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Eagle Eye: A Sign Of Carson Wentz's Development And Diagnosing The Run Game

Posted Sep 18, 2017

There was a lot to take in after watching the offensive film against the Kansas City Chiefs. First and foremost, there were plenty of positive takeaways. One of the biggest stories locally, however, centers on the run game. The Eagles certainly need to run the ball more often and effectively moving forward. Head coach Doug Pederson said as much both after the game and when talking with media on Monday.

It certainly didn’t seem like it would be that kind of day on the opening drive. Darren Sproles took a run to the left for 12 yards on the second play of the game. I think I can speak for all Eagles fans when I say we hoped that would serve as a bit of a spark for the offense, generating early confidence with the run.

This was great design by Pederson and his staff. It’s a "tackle over" formation, meaning you have both tackles on the same side. The Eagles run a sweep in that direction, with Jason Peters pinning the defensive tackle down and Lane Johnson pulling to kick out the force defender. Jason Kelce gets up to the second level and finishes on the backside linebacker. Sproles gets downhill and earns a first down.

The Eagles ran the ball eight times for 40 yards on first down, good for 5 yards per carry. You might look at that and wonder why they didn’t run the ball more because they passed on 27 of those first downs. That gives you a run-pass ratio of 8:27 on first down. Those numbers don’t quite tell the entire story though. I’ll hit on that in a second.

One of the things that was apparent in this game was that Kansas City loaded the box, playing a lot of single-high coverage. Pederson mentioned that the offense saw a lot of crowds at the line of scrimmage, not just in the box. Like last week, however, it was not one specific factor that leads to the Eagles’ struggles on the field. To say Pederson completely abandoned it, however, would just be wrong.

In the second quarter, the Eagles face second-and-15 right around midfield. Most people would see this as a passing down. The Chiefs defend it like one, with two deep safeties pre-snap. It’s the same tackle-over call from earlier in the piece. This time, guard Isaac Seumalo pulls to the play side as a lead blocker. If Darren Sproles is able to hit this crease, he’s got a ton of green grass ahead of him. Tackle Jason Peters is matched up on linebacker Justin Houston here. Sproles appears to see Houston flash color on the inside. He abandons the track created by Seumalo and tries to bust this outside of Peters, and Houston, a great run defender, makes the play for a 3-yard loss. Wentz throws an incomplete pass on third-and-long, and the Eagles are forced to punt instead of crossing midfield. Could Sproles have hit it inside? Could Peters have held onto his block a bit longer? It’s those small differences that turn a big play on the ground into a loss.

As Pederson said on Monday, "it takes a village" to have a successful run game. The Eagles just couldn’t get things going consistently against a strong Kansas City front for a variety of reasons. The Eagles finished the day with 13 runs to 56 dropbacks. Keep in mind, however, that they ended the day with 17 straight passes when they were in comeback mode, down by at least a touchdown. When the game was within a field goal, the ratio was 13 runs to 39 dropbacks. That number is still 25 percent and not where it needs to be, but again, take that as additional context in terms of how this game played out. Why was the run game not a staple against the Chiefs? They had other aspects of the offense working pretty well.

Conventional wisdom says that a team can NOT have an effective play-action pass game without a productive run game, right? That was not the case for the Eagles' offense on Sunday against Kansas City.

It’s the opening drive, and the Eagles come out in 12 personnel (one back and two tight ends). Wentz is under center and drops back after a play-action fake. He starts to his left side, where the Eagles are running a three-level stretch concept to the boundary. Once Wentz sees that the intermediate route is being taken away, he immediately checks back to his dig route on the back side from Torrey Smith. Wentz throws a strike right on the numbers to Smith in the middle of the field, and the veteran receiver tries to spin back toward the sideline, slipping and falling to the ground for a 22-yard gain.

The throw to Smith came on first down, but this completion to Ertz came on a 2nd-and-12. The Eagles ran the ball on first down for a 2-yard loss, putting them behind the sticks to start the series. Getting behind the chains was a big issue for the Eagles on Sunday. Whether it was due to sacks, penalties, or tackles for loss in the run game, there were too many instances of the offense shooting itself in the foot on first or second down. One of the most startling stats from the game? The average distance to go on third down for the Eagles' offense was an astounding 8.9 yards. It’s tough to win when you’re working from behind that way.

The Eagles’ longest drive in terms of play count happened to be their final touchdown drive. Down by two touchdowns, the Eagles threw 13 straight passes to march down the field, converting four third downs in the process. They ended the drive with this touchdown to Nelson Agholor.

Safety Daniel Sorensen actually defends this route, which Agholor beat everyone with all summer long down in the red zone. Wentz puts this throw on the money and Agholor comes through with a contested catch in traffic for a score to give the Eagles a chance.

There was a lot of debate among observers regarding the value of screen passes in the flat. Many fail to realize that, like the run game, the screen game is a very effective way to set up the intermediate and deep passing game.

Wentz hits Sproles here on a rope for 16 yards on the catch-and-run. Wentz puts the ball right on the money with just the right amount of zip that beats the defender and allows Sproles to keep moving. This was on the second drive of the game. Afterwards, the Eagles ran six pass plays with that type of bubble screen-action to the flat out of the backfield. On those throws, Wentz was 5-of-6 for 55 yards and a touchdown. That’s the value of those screen passes. You can pick up cheap yards when you throw them, but you also help stretch the defense and make them defend all 53 1/3 yards across the width of the field, which helps open up holes in between the numbers and the hashmarks. The Eagles did that effectively on Sunday.

The screen game was strong for the Eagles' offense against Kansas City, as was play-action. What about the rest of the passing game? You have to be able to pick up chunks of yardage at a time against a defense as strong as Kansas City’s. The Eagles didn’t have many explosive plays down the field, but they certainly did pick up yards in bunches. To me, if you want to get a real feel for how I believe this offense can (and should) look, you want to see the sixth series of the game, which happened about midway through the third quarter.

The Eagles got that drive going with four straight passes, which netted four straight first downs. Wentz was surgical on first down against the Chiefs, completing 14-of-20 passes for 189 yards and two touchdowns. Notice the variety of calls in the passing game. There's some play-action, the screen game, a completion off of screen-action. Pederson keeps the defense on its toes and Wentz picks the Chiefs apart, moving the ball down the field in chunks. On plays five and six, Pederson goes to the ground game.

The Eagles call two different run plays on two straight plays, first with a playside counter run to Wendell Smallwood for 8 yards and then with a sweep with Sproles for 3 yards and a first down.

On the very next play, the seventh and final of the drive, Wentz hits Alshon Jeffery on a back-shoulder fade for a 16-yard touchdown. There was a ton of variety from the Eagles' offensive attack on that drive, and we got to see it all on display as it culminated in a trip to the end zone.

The Eagles got the ball back on their next possession, down 13-10, and again started to hit their stride. Wentz had the Superman scramble on third down where he dove for the pylon to move the chains. Sproles picked up 5 yards on first down to make it second-and-5, and then we saw Wentz go to Mack Hollins on two straight plays.

That first throw is an outstanding route by Hollins, getting off press coverage, stepping on the corner’s toes, and breaking to the sideline. Wentz shuffles left and hits him for a first down. On the second play, he leaks underneath and picks up a near first down, getting the Eagles into the red zone.

One of the biggest plays of the game happens next. The Eagles face second-and-2 in the red zone, but a false start penalty sends them back 5 yards. Two incompletions later and the team settles for a field goal instead of continuing the drive for six points. That kind of play can change the game, and I truly believe this one did.

At the end of the day, the Eagles went on the road against a very good team in one of the toughest environments in the NFL and went toe-to-toe with them in a game I think they should have won. They gave the Chiefs 10 points off of turnovers, giving them the ball in their own end with an interception and a fumble. Add the false start in the red zone and a missed a field goal to end the first half. That’s a lot of points left on the board in a situation where you can’t afford to give up many. Do they need to run the ball better? Absolutely, but I don’t believe for a second that is the reason they lost this football game.

Before I wrap up, I wanted to give you one quick look at the development of Wentz, because there was one play that really stood out to me. In the gamebook, it’ll go down as a 5-yard scramble by Wentz, but to me this picture spoke a thousand words. Before I get to the play from Sunday, let me first take you back to last year.

The first play is from the loss in Seattle last year. The Eagles ran the Dagger concept, one of their staples in the vertical passing game, and Wentz threw a tough interception in the middle of the field. Seattle was in its staple Cover 3 defense, and Wentz was hoping to hit the dig route breaking inside. The "hook" defender in underneath zone coverage to that side had cleared out of the way. He was defending tight end Zach Ertz underneath. This was an open throw in Wentz’s mind. Wentz didn’t see safety Kam Chancellor, the backside hook player in the Cover 3 scheme, lurking out of his vision. Chancellor read Wentz’s eyes the whole way and picks this pass off. I remember writing at the time that this would be a learning point for Wentz.

Fast forward to Sunday. The Eagles are at first-and-10 late in the first quarter. They’re going to run Dagger again, except this time with Wentz under center with some play-action. Wentz has to turn his back completely to the defense, meaning that things he sees pre-snap will be completely different from what he sees post-snap. Wentz drops back, and he sees Kansas City cornerback Marcus Peters coming, not from the backside hook position, but from the backside third. He was on the line of scrimmage on the opposite side of the formation when Wentz turned his back to the defense. Wentz turns, sees Peters ready to come into the throwing lane, and he eats this throw, tucking, and running for a 5-yard pickup.

It’s little things like this that continue to give me great confidence in Wentz and his development. This coaching staff is doing a great job bringing him along, and it’s a testament to them and Wentz’s work ethic that he is where he is today. I’m really excited to see more plays like this in the future.

Fran Duffy is the producer of “Eagles Game Plan” which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team’s games, practices and opponents.

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