackle in one depressing video:

But it wasn’t just missed tackles. The Eagles were porous on third down, allowing the Redskins to covert 7 of 13 opportunities. This contributed, in part, to a 34 to 25 minute disparity in time of possession.

The defense (and at times, special teams), just could not get out of their own way. Consider the following sequences of plays on two different drives. On the Redskins’ first touchdown drive, the following happened:

  • The Eagles punted the ball out of bounds at the 14 yard line, but were called for a chop block, which is a 15 yard penalty. This moved the Redskins up to the 29 yard line.
  • On the next play, Destiny Vaeao was called for encroachment, giving the Redskins another free 5 yards.
  • Without doing anything, the Redskins went from being pinned inside their own 15 to the 34 yard line. According to at least one study, this increased the Redskins odds of scoring from 26.7% to 36.3%, a 10 point increase.
  • On the following play, Jalen Mills was burned by DeSean Jackson for a 35-yard gain.
  • The Redskins scored a touchdown two plays later.

Or consider this sequence of events, with the Eagles down 7 with 12:09 left in the 4th quarter:

  • Malcolm Jenkins is beaten by Vernon Davis on wheel route for a 37 yard gain.
  • Malcolm Jenkins misses an easy tackle, allowing Chris Thompson to gain about 5 more yards.
  • Rodney McLeod is called offsides, which negated one of the rare instances in which the defensive line got pressure on Cousins and forced an incompletion.
  • The Redskins ended up getting a field goal.

 

That’s 10 points the Redskins scored thanks in large part to boneheaded mistakes and penalties from the Eagles. Did I mention the Eagles lost by 7?

Runner up: Jalen Mills. The rookie cornerback had a rough game, as he was repeatedly abused by former Eagle DeSean Jackson. Mills didn’t fair much better against Pierre Garcon, as the receiver caught two big plays against Mills. The day could have been even worse, as Jackson dropped a surefire touchdown on a play in which he had Mills beaten. Yet, through it all, Mills was finger waving like he was Dikembe Mutombo. Someone should tell Mills to stop, especially when he is playing so poorly.

Big Picture

This was the second week in a row the Eagles played sloppy, undisciplined football. They don’t have enough elite talent on their roster to overcome self-inflicted wounds. If they are going to have any chance against the Vikings, they will need to get back to playing fundamentally sound football in all three phases of the game.

 

Eagles/Lions Preview: Easy Win or Trap Game?

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

 

The 3-0 Philadelphia Eagles face the 1-3 Detroit Lions coming off their bye week. On paper, this is a winnable game. The Eagles are coming in hot while the Lions have lost three in a row and are without some of their best players. But NFL games are not played on paper. And with upcoming games against the Redskins, Vikings, Giants, Cowboys, Falcons, Seahawks, Packers and Bengals, who are a combined 21-10, this has all the symptoms of a trap game.  Whether the Eagles can win a game they should will shed light on the makeup of this team and coaching staff.

Here is a scouting report on the Lions and how the Eagles can beat them.

Big Picture

While the Lions are 1-3, they lost the three games by a combined 11 points. They have talent on their team — this isn’t the Cleveland Browns we are talking about  — but they are wholly inconsistent. The Lions were up big against the Colts and Titans, but allowed second half comebacks by both teams. Against the Packers, the Lions were down big, but made it a game in the second half. In other words, they have a hard time putting together a full game. In that sense, they remind me of the Eagles at the tail end of the Andy Reid and Chip Kelly eras: capable of wowing you one minute and making you pull your hair out the next.

The Lions are also the third most penalized team in the NFL, with 39 penalties on the year, according to NFLPenalties.com. I lost track of how many positive plays were negated by penalties when I watched the tape, but I counted at least three touchdowns that were called back, two of which occurred on back to back plays against the Colts.

The Lions are also without three of their best players for this game: defensive end Ziggy Ansah, tight end Eric Ebron, and linebacker DeAndre Levy, while running back Dwayne Washington is listed as doubtful.  That’s in addition to running back Ameer Abdullah, who is lost for the season on injured reserve.

So other than being inconsistent, penalty prone and injured, the Lions are a dangerous team!

Offense

Sarcasm aside, the Lions are actually a threat on offense, which is spearheaded by Matthew Stafford and the passing attack. The Lions are both productive and efficient: they have the 9th most passing yards per game, rank 10th in offensive efficiency per FootballOutsiders.com, and 10th in DAVE, which projects future offensive efficiency.

Stafford has completed 67% of his passes for 1198 yards, 7 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, and a quarterback rating of 93.9.  Stafford is still capable of wow throws and has one of the strongest arms in the league. But Stafford trusts his arm too often, leading to questionable decision making. Stafford could easily have 6 or 7 interceptions on the year but for dropped picks and penalties.

The Lions have made a concerted effort to get Stafford on the run more frequently. I saw plenty of boot legs off play action and Stafford has also shown a willingness to take off and run or use his legs to extend plays in the pocket.

Despite losing Calvin Johnson, the Lions have good receivers that the Eagles must respect. That starts with free agent addition Marvin Jones, who ranks second in the NFL with 482 yards and an absurd 21 yards per catch. The Lions send Jones on go routes up the far side of the field multiple times a game. When defenses sell out to stop the deep pass, Jones has shown an ability to stop on a dime and catch the back shoulder fade.

While Jones is the preferred deep threat, the Lions throw a heavy dose of short passes and wide receiver screens to Golden Tate and Anquan Boldin. Tate has gotten off to a slow start this year, but offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter (love saying that name) stated that Tate should have a huge game this week. Bolding is 36, but hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down or avoiding his physical style of play, so the Eagles secondary must be sound in tackling.

The Lions running game is underwhelming, ranking 20th in the league in total rushing yards and 22nd in rushing yards per game. With that said, Theo Riddick is a dangerous weapon on offense. Eagles fans need no reminders; Riddick torched the Eagles last year, catching 5 passes for 62 yards and a touchdown in last year’s Thanksgiving day massacre.

While Riddick isn’t nearly as accomplished, his agility and lateral mobility rivals LeSean McCoy. He makes absurd moves in tight spaces and has broken at least 10 different defenders’ ankles on the year with moves like this:

With the Eagles looking to get pressure on Stafford, I would expect a steady diet of screens and designed pass plays to Riddick out of the backfield. Can Mychal Kendricks and Jordan Hicks do better defending Riddick than last year? That remains to be seen, but will go a long way towards determining the outcome of this game.

The key for the Eagles defense, as it has been the entire year, is the defensive line. The Lions have given up 10 sacks on the year, the 8th highest mark in the league. With Schwartz having and extra week to prepare for his former team, I expect to see some exotic blitzes and different looks. If the Eagles can get pressure — and I suspect that they will — they should be able to limit the passing game’s effectiveness and force Stafford into turning the ball over.

Defense

The Lions run an attacking 4-3 defensive scheme under defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Unlike Schwartz, Austin prefers to create pressure with multiple fronts and blitzes. This could pose a problem for rookie signal caller Carson Wentz, especially given that the Eagles are on the road in a hostile environment.

If you just looked at the numbers, you would think the Lions are wholly inept on defense. They rank 25th in total yards allowed per ESPN.com22nd in passing yards allowed and 22nd in rushing yards allowed. And they are even worse from an efficiency stand point, ranking 32nd in defensive DVOA per FootballOutsiders.com and 32nd in DAVE.

The Lions have also done a poor job at creating turnovers this year. They have only 1 interception and zero fumble recoveries, while they rank 25th in turnover differential.

If there is one area where the Lions excel, it’s getting sacks. The Lions have recorded 9 sacks on the year, tied for 8th best mark in the league. But, the Lions are without their best pass rusher in Ziggy Ansah, so that could limit how much pressure they get on Carson Wentz.  To make matters worse, the Lions are also missing their best linebacker, DeAndre Levy, so they could struggle even more against the run.

While the numbers aren’t particularly kind to the Lions, they look good on tape at times. But they still suffer from the same inconsistency issues as the offense. They shut down the Colts in the first half, giving up 10 points, only to give up 25 in the second. They limited the Titans to 3 points in the first half, only to surrender the lead by giving up 12 points in the second. And against the Packers, they gave up 31 points in the first half, but limited Aaron Rodgers and the vaunted Packers offense to only 3 points in the second. If the Lions ever put together a full game, they could be a good defense. They haven’t yet, so let’s hope they don’t start this week.

I expect the Eagles to use multiple tight end fronts to limit the Lions pass rush and give Wentz time to pick apart their suspect pass defense. I expect a heavy dose of passes to Jordan Matthews and Zach Ertz, and for Darren Sproles to be a dynamic threat in the passing attack out of the backfield. Assuming they can protect Wentz, the Eagles offense should be able to move the ball at will. They will just need to score touchdowns instead of settling for field goals, because the Lions offense is not as bad as their record might suggest.

 

 

Prediction

Two weeks ago, I had the gut feeling that the Eagles would win, but went with logic and picked the Steelers. This week, my gut is telling me the Lions win this in a classic trap game. Everything points to an easy Eagles victory: the Eagles are hot, the Lions are not, and the Lions are injured. But winning games on the road is very difficult in the NFL, especially for a rookie quarterback. This could very easily be a game where the Eagles come out flat and overlook their opponent, Matthew Stafford gets hot, and the Lions defense decides to show up for a full four quarters. If so, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the Eagles lose.

But, I don’t like picking games off gut feelings. I trust what I see in the tape and the numbers. The Eagles are the better team playing more disciplined football. Sometimes it really is that simple. But most importantly, I think this Eagles defense is a legitimate top 5 unit. So even if the Eagles offense sputters, I think the defense carries the day. That means  the defensive line creating havoc and forcing Stafford into multiple interceptions.

I am taking the Eagles in a close one, 23-21.

Season Record: 2-1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brandon Graham’s Relentless Pursuit to Erase the Memory of Earl Thomas

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

Brandon Graham has served as an outlet for fans’ frustrations ever since he was drafted ahead of Earl Thomas. That frustration grew as Graham’s career got off to a slow start, thanks to a combination of injuries, bad play, and being miscast in a scheme that did not fit his skill set. While Thomas has been selected to five Pro Bowls and three First Team All Pros, Graham has yet to receive a Pro Bowl nod or finish a season with double digit sacks.

Even after Graham’s play improved, praise was always given with the Earl Thomas caveat: “yea, but he’s no Earl Thomas.” “Even now, I hear everybody. It’s already talk on my Twitter,” Graham quipped back in 2014. Graham has resorted to blocking out the noise, both figuratively and literally, especially on Twitter.

But Graham has finally found a scheme that fits his strengths, something Jim Schwartz recognized this offseason. And it’s paid immediate dividends. Through three games, Graham has 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery and 7 tackles. PFF.com rates Graham as the 4th best edge rusher in the NFL, behind only Von Miller, Carlos Dunlap and Nick Perry. So while Graham isn’t an All Pro talent like Thomas, he is producing at a high enough level to warrant retiring the “he’s not Earl Thomas” talk.

Graham doesn’t overpower players with his size: he’s 6’2, 269 lbs, he doesn’t have a flashy spin move like Dwight Freeney, and he’s not an athletic freak like Jevon Kearse. But what Graham lacks in measurables and flash, he overcomes with a relentless motor.

Indeed, if there was one word to describe Brandon Graham, it would be relentless. He rarely gives up on a play; and it’s that lunch-pail mentality that should (at least by now) endear him to a blue collar city like Philadelphia:

Some might dismiss this play because it occurred in the preseason — it’s just the preseason! — after all. But that’s exactly my point: how many starters make this kind of hustle play during the preseason?

Even when Graham is blocked, he isn’t. Two of his three sacks on the year only happened because Graham never stopped working, never stopped hustling, never stopped pursuing the quarterback:

The other sack, against the Steelers in week 3, highlights the benefits of lining up in the wide nine. Pittsburgh Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert is 6-6, 330 lbs, making him four inches taller and 60 lbs heavier than the 6’2, 269 lb Graham. But that size advantage means nothing in space. Gilbert failed miserably at trying to beat Graham to the edge, thanks to Graham’s quickness advantage (4.71 40 time v Gilbert’s 5.12) and the space he received by lining up out wide:

The average size of NFL tackle is reportedly 6’5, 310 lbs, so Graham should enjoy a similar advantage for most of this season. Given the scheme fit and his relentless motor, we should expect Graham’s strong start to continue. And that is especially true for divisional games, where Graham has owned some of the divisions best offensive tackles, like Tyron Smith and Trent Williams.

But Graham isn’t just excelling in pass rushing situations. Despite being a liability in run coverage early in his career, Graham has worked his tail off to become an asset. And that is critically important in Schwartz’s attack scheme, which demands defensive ends to set the edge against the run and funnel the running back to the center of the defense, where behemoths Fletcher Cox and Bennie Logan await.

There were valid concerns prior to the start of the season that the Eagles run defense, which has been stout since Cox and Logan were inserted in the middle of the line, would regress based on the wide nine alignment. But Graham and Connor Barwin’s effectiveness against the run has helped the Eagles defense rank third in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, at 71.0.

Graham has popped out on film against the run in a number of ways. From setting the edge to using his quickness to get into the backfield and blow up plays for a loss.

And of course, that relentless motor comes in handy against the run too. When offensive lineman couldn’t block Graham, they’ve resorted to tackling him to the ground. Against the Bears, even that wasn’t enough as Graham was able to bring down the running back for a four yard loss:

Graham still hears the doubters. He uses their criticism as fuel on his relentless path to erase any doubt that the Eagles made the right decision drafting him ahead of Earl Thomas. While Graham might never get to prove all the doubters wrong, that’s just fine too. Because he’s playing damn good, regardless.

In Case You Missed It

Brent discussed injury risk and the quarterback highlander battle between Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott.

Tyler turned to the film to break down a key (but overlooked) running play in the Eagles win over the Steelers.

And I dove deep into the film to discuss why criticisms of Carson Wentz regarding his inability to throw deep or work through his progressions are misplaced.

Presnap bias: why Cian Fahey is wrong about Carson Wentz

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

The word bias is defined as “a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling, or opinion, especially one that is preconceived or unreasoned.”

We expect to see bias from sports fans, especially against players on their chief rivals. I’m not holding my breath for Cowboys fans to heap praise on Carson Wentz, and I wouldn’t waste my time calling them out for refusing to recognize how well he has played.

But sportswriters and self-proclaimed draft experts are supposed to objective, providing readers with analysis that is fair and impartial. When a draft expert uses his bias to push a narrative that doesn’t add up? It’s worth calling out.

Enter Cian Fahey. Fahey wrote an article this week on PresnapReads.com, extolling the play of Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott against the Chicago Bears. I don’t take issue with that; and in fact I generally agree that Prescott has played better than expected.

But it’s how Fahey marketed this article on Twitter that calls into question his ability to disassociate his work from his own biases:

img_7171

Given this tweet, one would think that Fahey’s article would show side by side comparisons of Prescott doing things that Wentz has yet to accomplish this season. Of course, you would be wrong. In an article that spans 1,697 words, Fahey spent a whopping 30 of them dedicated to Wentz, saying: “During a week when fellow rookie Carson Wentz was compared to Peyton Manning pre-snap and Aaron Rodgers post-snap, Prescott’s control of his offense has barely been mentioned, if at all.”

#Analysis.

Since Fahey didn’t back up his assertion, I thought I would put his theory to the test.

Before I get started, I want to make one thing clear: this is not a knock on Dak Prescott, nor an attempt to take away from anything that he has accomplished. This is simply a response to Fahey’s assertion that Prescott showed more against the Bears than Wentz has all season.

Let’s go point by point. First up, Fahey discussed two throws from Prescott while under pressure. On this throw, Prescott faced almost immediate pressure up the middle, which Fahey suggests “is typically the toughest for a quarterback to function against.”

Dak under pressure 1.gif

Fahey also compliments Prescott for completing this dump off throw to Cole Beasley, saying: “[Prescott] held the ball long enough for Beasley to clear the traffic over the middle of the field and delivered as early as he could. The young quarterback did this while the pocket around him closed. Prescott had pressure in his face but kept his eyes downfield and maintained his posture to throw the ball with a stout foundation.”

Dak under pressure 2.gif

These are nice throws, indeed. But Wentz completed passes under pressure all damn season, especially pressure up the middle, since Jason Kelce has become a shell of his former self.

Exhibit A: this throw against the Bears on Monday Night Football. Kelce looks like he is wearing ice skates on this play, getting pushed back into Wentz’s face. Wentz isn’t phased and completes a 15 yard pass to Trey Burton with ease:

Or how about this throw in Wentz’s first career start against the Browns. It’s 4th down and the Browns bring a double A gap blitz getting immediate pressure on Wentz. Despite the pressure, Wentz connects with Zach Ertz for a first down, putting the ball where only Ertz can catch it:

Or how about this throw, where Wentz throws Brent Celek open despite getting nailed as he released the ball.

Fahey next compliments Prescott for using his legs to obtain a first down. Of particular note, Fahey likes that Prescott recognized the Bears were in man defense without a spy and took off for the first after the Bears defenders were ran away from the line:

Dak taking off under pressure.gif

Wentz did the exact same thing against the Steelers last weekend, exploiting the Steelers man defense for a 10 yard gain and a first down.

Fahey next shows how Prescott was able to navigate the pocket to buy time for his receivers to get open downfield. Prescott’s throw is slightly off, but he still hits Witten for an 18-yard gain.

Dak stepping up in pocket.gif

Are you starting to sense a theme yet? Watch this play against the Steelers, where Wentz  navigated the pocket while keeping his eyes downfield, stopping short of the line of scrimmage and hitting Darren Sproles in stride for a touchdown:

 

Next up, Fahey goes through two plays that show Prescott’s ability to recognize and adjust to the defense h is facing.  On the first play, Fahey points out that Prescott used a hard count to force the Bears’ linebackers to tip their hand on what defense they were in, which told Prescott where to go with the football.

Dak hard count.gif

But Wentz has shown the ability to use hard counts to his advantage as well. On the first drive of his career, Wentz used a hard count on 3rd and 3 to draw the Browns offsides and obtain a first down.

Fahey also discussed Prescott making a presnap adjustment that made this completion to Dez Bryant possible. Fahey complained that Al Michaels and Chris Colinsworth didn’t even give Prescott credit because they were busy discussing a penalty that negated the play:

Dak audible.gif

In an odd twist of irony, Fahey is doing exactly that which he complains about, missing the many examples of Wentz audibling at the line to get the Eagles in a better play based on the defense he is facing. Against the Browns, Wentz recognized man defense based on the single high safety and changed to a pass play that got Jordan Matthews in space for a huge gain:

Last example. Fahey doesn’t show a clip of the play, but discusses Prescott’s (first and only) touchdown throw to Dez Bryant, saying “Prescott later threw a touchdown to Bryant when he diagnosed Cover-1 before the snap based on the defense’s alignment. He was alone in the backfield with five receivers spread across the formation. Bryant was running a skinny post to his right, so he opened the play looking left to hold the safety to that side of the field. The decisiveness with which Prescott turned back to Bryant told us that he was always going to throw the ball there.”

If that play sounds oddly familiar, that’s because it is almost exactly what Wentz did on the first touchdown pass of his career. Wentz recognized the Browns were in man coverage based on the single high safety, stared down Ertz running a hitch route over the middle to freeze the safety, then quickly and decisively pivoted to Jordan Matthews and hit him for a touchdown:

Later in the game, Wentz manipulated the safety with his eyes by staring down Jordan Matthews running over the middle. The safety bites, leaving Agholor in single coverage against All Pro cornerback Joe Haden. Wentz does his thing, hitting Agholor in stride for a 40-yard touchdown:

Again, this is not a knock on Dak Prescott. He turned in an impressive performance against a depleted (and bad) Bears defense last week. And all signs point to the Cowboys having obtained a promising young quarterback. And that’s ok. Wentz and Prescott can both be good.

But if you are going to say that Prescott is doing things that Wentz has yet to do, you should at least try to find some examples of that occurring. Fahey didn’t. I’m not sure why Fahey has an ax to grind against Wentz. But maybe it’s because he doesn’t want to admit that he was wrong when he said Wentz was a really bad prospect leading up to the draft.

Injury Risk and QB Highlander

Lots of potential topics to discuss for the bye week, but I’ve chosen one that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere else (as usual).  Don’t worry, though, I also included some thoughts on Wentz v. Prescott below.

Pace of Play

The Eagles defense, by virtue of their dominance thus far, as facing far fewer plays per game than they did last year.  Additionally, the offense is playing slower.  On offense last year, the Eagles averaged 22.2 seconds per play, fastest in the league.  This year, the offense is averaging 31.53 seconds per play, slowest in the league.  

I’ve spoken before about how time of possession is generally overrated, and I still believe that. However, the extraordinary differences between last year and this year could have serious implications for another important aspect of the game: injuries.

Coming into the year, one of my biggest concerns was the lack of depth.  At OL, CB, LB, WR.  It is still my biggest concern.   To that end, any aspect of the game that mitigates that risk is very beneficial for the Eagles.

On offense, the team this year is averaging 70 plays per game, the same rate as last year.  How is that possible if they’re taking more than 9 more seconds per play this year?  (1) They’re converting for first downs, so they’re getting more plays per drive and (2) the defense has been amazing.

However, the defense looks much different.  Here is a chart showing the plays per game by the defense both last year and this year.

screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-10-36-32-am

As you can see, the team is playing 17 fewer plays per game.  Over the course of a season, that amounts to 272 fewer plays, or 5 fewer games at current pace.  That has potentially very significant effects on the expected injury rate for the team.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what the expected serious injury rate (or survival rate) on a particular play is.  But let’s say it’s a 99.8% survival rate of serious injury (one that would require at least 1 missed game).

For one game, using the data above:

At 54 plays:  The survival rate is .998^54 = 90%.

At 71 plays: .998^71 = 87%.

That’s a 3% difference in just one game.  Additionally, if that injury rate is too low, the difference will be much larger.  At a 99.5% rate, for example, the difference is 6% (76% – 70%).

For an entire season, the current pace on defense would result in 863 plays.  The defense faced 1139 plays last year.

At a 99.8% survival rate, the chances of getting through the season unscathed (assuming independence and a constant rate) is:

.998 ^ 863 plays = 17.7% survival rate.

.998^ 1139 plays = 10.2% survival rate.

So if a defensive player played every snap, he would be 74% more likely to escape injury this year than last (given the assumptions above).  Given the importance of a few key players (Fletcher Cox, Jordan Hicks, Malcolm Fletcher), a significant decline in the odds of injury may play a large, if invisible, role in the team’s success this year.

A few caveats:

  • Most players don’t play every snap.
  • I’ve assumed a constant injury rate.  It is entirely possible that the expected injury rate INCREASES with the number of plays.  As players become fatigued, the odds of injury might increase, which would lead to an even more significant difference than the one I’ve outlined above.
  • I don’t expect the Eagles defense to face an average of just 54 plays per game for the rest of the year.

Wentz v. Prescott

200

That seems to be the general attitude, at least on Twitter.  So which one is it?

Let’s attack this from two angles.  One is conceptually, the other is statistical context.

1) Remember your priors.

Each quarterback has played just 3 games.  Needless to say, we’re a ways away from being able to make any definitive judgements on their relative skill level.  However, we can and should start evaluating the new information, and using it to update our expectations for each.  The updating part, in particular, seems difficult for certain pundits to grapple with.  Put simply, draft position DOES matter.  As each player progresses, his pre-career evaluation will provide less and less information about what to expect going forwards.  This early, though, that information should still be providing a large portion of the evaluative information.

In plain english: Would you rather have a #2 pick that has looked great after 3 games, or a 4th rd pick who has looked great after 3 games?

The answer (and it’s not even close), is the #2 pick.  But why?

Before the season began, the odds that Prescott < Wentz were quite large, based purely on draft position.  We know the historical success rates for QBs drafted in the top 5 are MUCH higher than for those drafted later.

In other words, we should all be looking for false positives.  Prescott is more likely to be showing a false positive than Wentz as of a result of his ex-ante evaluation.  Remember that were just talking probabilistically here.  The could still both be terrible, or future HOFs.  But if you feel compelled to evaluate one vs the other, it isn’t close, despite their performance.  Wentz is still overwhelmingly likely to be the better player.

Somewhat ironically, I think some of the Anti-Wentz people have fallen into a different trap.  Basically, they’re clinging too tightly to THEIR priors.  They thought Wentz was overrated before the draft, and are now looking for confirmatory evidence, rather than evaluating whether their pre-draft assessment might have been wrong.

Here’s the key point though:  For outside fans/writers, it doesn’t matter what you’re pre-draft evaluation was.  Once the draft happens, we know the relative odds of success for each position.  It doesn’t matter if I personally believed Wentz deserved to go in the 7th round (I didn’t, just so we’re clear).  As soon as he was drafted, that became the best evidence for his odds of success.  Same for Prescott.  Basically, value is what the market says it is.

2) The statistics.

Now let’s look at the stats.  Here is a chart, from PFR, showing rookie QBs since 2000 that have thrown at least 40 passes in their first 3 games.  I’ve sorted by adjusted yards / attempt.  These are the top 25.  Wentz is 5th, Prescott 6th.

screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-10-16-34-am

Here are the bottom 25:

screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-10-20-59-am

You can sort by Rating or Y/A and the results are very similar.

What’s the takeaway?  I’m not sure there is one.  However, the only decent QBs to come from the bottom of the list are Matt Stafford and Eli Manning.  So, at the very least, we can be thankful Wentz has shown as well as he has, if only because false negatives seem to be much rarer than false positives.  If a QB looks bad early on, he’s very likely to actually bad.  If he looks good…we still don’t know.

Statistically, you really can’t ask for a better performance from either Wentz or Prescott.  I’ve watched nearly every play of both QBs, and I think Wentz has looked better (aside from the conceptual likelihood of superiority mentioned above).  In particular, Wentz’s deep passing might be a Plus skill.  His ball placement has been amazing, and absent a few bad drops by his WRs, his stats on such throws would be amazing.

This chart, from PFF via this article (http://www.cbssports.com/nfl/news/carson-wentz-vs-dak-prescott-an-in-depth-look-at-the-stats-separates-hype-from-reality/) helps put things in perspective:

screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-11-08-57-am

Wentz is 5/12 on deep throws (20+ yards), including at least 3 drops by my count, Prescott is 1/8, with his one completion coming on an underthrow to Cole Beasley that turned what should have been a TD into a first down on the 1 yard line.  It can be seen here:  https://twitter.com/NFL/status/780214996995223552.

Both Dak and Wentz look great.  But frankly, the comparison isn’t close right now.  Give me the #2 pick with the deep passing skills over the 4th rounder with the foot speed every damn day of the week.

 

In Support of Carson Wentz

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

Through the first three games of his career, Carson Wentz has been nothing short of sensational. He has completed 64.7% of his passes for 769 yards, 5 touchdowns, 0 interceptions, on 7.5 ypa and with a 103.8 quarterback rating. Wentz holds the record for most pass attempts to start a career without an interception (102 attempts), received the highest grade ever awarded by Pro Football Focus to a rookie quarterback through three games, and led the Eagles to a 3-0 mark and the second most points scored in the NFL.

Not bad for a rookie.

Despite the impressive performances, some pundits are telling everyone to tap the brakes on the Wentz-hype. They rely on three principle arguments: (1) Wentz has only played three games; (2) Wentz cannot throw deep, but has instead padded his stats by checking down to open receivers; and (3) Wentz cannot work through his progressions, but instead locks onto his primary target. Cian Fahey even went so far as to compare Wentz’s rookie season to RGIII’s, suggesting it is the byproduct of a system and not quarterback skill.

The first point is completely legitimate. While three games is a good enough sample size to evaluate a draft prospect, you need considerably more evidence to judge a player’s long term potential. So we should hold off on booking tickets to Wentz’s Hall of Fame induction speech, at least for a few more years.

But the last two points are not supported by the tape or the numbers.

Working Through Progressions

Let’s start with the claim that Wentz cannot work through his progressions, but instead locks onto his primary target.

While I concede that Wentz often throws to his first read, I disagree that this is actually an issue. That’s because this criticism ignores why Wentz is throwing to his first read so often: because the receiver is open. If Wentz was constantly throwing to his first read and that receiver was covered? Then we’d have a problem. But he isn’t. Wentz is simply making the right decision within the confines of the play he was running and the defense he was facing. He shouldn’t be penalized for that.

Here’s an example. There’s 12:10 left in the 3rd quarter against the Browns. The Browns are showing press man coverage with a single high safety, a coverage they had been playing all game. Wentz brings Jordan Matthews in motion; this forces Matthews’ defender to follow and confirms what Wentz already suspected: the Browns are man coverage. The Eagles are running crossing routes over the middle, which are designed to beat man coverage. So Wentz locks onto Zach Ertz from the moment he snaps the ball because he knows that Ertz should be open. He doesn’t have to look anywhere else.

Watch this play without understanding why Wentz locked onto Ertz, and you will likely (wrongfully) assume that Wentz cannot work through his progressions.

But there are enough examples of Wentz working through his progressions in the tape to prove that theory wrong. Against the Browns, the Eagles were running a slightly modified version of the “sail concept” with Jordan Matthews running a go route, Zach Ertz starting inside but then breaking outside with a corner route, and Darren Sproles running a flat route off the play action pass.

Wentz was required to perform a deep-to-short read, starting with Matthews’s deep vertical route and working back towards the line of scrimmage. As you can see from the clip below, Wentz recognizes that Matthews doesn’t have a step on his man to the outside, so he goes to his next read — Zach Ertz on the corner route — and connects for a 15 yard gain:

Look closely enough in the second highlight contained within that clip, and you will see Wentz’s head, shoulders and body pivot away from the deep route to Ertz on the corner route. It’s all done in one, smooth transition, a sign that Wentz is comfortable moving off his first read and onto his second and third.

This is atypical for rookie quarterbacks, who usually struggle to work through their progressions with fluidity and confidence: “The ability to read defenses is not something that players have learned to a high degree coming out of college,” Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh once said. “You can see if he locates that secondary receiver — or maybe even an emergency outlet receiver — with ease or with a sense of urgency. This should work like a natural progression, not a situation where it’s — “Oh, my gosh, now I must look over here … no, over there.” You can see which quarterbacks handle these situations with grace. These are the types who have a chance to perform with consistency in the NFL.” 

It’s why we saw quarterbacks like Cam Newton, Big Ben and Sam Bradford take years of seasoning in the NFL before they were able to consistently work through their progressions. While Wentz isn’t on the level of Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, he is well ahead of the curve set by most rookie quarterbacks.

All of this ties into one of Wentz’s greatest strengths: the ability to make good decisions on a consistent basis. As the venerable Chris Brown once said,  good decision making requires a quarterback to know “where to go with the ball,” how to “avoid the killer mistake” and to have the “knowledge and the ability to quickly process information while under fire.” It’s “not enough to make the right decision some of the time: If the passer does the right thing four out of five times but throws a brutal pick-six on the fifth attempt, the mistake will mask the successes.”

So far, Wentz has made great decisions way more often than not. Out of the 102 passes he’s thrown, I counted one pass that was interceptable: this pass to Dorial Green-Beckham against the Pittsburg Steelers, where Wentz threw to DGB’s inside shoulder when he had outside leverage.

But, that is one interceptable pass out of 102 total, an absurd (and likely unsustainable) rate of good decision making that aligns with research from Jeff Dooley of PFF.com, who stated that Wentz “has the lowest percentage of negative-graded plays among quarterbacks this year, hardly ever putting the ball in harm’s way.”

Simply put, the tape doesn’t support claims that Wentz is a one-read quarterback that cannot work through his progressions. I’ll leave you to guess why these so-called draft “experts” are suggesting otherwise.

Throwing Deep

So what about the claim that Wentz is a check-down artist that never throws deep? For starters, the numbers don’t back this up. Wentz’s 7.54 yards per attempt ranks 14th in the NFL, ahead of Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, Andrew Luck and Big Ben, to name a few.

But even if Wentz’s ypa are somewhat skewed by his receivers gaining significant yards after the catch (especially on screens), we’ve seen enough evidence in the tape to know that Wentz is not only capable of throwing the ball deep, he excels at it. Wentz’s first touchdown pass of his career was a perfectly placed 20-yard pass to Jordan Matthews in the corner of the end zone:

Here is a closeup of where the ball is placed relative to Matthews’ defender. By putting the ball on Matthews’ outside shoulder, the Browns cornerback has no chance to make the play. The only way this doesn’t go for a touchdown is if Matthews drops it (fair possibility all things considered).

Matthews TD.jpg

Later in the game, Wentz delivered another perfect strike, this time on a 40 yard bomb to Nelson Agholor, who was in single coverage against All Pro cornerback Joe Haden:

Again, look at the ball placement relative to where Agholor’s defender is. The ball is placed on Agholor’s outside shoulder, leading Agholor to the pylon, but away from Joe Haden. You could not ask for a better ball placement on this throw.

One of Wentz’s most impressive throws came against the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football. The Bears got pressure up the middle and from the right side of the line, forcing Wentz to flush out of the pocket to his left. Wentz had a running lane, but stopped just short of taking off to hit Nelson Agholor between three defenders.

This would have been an impressive throw if Wentz was standing tall in the pocket with his feet set. Wentz instead made it while moving to his left and throwing across his body, which magnifies the degree of difficulty by a considerable margin. Look again at where that ball is placed; the only player able to make a play on the ball is Agholor. That’s simply an incredible throw for any quarterback to make, let alone a rookie quarterback making his second start.

One last example. Watch this pass to Jordan Matthews against the Cleveland Browns. Wentz delivers this 20 yard pass on a rope and in a spot where only Matthews can catch it:

Bill Walsh once stated that “Some players can throw 80 yards, but they aren’t good passers. Good passing has to do with accuracy, timing, and throwing a ball with touch so it is catchable. It is a plus to be able to throw a ball on a line for 35 yards, but not if it is off target or arrives in such a way that it is difficult to catch.”

Indeed, if you cannot deliver a catchable pass on a consistent basis, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw or how fast you run. Just ask Michael Vick.

Wentz no doubt has impressive arm strength, but his precise ball placement is even more encouraging. Here is a screen shot of the moment right before Matthews caught the pass. If Wentz throws this 6 inches in the other direction, the defender likely knocks this pass incomplete:

Matthews low and away.jpg

Those are just four examples of Wentz attacking the defense with deep and intermediate throws with good arm strength and precise accuracy. There are many others, so you cannot say that Wentz only attacks defenses with short passes.

Throwing Under Pressure

Since I have your attention, I wanted to touch on two other areas that make Wentz such a tantalizing prospect moving forward: his ability to throw accurately under pressure and how Wentz uses his legs to extend plays instead of shorten them.

Ron Jaworski once told a great story about the difference between a quarterback that understands passing concepts versus a quarterback that can apply that understanding in live game situations: “I’m doing a “Monday Night Football” broadcast years ago, and during the production meeting…Joey Harrington was talking about the system, and says “I love this system, I have total control at the line of scrimmage, if I see something I can audible to it. ‘Two strong,’ I audible to this route adjustment. ‘Two weak’ I can adjust to this.” He’s standing up in front of us and showing us. It was beautiful. Joey knew the offense in and out….Then first play of the game, there’s two defenders to his right, they came with a blitz, he dropped back, held the ball and got smashed. You sit in a film room and put your feet up and say “When this guy comes here, I’ll hit that guy there.” But Harrington couldn’t apply it. There are a lot of guys who are great at the chalkboard, can tell you where to go, but they need to execute it.

Wentz has played only three games in his career but has already shown that he can retain his accuracy, arm strength, and mechanics when under pressure. Consider this throw against the Bears with 4:24 left in the second quarter. Wentz hits Trey Burton in stride despite having pressure bearing down on him almost immediately:

Or consider this throw against the Bears. Wentz was hit as he released the ball, but had the wherewithal to throw Celek open and hit him in stride:

As you can see, Wentz is halfway through his release before Celek has yet to break into the post route. Wentz knows he’s about to get crushed, yet he stands tall in the pocket and delivers the ball into an open space, throwing Celek open and away from the two Bears defenders guarding him:

Throwing Open.jpg

Those are advanced level throws that we have not seen in Philadelphia in a long, long time. So while I agree we shouldn’t get too carried away with the Wentz hype, we also cannot ignore that this kid has been playing at an extremely high level.

The final thing I wanted to touch on was Wentz’s functional athleticism. One of the biggest reasons the comparison to RGIII is so off-base is because Wentz uses his legs to extend plays, while RGIII consistently used his legs to run after the first sign of trouble.

The perfect illustration of this was Wentz’s touchdown pass to Darren Sproles. Wentz used his athleticism to avoid the pressure from Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, kept his eyes downfield, and stopped short of the line of scrimmage so that he could deliver a perfectly placed touch pass to Darren Sproles:

Compare that to this article from the Washington Post, where Chris Cooley explains in painstaking detail how Robert Griffin, III was unable to process information quickly and make the right reads. You simply cannot compare Wentz’s play with RGIII’s with a straight face.

Conclusion

I agree that we need to see more from Carson Wentz before we crown him the next great young quarterback in the league. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore how impressive he has played. Wentz has been fantastic, and the main criticisms aimed at him are wholly off-base. So the next time someone tells you Wentz can’t throw deep or work through his progressions, show them this article. Because those claims are not supported by the numbers or the tape.

It’s the Little Things

Life is good in Eagles Nation.

Carson Wentz is the greatest QB to ever play. The offense is scoring points. Jim Schwartz and the defense are on a warpath. No QB who has faced the Eagles wants any business with doing it again. Sam Bradford netted a first round pick. The run game suddenly exist again. Now if the WR’s (and secondary) can just hold on to the damn football, watch out.

Now unfortunately the realities of being a comically underemployed recent college graduate mean I have not had time to dig into the All-22 footage and really get a good feel for the offensive line play. However, this one play did stand out and I thought I would share my thoughts on how it is so much more than meets the eye, and really impressive. As the title of this post suggest, it’s the little things that make all the difference.

The Play

At first glance this is just a simple “Power” play. Wendell Smallwood shows good burst and acceleration. The line creates a nice hole. Solid 13 yard run. Nothing to write home about, let alone a meandering post.

BUT… The play shouldn’t have worked.

The way it was executed, is not the way it was drawn up.

Allen Barbre is supposed to pull and kick out DE Arthur Moats. TE Trey Burton is supposed to follow up on the inside of Barbre and ISO block the LB (preferably inside out as well).

None of this happens though, because Arthur Moats makes his reads, and diagnoses the play, compresses the hole, and “wrongarms” Barbre. This is perfect technique. Up to this point in the play the Steelers coaches will be happy and the Eagles coaches will be annoyed that it didn’t work, but it would be more in the “the other guys get paid to play football too” category. Nobody is getting cusses out for this play on film, if it just ends here.

But it doesn’t.

Barbre has the wherewithal to pivot his hips around Moats, and then use the defenders momentum against him to wash him out of the play. Burton also adjusts on the fly and instead of going inside Barbre, or just running into him, goes around Barbre to the outside, and still gets a block on the linebacker.

The final piece of the puzzle is rookie running back Wendell Smallwood. He shows good patience. When he first gets the ball, the hole that should be there isn’t. It would be easy for a young runner to panic and bounce the run to the outside or simply try to bury a shoulder into the mass of bodies. Instead he isn’t in a rush, a gap emerges, and Smallwood accelerates through it for a nice gain.

This play doesn’t happen last year. Last year Allen Barbre couldn’t figure out who to block on inside zone (and given that inside zone was 40% of the offense that’s a big deal). This Eagles team is getting better each week. And with better play design and coaching that is alot more effective, it leads to plays like this.

 

Tyler Aston is a contributor at Eagles Rewind. You can yell at him on twitter @Astonia67.

Scouting The Steelers Defense

Patrick Causey, Follow him on Twitter @pcausey3

Carson Wentz has exceeded all reasonable expectations with his play to date. He is the first rookie quarterback since the merger to go 2-0 without any turnovers. He is PFF’s top rated quarterback. And his 94.1 quarterback rating is better than Cam Newton (92.7), Joe Flacco (84.3), Aaron Rodgers (82.6), and Russell Wilson (80.7). Given the drops and clock killing for an entire quarter against the Bears, it’s reasonable to assume his numbers could be even better.

Of course, it’s only been two games — against the Browns and Bears, no less — so it would be ridiculous to suggest he is as good as those quarterbacks. The Steelers represent his first real challenge of the season; they will provide the Eagles organization and its fans a good barometer for judging just how talented the rookie signal caller is.

So how will Wentz (and the Birds) fair against the Steelers? Let’s dive deep into the tape and numbers to get a better understanding. If you missed my scouting report on the Steelers offense, you can check it out here.

By The Numbers 

The Steelers rank a pedestrian 21st in total yards allowed, primarily because they have given up the second most passing yards in the league (695), behind only the Oakland Raiders. But their rush defense ranks second in the league, allowing only 101 yards over two games. A term you will hear a lot with the Steelers D is “bend, but not break,” and the numbers bear this out. Even though they give up a ton of yards, the Steelers are tied 8th with the New York Giants in points allowed, giving up on average 16 points per game.

From an efficiency standpoint, the Steelers defense ranks 14th according to FootballOutsiders’ DVOA rankings, 6th against the run and 14th against the pass.

Football Outsiders has a great metric that lets you measure how a defense has done in pass defense compared to the league average. Here is how the Steelers stack up:

Pos

Yards Allowed

League Avg YA

WR1

103.0

83.2

WR2

49.5

50.5

Other WR

87.5

51.9

TE

64

54

RB

81.5

43.0

Not surprisingly, the Steelers are worse than league average against receivers almost across the board. Matthews, Burton and Sproles seem to have the most favorable matchups given the Steelers tendencies to give up the underneath passes. Get them in your lineups, fantasy owners.

The Base

For what seems like an eternity, the Steelers have run a two gap, 3-4 defense that relied heavily on zone blitzes. Things have changed under second year defensive coordinator Keith Butler, who — at least this season — has been employing more of a 2-4-5 front, eschewing the Blitzburgh defensive philosophy in favor of dropping more players in coverage.

Carson Wentz has been phenomenal diagnosing defenses at the line and throwing under pressure. The Steelers present a different type of challenge, as they are known for their complex zone coverages. And while they don’t blitz as often as they used to, they still do a good job switching up which players they send on the rush. Wentz is going to be tested in this game.

Stout Against Run

One thing that hasn’t changed for the Steelers is the emphasis to shut down the run and make opposing teams one dimensional. The Steelers are relentless in pursuit, closing running lanes before a play has a chance to get started.

Cameron Heyward is a big reason for their run success. While the box score won’t reflect it, he was virtually unstoppable against the Redskins, routinely getting into the backfield to disrupt the run. On this play, Heyward doesn’t get a tackle, but watch how quickly he explodes through the line, forcing a holding penalty that negated a nice gain.

Jason Kelce’s struggles are well documented. He’s been dreadful through two weeks, and this comes on the heels of a disappointing 2015 campaign. Heyward will likely give Kelce problems this week, as he often lines up between the guard and center. Kelce must improve, or the Eagles are going to have a hard time getting the run game going.

Giving Up The Underneath Passes

Against both the Bengals and Redskins, the Steelers routinely dropped 7-8 men into coverage, selling out to shut down the big play. With that, the underneath routes were open all damn game.

Cousins obliged, drinking and dunking his way down the field while completing 69% of his passes for 329 yards. But Cousins’ production failed to translate to touchdowns, as their first three possessions inside the red zone yielded only 9 points.

The Steelers deserve some credit for this, as their defense has been very good inside their own 20. But Cousins left some plays on the field as well:

While I won’t quibble with Cousins decision to go with Reed — he had a clear step on his man — Cousins threw behind him, leading to the incompletion. But Cousins had two better options on this play, a wide open receiver on the underneath crossing route and DeSean Jackson with a clear step on his man on a fade route into the end zone. This was one of several plays that Cousins missed in the redzone, and before they knew it the Redskins were down 24-9.

Andy Dalton was more aggressive, attacking the Steelers up the seams with vertical passing concepts. It didn’t work; the Steelers defense suffocated any chance of the deep pass by creating impossibly tight windows to attack. The Bengals offense didn’t get any semblance of consistency until Dalton started to take the underneath routes, but by then it was too late.

Like the Redskins, the Bengals also struggled in the red zone, getting field goals on their first three possessions inside the 20. Like Cousins, Dalton left some plays on the field, missing at least two opportunities to score touchdowns. On one, Dalton had tight end Tyler Kroft breaking wide open across the back of the end zone. But Dalton’s throw led Kroft too far out of bounds, and the Bengals settled for three.

Earlier in the game, the Bengals were set up inside the Steelers 10 yard line. Dalton had a receiver wide open on an out route out of the slot, but he skipped the ball into the ground. The Bengals settled for another field goal.

That’s one of the most encouraging things I picked up from the tape. While the Steelers have been good at preventing touchdowns, some of that was based on their opponents own errors. In other words, the opportunities are there for Wentz and company to make plays.

The Eagles have their own problems scoring touchdowns, with bad drops from Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor costing the Eagles at least 14 points against the Bears last week. The game was never close enough for it to matter, but the margin for error will be significantly smaller against the Steelers. If the Eagles are trading field goals for touchdowns, they won’t have a chance. So Wentz and his receivers must capitalize when the opportunities present themselves.

Ryan Shazier

We can’t do a report on the Steelers D without talking about Ryan Shazier, who is playing like an All Pro linebacker through two games. He was making plays at every level and every facet of the game. Shazier has always been talented, he just couldn’t stay healthy. But so far, he looks like a complete linebacker, possessing a rare combination of size, speed and intelligence. Watch how much ground Shazier covers on this play before forcing the fumble:

Shazier is the quarterback of the Steelers defense, setting the plays and making any necessary adjustments. The chess match between Shazier and Wentz is going to be fun to watch. Wentz needs to know where he is at all times because Shazier has shown that he can make plays in the passing game as well:

The Keys To The Game & Prediction

I see three keys to this game: first, Wentz must be patient and take what the defense gives him. He’s not shy about attacking defenses deep, but those opportunities are going to be harder to come by against the Steelers. Wentz must avoid trying to force things and attack the Steelers through the short passing game.

Second, the Eagles must capitalize inside the red zone. The Steelers offense is likely going to score in bunches, so the Eagles cannot afford to trade field goals for touchdowns. Matthews, Agholor, et al., are going to need to hang onto the ball. They cannot afford costly drops.

Finally, how is Wentz going to handle the Steelers exotic zone defenses? They are notoriously complex, confusing even the most seasoned veteran quarterbacks. Wentz has impressed with his command and confidence, but this defense presents a different challenge. If Wentz rises to the challenge, the hype surrounding Wentz is only going to get louder.

Before breaking down the tape, I intuitively assumed that the Eagles were going to lose this game. Now I’m not so sure. While the odds still favor the Steelers, the Eagles have a chance to surprise some people.

Vegas seems to agree. The line started at Pittsburgh -5.5, but has dropped to -3 in the last 48 hours despite over 70% of the public taking the Steelers. That tells us big money is going on the Eagles late, an encouraging sign that they might have a better chance then many believe.

I really want to pick the Birds. But I have a hard time choosing them over Big Ben and Antonio Brown right now. I think the Eagles cover, but the Steelers win 23-21.

Season Record: 2-0

 

Know Your Opponent: Scouting Report on the Steelers Offense

Patrick Causey, on Twitter @pcausey3

The Pittsburgh Steelers will provide a litmus test for the Philadelphia Eagles.

They will test rookie quarterback Carson Wentz, whose terrific start has been marred (for some at least) only by the quality of the opponents that he has faced.  They will test the Eagles defense, which hasn’t allowed more than 14 points in two games, something it took them 16 games to accomplish last year. And they will provide a litmus test for first year head coach Doug Pederson, who out-coached John Fox and Hue Jackson in consecutive weeks, but now has to go toe-to-toe with Super Bowl winning head coach, Mike Tomlin.

Here is a scouting report on the Steelers offense based on the numbers and tape. Check back on Saturday for a similar breakdown for the defense.

By The Numbers

Pittsburgh ranks 8th in total yards with 811 (or 405.5 per), according to ESPN.com. They are 12th in passing yards (540), 6th in rushing (271), and have scored the 4th most points in the league, behind only Carolina, San Diego and Oakland.

The Steelers offense is also very efficient, ranking 7th overall according to FootballOutsiders.com’s DVOA efficiency metric. They are 6th in points per drive and 10th in Drive Success Rate (“DSR”), which, according to Football Outsiders, “measures the percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown.” What’s more, Football Outsider’s DAVE ranking, which combines preseason predictions with a team’s performance to date, projects the Steelers to have the top rated offense in football for the entire season.

In other words, Todd Haley, Big Ben & Co. are picking up right where they left off last season, when they finished on a 6-2 run and were one of the hottest teams in football.

The Counter

While the offense revolves around the passing attack, the Steelers are a highly productive run team, ranking 6th in the NFL in total rushing yards. Their primary run play is the famed Counter Trey, which was created by Tom Osborne during his heyday in Nebraska. Joe Gibbs is credited for bringing the Counter Trey (or Georgia Counter) to the NFL during his first stint in Washington, and Steelers offensive coordinator Tom Haley has been using it throughout his coaching career.

At its core, the Counter Trey involves a tight end and guard pulling from the backside to lead the way while the frontside lineman downblock to create an open lane.

The Steelers use subtle variations of this play to keep defenses honest. You’ll mainly see it run when they are in 12 personnel (two tight ends) and Big Ben under center; but they also run it out of the shotgun formation and will attack the backside of the line when the defense starts attacks the frontside of the line. Against the Redskins, I counted at least 6 variations of the Counter Trey, 2 of which went for touchdowns. In other words, the Redskins knew it was coming, but they just couldn’t stop it.

33-year old running back DeAngelo Williams has found the fountain of youth in Pittsburgh. While he’s not as talented as Le’Veon Bell — then again, who is? — Williams still leads the league in rushing through two games with 237 yards. Not bad for a backup.

Williams has carried a heavy work load through two weeks, toting the rock more than any other running back in the league. Williams is a capable pass catcher out of the backfield and still has enough juke left in the tank in both run and pass situations to make defenders miss. Watch Williams hit R1 on these defenders for a touchdown:

Big Ben to Antonio Brown 

But make no mistake, the Steelers offense revolves around Big Ben and Antonio Brown, which for my money is the best QB/WR combo in the entire league.

Big Ben isn’t quite as elusive as he used to be, but he still has moments where he makes plays that only he can make. Against the Bengals, Big Ben turned in a vintage play, spinning and bobbing long enough to let Sammy Coates break free for a big gain down field.

But even though these plays are becoming less frequent with age, Big Ben has more than compensated for this by mastering the cerebral part of the game. He is a complete quarterback in the prime of his career. He is ball placement is precise, his understanding of the game advanced, and he has freedom within Todd Haley’s offense to attack the defense as he sees fit. He is light years ahead of Jay Cutler or RGIII as quarterbacks and is going to present the first true challenge for the Birds defense.

Brown needs no introduction. He is the best wide receiver in the NFL, and it’s not subject to debate. Over the last three seasons, Brown has caught an absurd 375 passes for 5,031 yards and 31 touchdowns.

In an age where wide receivers are bigger and faster than ever before, Brown is ordinary. He’s 5’10 and 181 lbs and ran a 4.47 40 time coming out during the draft. Despite these otherwise meh physical metrics, Brown is still practically unguardable. He is one of the best route runners in the league. His body control — especially mid-air — is matched only by Odell Beckham, Jr. And he catches everything thrown his way. He is particularly adept at getting open when Big Ben starts dancing in the backfield; the two have an intuitive, unspoken understanding of where the other is going before anyone else figures it out.

Big Ben fully trusts Brown and will throw to him even when he’s double covered. Against the Redskins, the Steelers were on 4th and 1 from the Redskins 30 yard line. The safe call is to kick a field goal. A conventional gamble on 4th and 1 would involve a run up the middle or a quick hitch/slant/curl route just pass the markers. Big Ben wasn’t having that:

Look at how open the underneath routes were — that’s as close to a guaranteed first down as you can get. Now look at how covered Brown was. At the moment the ball is released, Brown is a step behind his man and has a safety tracking him for the double team. Yet, Big Ben let’s it fly, and Brown’s impressive closing speed and freakish body control allows him to come down with a pass that 90% of receivers in this league would not have caught.

Brown ran a similar fade/go route at the 26 yard line for a touchdown later in this game. It seems to be a preferred route for Brown and Big Ben. So if you see the Steelers inside the 30 and Brown is single covered on the outside, don’t be surprised if they take this shot against the Eagles.

The only problem? Brown can just as easily cut the route short and catch a back shoulder fade for a big gain. That’s precisely what we did after his second touchdown catch, and gained about 25 yards.

Quick Passes Will Negate The Pass Rush

Watching the tape, Todd Haley has a good mix of vertical passing with 1-3 step drops designed to get the ball out of Big Ben’s hands quickly. You’ll see no huddle, package plays (with read and pass options), sail concepts (a three receiver combo route that typically includes a flat, corner, and go route), the triangle read (or snag), and the Hank Route (hitch routes across the board).

I am most concerned about the Steelers quick passing attack. Against the Redskins, Big Ben was routinely getting rid of the ball before the defense had any chance of getting pressure.

All game long, the Steelers were running quick slants, digs, and WR screens. And on the year, 64% of Big Ben’s passes have travelled less than 10 yards.

It’s no secret that the Eagles defense is predicated on pressuring the quarterback without having to blitz. Jim Schwartz has built his entire defensive philosophy off this simple idea. And through two games, their defense has been nothing short of sensational, ranking 2nd overall in FootballOutsiders’ DVOA efficiency ratings, behind only Seattle. They have allowed the 4th fewest yards in the league (572) and the second fewest points allowed (24).

But if Big Ben is getting rid of the ball after a one-step drop, the Eagles defensive line will be neutralized. That will take away the strength of the Eagles defense and put tremendous pressure on the Eagles already suspect secondary.

One way the Eagles can combat this quick passing game is to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage, preventing them from getting a free release. Schwartz likes to mix in press man with zone coverage. So don’t be surprised to see the Eagles defenders getting close to the secondary to take away the quick passing routes.

How The Eagles Can Game Plan To Stop The Steelers

As I am writing this report, I am watching the New England Patriots systematically beat the Houston Texans despite starting their third string quarterback. Most people will focus on that (and rightfully so), but I am more impressed by Bill Belichick’s ability to consistently take away the one thing that his opponent does best on offense. For the Texans, that meant shutting down the deep passes to Will Fuller and DeAndre Hopkins. The Patriots gave help over the top and forced Brock Osweiller to check down and attack the middle of the field, and the offense never got any sort of rhythm.

If I am Jim Schwartz, I am taking a page out of Belichick’s playbook and double teamming Brown all damn game. Now, as we just saw, even a double team won’t completely shut Brown down. But I would force the Steelers beat us with Sammy Coates, Eli Rogers and Jesse James in the passing attack. I can live with that. If we leave our corners in single coverage against Brown all game, we are going to be toast.

The other thing the Eagles will need to do is force turnovers. Big Ben has a habit of doing two things that make him prone to turning the ball over: dancing around in the backfield trying to find time for his receivers to get open; and forcing the ball to Antonio Brown.

The Redskins missed out on multiple opportunities to create turnovers and turn the tide of the game against the Steelers. Big Ben lost, and then recovered, two fumbles. And the Redskins dropped two sure fire interceptions, one of which occurred when Big Ben tried to force the ball to Brown. The Eagles defense has been opportunistic so far this year, and they will need to capitalize on the opportunities this week if they are presented.

If they can contain Brown and cause a few turnovers, the Eagles will have a chance for the upset. But if they don’t, this could be one of those reality check games that we were all expecting to get eventually.

 

 

 

 

Week 2 Notes (Pre-Game)

A few thoughts/notes to add before tomorrow’s game:

  • Obviously, the focus is on Wentz.  The Bears present a tougher challenge defensively than Cleveland (we think), especially on the road in primetime.  Wentz has looked very poised thus far, so I doubt the MNF aspect will matter much.  The real question for me is: Will Wentz continue to throw into tight coverage windows?  The most impressive part of Went’s debut was his willingness and ability to make throws to receivers that were less than wide open.

Not the best angle, but here is the first Wentz TD throw, at the moment of release.    Matthews is the blurry WR in the lower left corner.  That’s relatively good coverage, and Wentz still saw the opportunity, took it, and made a perfect throw.

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Here is a shot put together by @NFLosophy showing the coverage on Went’s 3rd down conversion to Matthews:

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Again, the coverage is good, and many QBs (ahem..Bradford), wouldn’t have made the throw.  Perhaps Wentz made the wrong read here.  However, the fact that the scenario shown above was a conversion opportunity for Wentz suggests there is huge upside for him as a player.  If that’s all the window he needs, he’s going to be extremely difficult to defend, regardless of who his recievers are.

Keep any eye one whether he attempts/completes passes into similarly tight coverage tomorrow night.

  • One of the main reasons I was not too confident in the team this year (I predicted 6-10), is that the OL seemed to be a big weakness. In particular, I was worried about the continued decline of Jason Peters.  However, in week 1, Peters looked close to his old self.  If Peters can indeed bounce back from last year, despite his age, the outlook improves considerably.  On the negative side, Jason Kelce looked awful.  Pay close attention to each of them tomorrow night
  • Is the Eagles WR corps better than I thought?  In other words, was Sam Bradford making them look bad?  As shown above, Wentz was able to create opportunities for the WRs even in tight coverage.  Nelson Agholor looked like a legitimate receiver, if only on go routes, and Matthews looked like a good #1.  I’m still skeptical, but am anxious to see more evidence in favor of this.  Attributing results properly between QBs and WRs is really difficult if you don’t have the time to go through every throw multiple times on replay.  Moreover, even that won’t show you all the counterfactuals; all of the opportunities that existed but weren’t taken. For example, in the above screenshot: if Wentz doesn’t make that throw, nobody reviewing the tape would have called that a missed opportunity.  And yet, it turned into a long completion and a big third down conversion.
  • Can the Eagles cover Alshon Jeffery?  Although Cleveland looked somewhat respectable on offense today versus the Ravens, it seems clear that the Browns are fielding one of the worst offenses in the league.  In particular, they don’t have any players that pose significant individual match-up problems.  Certainly nobody like Jeffery. 6’3″, 218 lbs.  And he runs a 4.48 40 yd dash.  He averages 8.5 targets per game, with a 57.9% catch rate and 15 yards per reception.  We’re all hopeful that the Eagles defense will be a strength of the team both this season and in the near future. The Bears and Jeffery will provide a better measuring stick than the Browns did.
  • Will Doug Pederson stay aggressive on 4th down?  Last week, the Eagles were up 15-10 in the 3rd quarter when they faced a 4th down with 4 yards to go for a first down at the Cleveland 40 yard line.  Pederson went for it and the team converted.  But it wasn’t a hard decision.  Actually, it was a fairly easy one as far as those decisions go. Still, it’s encouraging to see Pederson get the easy ones right, especially in his first game.  But will he make the right decision when it’s not so clear?  With all of the focus on Wentz, Pederson isn’t getting enough attention.  Tomorrow night should be a closer game.  If that’s the case, we should be able to learn a lot more about what kind of coach Pederson really is.