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Eagle Eye: How Good Was Carson Wentz?

Posted Sep 12, 2016

I thought that the Voice of the Eagles, Merrill Reese, summed it up perfectly at the end of his broadcast on Sunday afternoon.

"What. A. Debut."

Everyone wants to know how rookie Carson Wentz performed in his first live action as a professional quarterback. After reviewing the tape, I can say that it was as good as you imagined, and it all started on the opening drive.

First off, I think that head coach Doug Pederson, offensive coordinator Frank Reich and the entire coaching staff on that side of the ball deserve a ton of credit for the game plan they constructed for Wentz. They used a variety of looks, moved the pocket to get him on the run and cut the field in half for him, and did a lot to help him take advantage of matchups and move the chains.

Last week, I highlighted the Eagles’ use of three tight ends. Even though the team did miss Trey Burton (calf), it still utilized the multiple tight end looks early on. On second-and-10 on the opening drive, the Eagles come out in 12 personnel with one back (Darren Sproles) and a pair of tight ends lined up detached from the formation - Brent Celek in the slot and Zach Ertz lined up out wide on the numbers. Cleveland matches up Ertz with a safety (former Eagle Jordan Poyer). Wentz sees the matchup he wants, and puts the ball where only his athletic tight end could get it for a first down on a back-shoulder throw.

On the very next play, the Eagles come out in a similar 12 personnel set, this time with Ryan Mathews in the backfield, but in a completely different look. With both tight ends keeping their hands on the ground on this play, the Eagles show something different to the Browns without changing who is on the field. After a play-action fake, Wentz turns and dishes out a quick throw to Celek, who bowls his way for a first down. It’s these kinds of completions that help build confidence and get a quarterback going early in a game.

Four plays later, Wentz wins the hearts of thousands of Eagles fans in the stadium and around the world with this gem of a throw to Jordan Matthews. Wentz sits back in an empty set, and the Eagles run "mirrored" concepts on both sides of the field. That means you have the same exact route combination on both sides. This is the type of thing coaches do for younger or inexperienced quarterbacks to help keep the reads the same on both sides of the field, and allow him to find the matchup he wants.

This concept is a "high-low" play that features a fade from the slot receiver, and hitch from the farthest man outside. Nelson Agholor (bottom of the screen) and Darren Sproles (top) run quick hitches, and Matthews (bottom) and Dorial Green-Beckham (top) run fade patterns. Ertz sits over the ball as a safety net for Wentz in case both fades are taken away. The best part about a Slot Fade concept is that the quarterback has loads of room toward the sideline to drop this football in, as opposed to a straight fade from an outside receiver where he’s tighter to the sideline.

Just before the snap, Wentz peeks to his right. He sees the safety to that side slide over top of Green-Beckham. Wentz knows he has a single-high look with one safety in the middle of the field, and that it’s almost certainly man coverage. All Wentz has to do is hold that middle of the field safety long enough to get a throw outside the numbers to Matthews in the back of the end zone. Watch him as the ball is snapped, you can see it perfectly from the end zone angle. His eyes first start quickly to his right, then he turns his eyes to the safety on the post to keep him there, then he snaps his head to the left and unloads a perfect touch pass to the back corner to Matthews perfectly in stride for his first NFL touchdown. It was a great play design and thought process by the coaching staff, and great execution from the rookie quarterback. Love the catch by Matthews as well, coming back from a drop earlier on the drive. Keep an eye out on Wednesday afternoon, where I’ll explain in the video segment of this column why this touchdown and the next play in this piece should look VERY familiar to fans who have been paying attention to our coverage here on PhiladelphiaEagles.com since the NFL Draft.

The next play I want to show you was really impressive. The broadcast crew (specifically Trent Green) did a great job of showing this during the game live, but I wanted to show it to you on tape as well.

It’s first-and-10 in the second quarter, and Wentz lines up under center with Agholor and Matthews to his right. Just before the snap, the Browns appear that they’re going to come on a Cross Dog blitz (which we prepared you for on Eagles Game Plan) with two linebackers inside. Wentz recognizes it, changes the play at the line of scrimmage, resetting the protection. Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Mathews all work together to give Wentz the time to deliver this ball to Jordan Matthews on the outside. The rookie sensed that he had man coverage, and the route from Matthews was a perfect "man coverage beater" as he broke inside toward the post then back out towards the sideline, leaving the defensive back in the dust on his way to a long gain and a first down to set up a field goal. Wentz and the Eagles' staff knew that Cleveland defensive coordinator Ray Horton was going to send pressure throughout the game. Kudos to them for giving Wentz the freedom to adjust and then to the rookie for executing it perfectly on this first-down throw.

Another blitz that the Eagles had to be prepared for was the Triple A Gap pressure, something Horton had shown throughout the preseason with his defense. The Triple A Gap is always a tough one to block up because with blitzers coming from the deep part of the field, it’s rare to see the protection account for them before the snap or have the ability to react to them after it.

Look at the job that Kelce, Allen Barbre and Sproles do on the three rushers up the gut. Barbre passes off the slanting defensive tackle to Jason Peters before getting his eyes on a linebacker. Sproles cuts the second rusher, and Kelce gets his eyes down the pipe for the third and final rusher. This gives Wentz enough time to stand tall and deliver this throw early to Nelson Agholor past the sticks for a first down. This is how an entire offense can work together in "burning the blitz," something I thought would be key for Sunday’s game. Next, I want to show you what may have been the most impressive throw of the day for Wentz.

It’s third-and-9 on the Eagles' opening drive of the third quarter. Wentz sits back in the shotgun as the Eagles look to attack downfield. The rookie has a three-level stretch concept to his right, and Jordan Matthews running an isolation route, a deep dig, to his left.

The Browns send a five-man pressure, and when Wentz begins his drop he makes a correct read that the Browns would be in a two-high coverage with split safeties in the deep area of the field. This will make it difficult to pick up a first down on his right, so he gets his eyes left to Matthews. His plan? Matthews’ dig route should put him underneath the safety on that side of the field. As long as he can beat the corner on the outside, he’ll have a tight window to fit the football in.

Wentz gets to the top of his drop, and his line does a great job of keeping a clean pocket. Sproles did a great job in pass protection all day long, and you have to give the veteran a lot of credit on this play as he held up his blitzer for a couple extra seconds to keep Wentz clean. As a learning point for Wentz here, you likely want to see him step up in the pocket a bit here to avoid being stationary, but watch this throw.

This is what some evaluators would call a "DNA throw" - you either are born with the ability to pull the trigger here, or you’re not. This is a tight-window throw on third-and-long against the blitz in a three-point game in his first NFL start. He fits this ball into tight quarters to Matthews on an in-breaking route for a first down to move the chains. Wow.

On the next series, there was a sequence of plays that really stood out to me as well.

It’s first-and-10, and the Eagles run some sweep-action to the left to get the defense flowing to the short side of the field. This gets Wentz on the move, with a high-low progression to the right and Matthews coming from across the field on a crossing route from the left. Rookie defensive end Carl Nassib, a Philadelphia native who was active all day long for the Browns, doesn’t bite on the play-fake, and is screaming at Wentz as soon as the quarterback turns back to face the defense. Remember that Nassib is just under 6-7 with one of the longest wingspans of any edge rusher drafted in the last five years (just under 83 inches). On the run, Wentz makes the split-second decision to get the ball to his next progression in Matthews, who is wide open on the crossing route, hitting him on the money for a first down. Three plays later, it’s fourth-and-4, and Doug Pederson decides to go for it from the Cleveland 40-yard line.

I love this play for a lot of reasons. First, the Browns have a look of showing six rushers. With the Eagles in an empty set, that leaves just five blockers. That means the sixth rusher is on Carson Wentz to beat, this ball has to get out quick.

Ertz, lined up in the near slot, is running a quick slant route matched up on a defensive back who is playing inside leverage. Since the defensive back is lined up inside of Ertz, it’s imperative that he crosses his face immediately so that he can be available for Wentz to throw the ball to. If he delays his stem at the top of the route, the safety can either take away the throw or, worse, jump the route for an interception. Ertz doesn’t let that happen though, as he makes himself available quickly, keeps the defender on his back and secures the catch through contact for a first down. Give a lot of credit to Wentz as well, as a free rusher came in the form of a blitzing linebacker in the A gap (not an ideal scenario from a protection standpoint), and he was able to get the ball off clean with a defender bearing down on him for a first down. Awesome play.

After picking up the conversion on fourth down, Pederson didn’t rest on his laurels, instead putting his foot on the gas pedal to attack downfield. I loved this play call.

The first thing I want you to notice here on the touchdown to Nelson Agholor is the former first-round pick’s split. He’s lined up just outside the numbers, a bit tighter to the formation than your typical outside receiver. This is important because it helps to set up how he can get off the jam of All-Pro cornerback Joe Haden.

When you’re lined up with a tighter split like this, it’s almost the equivalent of lining up in the slot because you could theoretically break inside or outside and run a variety of routes. It’s a two-way go for the receiver. Agholor wins with a quick jab-step release at the snap, stepping inside to get Haden’s hips turned before jetting upfield for a clean release.

Next, I want you to be aware of Agholor’s route here. If you’re ever at a practice field for a college or pro team (and most high school stadiums have these now as well), you may notice a red line located parallel to the sideline, halfway between that and the numbers. This red line is where a wide receiver ideally should be running on a vertical route. Why? Because if you hold that red line, you give the quarterback a wider window the drop the football in on your outside shoulder. If Agholor were to let Haden pin him closer to the sideline, this would have been a much tougher throw for the rookie quarterback. But between Agholor’s pre-snap alignment, his crisp release against press coverage and his ability to hold the red line, Wentz drops this ball in at the front pylon for a beautiful 35-yard touchdown.

The last play that I wanted to show from Wentz’s debut happened in the fourth quarter with the Eagles up by two scores. At this point, the Eagles are trying to drain as much time off the clock as possible, meaning that the running game (which didn’t break off any huge gains, but was effective when it needed to be throughout the afternoon) and the quick-passing game were a big part of the plan of attack.

It’s first-and-10 and the Eagles run an RPO, or Run Pass Option with Mathews in the backfield. The passing option is a Slant-Bubble concept with Matthews running a slant on the outside. Josh Huff goes out on a quick bubble route from the slot. Wentz takes the snap, and immediately opens up his hips as if he’s going to throw the bubble. Watch how that affects the defender right in the throwing lane for the slant route. With that defender removed, he now has clear vision to the slant from Matthews for an 8-yard gain and a near first down.

There were clearly a ton of positives to take away from Wentz’s debut. You saw all of the reasons, both physically and mentally, why he was the Eagles’ choice at No. 2 overall back in April. Will it be that way every week this season? Absolutely not. Like any rookie, especially at quarterback, there will be growing pains as defenses continue to throw different things at him and he becomes increasingly accustomed to the NFL game. Was Sunday’s performance against the Browns perfect? Not by any stretch, because there are still things he needs to work on. Protecting himself is priority number one.

On all of those plays, Wentz took hits that many would deem as unnecessary. As a competitive quarterback who is going to hang in the pocket and make plays on the run, Wentz is going to take his share of shots to his body. That’s inevitable. That’s why lessening that amount of hits whenever possible will be best for his game moving forward.

Overall, I was very happy with the offensive performance, not just with Wentz, but around the formation. There were a couple of drops, but I thought the receivers competed well in all phases of the game. Guys went up and made plays for their quarterback in key spots. The offensive line came together and played pretty well. I thought Allen Barbre did a nice job at left guard in both pass pro and in the run game, and the communication was strong up front. The running backs all did a good job of making the first defender miss when there were breakdowns up front, picking up extra yardage. As I alluded to earlier it wasn’t always pretty, but the run game as a whole was effective in the grand scope of the game. Check back Tuesday as I recap the defensive performance from the win.

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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