The Eagles got off to a good start under new head coach Doug Pederson on Thursday night with a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Lincoln Financial Field. The good start can be applicable in both a micro and a macro sense. Any time you can start off the preseason with a win, you're able to get positivity rolling. But to have the first game start off with a huge play on the opening kickoff? That's a great way to start fast.
Special teams coordinator Dave Fipp's unit has been one of the very best in the NFL over the last three years here in Philadelphia, and judging by Thursday night that will continue in 2016. A lot of players displayed great effort here. Chris Pantale (No. 85) was a wedge buster all night on kickoff coverage while also starting on all four core special teams units. Chris Maragos, who recovers this fumble, was a monster all night on teams and had a very strong game defensively as well (more on that this weekend).
But watch Najee Goode on this play just as I slow the footage down. This is a great example of a "stick and avoid" technique, a common move used by coverage players to beat their man downfield. Goode gets his man to flip his hips by cutting one way and sticking back inside before dropping his inside shoulder, throwing out his off arm and dipping around the corner with his eyes up on the way to the returner. At the point of contact, he's able to get the ball on the ground, forcing a fumble to get the Eagles the ball inside the 20. Now, it would be up to the offense to punch it in for six points.
On the Eagles' first play from scrimmage, the play call was a version of a "three-level stretch," a concept that Greg Cosell and I discussed at length in this week's podcast. By flooding the left side of the field with routes at all three levels of the defense, you put the secondary in a tough spot by giving the quarterback options with where to deliver the football. Bradford takes the snap, drops back and gets the ball to tight end Brent Celek for a good pickup on first down. In hindsight, the ball could have gone to tight end Zach Ertz on the corner route. The underneath defender is sitting in the throwing window and still could sink further into that soft spot, so quarterback Sam Bradford stays safe in the red zone and picks up positive yards to bring up second-and-short on his only throw of the night. Now, the Eagles' run game takes center stage.
On second down, Pederson calls inside zone from the shotgun with running back Ryan Mathews to Bradford's left side. Against the Bucs' "over" front, this brings a pair of double teams up front, with left tackle Matt Tobin and left guard Allen Barbre blocking Gerald McCoy, and center Jason Kelce and right guard Brandon Brooks blocking the nose tackle on this play, Robert Ayers. Look at the movement from both double teams, as Mathews bends this run back behind the backside combination block, right off of Tobin's hip. Tobin does a great job driving the Pro Bowl tackle, McCoy, off the ball, and then look at job by Celek on the back side against the defensive end. I also loved to see the violence from Mathews as he finishes this run with 7 extra yards after initial contact. Mathews' talent as a runner really shined through on his pair of carries, as he finished off the drive with a touchdown run on the very next play.
I loved the play call on this run, as Pederson complements his inside zone call from the previous play with an inside zone counter run on first-and-goal. Watch the initial steps of the offensive line, quarterback and running back. It looks exactly like the previous play, just the opposite direction. But on their next steps, watch Bradford and Mathews change course to send the run back to the right side, the strong side of this formation.
Also of note on this play is the personnel group. The Eagles are in what's called 13 personnel here, with one (the "1" in 13) running back and three (the "3" in 13) tight ends on the field. All three tight ends - Celek, Ertz and Trey Burton - are lined up with their hands in the dirt on the right side, and watch all three of them get after it on this play. Celek does a great job on the defensive end, Ertz drives the linebacker to the ground and Burton works up to the safety as Mathews vaults in for six points to get the Eagles on the board.
That was all she wrote for the first-team offense, on the best "three-and-out" you could've asked for on opening night. The second team didn't have as much success, particularly in the passing game, but there were a number of run plays where I saw a lot of positive things from some of the young offensive linemen. Right tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai displayed heavy hands and the ability to move people at times up front. I think Tobin really looked like an improved player on the outside at tackle compared to where he was at guard a year ago. Guard Isaac Seumalo had his ups and downs, but his athleticism and light feet really were apparent on a couple of plays.
You see Seumalo here cut the back side off on this perimeter run. Was it the prettiest block I've ever seen? No, but it got the job done. I also continue to be impressed by third-year center Josh Andrews, who had a strong preseason last August as well. Andrews is a relentless blocker, and really fun to watch if you're into offensive line play. He's another kid with surprisingly light feet, but his nastiness and consistent finish plays are some of my favorite whenever I watch his tape, as you can see on the run on this sweep play.
If you studied the Eagles' offense last year, you'd recognize a lot of these run plays. Inside zone, inside zone counter and sweep were all concepts that were prevalent in Chip Kelly's offense in the last couple of years. But there's more tricks in the bag with this scheme, and that's something we got a little bit of a taste of on Thursday night.
This is a lead weak, or what can be called an iso Lead or BOB (back on backer), run play with a fullback as a lead blocker in the backfield. Chris Pantale does a good job here of not leading Kenjon Barner into the wreckage up front. The fullback is often told to run this play as if he were the running back, finding the hole and picking up the first sign of danger he sees, even though his primary target is almost always going to be the playside linebacker if everything is clean up front. Here, Pantale ends up sealing off the backside linebacker, helping Barner pick up positive yardage along with a strong effort from veteran Stefen Wisniewski, who had a really strong first outing in his Eagles debut.
Enough about the run game though, because something tells me you clicked on this article because you wanted to see how a certain rookie quarterback fared in his first live NFL action. Let's take a look at some Carson Wentz plays to see how the second overall pick did on Thursday night.
Overall, I thought Wentz had a really impressive debut. Was it perfect? Absolutely not. Far from it, and I wouldn't expect it to be. However, he never looked rattled, even with Pederson put him in the game in a two-minute drill situation at the end of the first half, where he made some really impressive throws on a series that ended with a punt.
This is Wentz's first NFL completion. The Bucs rush four on this play, with two defensive tackles slanting inside to the A gaps, trying to bring pressure right up the gut at a rookie quarterback, a sound strategy. Wentz responds just the way you'd want him to in this situation. He didn't panic, instead keeping his eyes downfield as he slid away from the pressure, stepped up and delivered a pass to Zach Ertz for a first down past midfield.
Wentz's poise in the pocket was what impressed me most throughout the night. He got hammered more than a handful of times back there, but he never wavered. His ability to make throws with defenders bearing down is not a trait shared by many rookies when they enter the league, and on more than one occasion it has kept former first-round picks from becoming quality starters.
Whenever I hear anyone say, "Great, Wentz made plays against the other team's third-team defense," I will respond with a play like this because he's playing with third-string players on his own side of the line of scrimmage as well. Here, a miscommunication on the snap count results in the ball coming out earlier than he would've liked. With an unblocked defender right in his face as the ball is hitting his hands, watch Wentz's playmaking ability take over. He makes the pass rusher miss, rolls to his right and delivers a ball just short of the sticks for a near first down.
This was one of my favorite plays out of Wentz all night long, a rep that came outside of the structure of the offense. Now, keep in mind, quarterbacks can't just rely on plays like this to succeed in the NFL. You love to see the athleticism to make a play like that, but can he use that athleticism to make a play inside the structure of the offense as well?
This is a boot-action pass play for Wentz out of the shotgun. With a run fake to the left, Wentz is being asked to roll to his right, where he has a simple high-low concept on the outside and a crossing route over the middle of the field at his disposal. Wentz faces immediate pressure, however, and is again forced to make a play with his legs and pick up yards on the run. Wentz jets upfield and ... SLIDES ... just short of a first down. The coaches have talked since the spring on the emphasis they have placed on him protecting himself at the NFL level, so you love to see the rookie surrender himself on this play after picking up a handful of yards.
We saw a lot of quick game from the Eagles' offense last night through the air, which is pretty common around the NFL in the first game of the preseason. Ninety percent of what you see on the field schematically can be found on your local high school football field this fall, as teams don't want to open up too much of their playbook. That being said, it was great to see Wentz's accuracy and willingness to turn it loose on multiple throws in the quick game.
Here's a throw from late in the third quarter on third-and-2 from the 22-yard line. This is a simple slant flat concept, a route combination that can be found in almost every level of the game. Wentz zips this pass right past the ear hole of the linebacker sprinting to the flats, into the waiting hands of rookie wide receiver Cayleb Jones. There were a couple of throws like this on Thursday - some of which fell incomplete, but not due to the fault of Wentz - that really stood out while watching him on tape.
On the very next play, Wentz's biggest blemish from the game took place at an inopportune time. Rookie Paul Turner was running a little jerk route over the middle of the field, and that's where Wentz looked to go with the football. But a TT Stunt (two-tackle stunt) inside from Tampa Bay brought a free rusher right in his face. Wentz couldn't step into the throw, short-arming it, and floating a pass over Turner's head and wide, right into the waiting hands of the safety. Turnovers are always tough, but in the red zone they can be killers and game-changing plays. I'd expect Wentz to learn from that play and others throughout Thursday's game as he continues his development this season.
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.