The Eagles are now 4-5 and the one-score losses have really burnt this team through the first nine games. I feel like a bit of a broken record but once again this was one of those weeks where the team just stepped on their foot too often in key situations to succeed. Finishing drives has been difficult. The Eagles scored points with ease last season and so far it just hasn’t had the same feel in 2018, for whatever reasons they may be. Injuries are certainly a factor, changes in personnel as players and coaches get used to each other are certainly impactful as well, but at the end of the day, the team hasn’t done enough to win games.
For this week’s piece, I decided to start things off by looking at one drive from each quarter that the Eagles would love to get back. You’ll notice some similarities with all four of these drives – the team did good things to put itself in position to score points but ultimately failed to capitalize fully.
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Let’s jump right to the fourth quarter because this drive was the most impactful. The offense got the ball back with just over three minutes left, all of their timeouts, and down by seven points. On the very first play, as seen above, Carson Wentz hits Alshon Jeffery for a 17-yard gain and a first down on a back-shoulder fade. A checkdown to Wendell Smallwood on the next play nets them 9 yards, and on second-and-1, head coach Doug Pederson calls an RPO featuring Golden Tate running a bubble screen on the perimeter. Wentz dishes the ball to Tate, who picks up 6 yards to move the chains again. Wentz hits Smallwood in the flat for 3 yards on first down, then Wentz scrambles for 5 more. That brings up third-and-2.
Pederson thinks he’s going to get a man pressure scheme, and he hit the nail on the head. Dallas sends linebacker Jaylon Smith on a blitz with straight man coverage behind it and a safety deep in the middle of the field. Rookie Leighton Vander Esch is manned up on Corey Clement in the backfield. This is the perfect situation to hit a screen in a similar scenario to when Smallwood took one to the house two weeks ago against Jacksonville. All the Eagles have to do is block Vander Esch or, at the very least, make him miss in space. Brandon Brooks and Jason Kelce release after the snap, but the rookie is quick to scrape over the top. Neither linemen can reach him, so he’s unblocked. Instead of cutting back against the grain, toward his blockers, Clement carries outside and is tackled for a 5-yard loss. That brings up fourth-and-7.
The game is pretty much on the line here. Convert and stay alive, fail and you need a prayer. You want the ball in your best player’s hands, and so the play calls for Wentz to hit Zach Ertz on the left side. Ertz lines up as the No. 3 receiver to the Trips side. The Eagles send Jordan Matthews and Nelson Agholor deep, lifting the coverage to create room for Wentz to throw Ertz open outside. All Ertz has to do is win against man coverage against a defender forcing him outside and get beyond the sticks. Ertz cuts it close, and the picture is a bit cloudy for him at the top of the route. Agholor isn’t vertical enough, and Ertz flattens the route out a bit more than they probably want him to. He catches the ball short of the sticks and the Eagles turn the ball over on downs at the 35-yard line.
Let’s rewind to the third quarter and examine a similar situation, this time closer to the goal line.
This was the Eagles' opening drive of the second half, and what I found to be most interesting about this possession was the increased use of 12 personnel after only seeing three reps of it in the first two quarters. On the first play, Wentz tried to hit Tate on a deep over route – the same route he would connect with Agholor on for 51 yards later in the game) for an incompletion. Clement gained 11 yards on a draw to the left. Then we have the first play I showed above, Wentz hitting Ertz on a 12-yard dig route. Wentz dropped back and had his arm hit by blitzing linebacker Damien Wilson, but Wentz showed off his freakish grip strength not only maintaining possession of the ball but following through with the throw and completing the pass to his tight end in stride. That was a crazy play for another first down. Wentz came back on the very next snap and hit Ertz again, this time for 21 yards and a first down along the left seam. The Eagles now have a first down at the 11-yard line, and things are looking up. n
On first down, a draw play to the left with Clement loses yards, bringing up second-and-13. That’s where we get the hook-and-ladder play to Tate on the right side, as shown above. It initially looks like a screen to Ertz, who laterals it back to Tate sprinting to the perimeter. Dallas Goedert did a phenomenal job with his block on the outside to help spring Tate outside the numbers for 6 yards. That brings up third-and-7.
Down 13-3, Wentz sends Jeffery in motion from right to left. Dallas initially bumps Vander Esch out over Jeffery, but there’s a hint of confusion there. Jaylon Smith calls alert to it, sending cornerback Anthony Brown out there instead and calling Vander Esch back into the box. So what initially may have looked like zone coverage pre-snap for Wentz all of a sudden has a man coverage look to it just before the snap of the ball. Wentz gets the snap, drops back, and he eyes Jeffery running a slant. This is open for a touchdown, but Jeffery throttles the route down, seeing zone coverage. Wentz, feeling a potential man coverage look (possibly because of Brown running with Jeffrey pre-snap), throws it out ahead of Jeffery, and the ball is incomplete. Is it Wentz’s fault? Or Alshon’s? None of us can say. But they aren’t on the same page, and the Eagles settle for three points instead of seven in a game where that would have meant a world of difference in the final outcome.
Let’s go to the first half now, as the Eagles got the ball down 3-0 at the beginning of the second quarter. Rookie Josh Adams explodes downhill on the first play going nearly untouched for a 29-yard gain. Ertz had his best block of the night on this wham play, where the tight end is asked to block a 300-pound nose tackle and keep him out of harm’s way. Adams has rare size for a running back and surprising burst, so getting him into the open field with his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage nets a big gain. He gets the ball again on the next play for 5 yards before Wentz hits Jeffery for an 11-yard completion on a hitch route to move the chains again.
The Eagles now have the ball on the 29-yard line. It’s first-and-10. They’re putting a drive together. This is the deepest they’ve been in Dallas territory yet. Wentz hits Ertz for a sliding reception and an 8-yard gain on first down. Beautiful. They’re ahead of the sticks and it’s second-and-2. Next, we see the play I posted above, the Smallwood run for 1 yard. The defensive tackle for Dallas makes a nice play here, reading the trap block and getting into the intended path for Smallwood, forcing him to bounce. Smallwood runs into a wall short of the first-down marker.
For the second time in the game, the Eagles come out in 01 personnel (zero running backs, one tight end) with four receivers on the field. It’s an empty set with no one next to Wentz in the backfield. The plan is to hit Tate on what basically amounts to a rub route. They bring him in motion next to Jeffery in the slot, forcing the cornerback into off coverage. The ball is snapped, Jeffery releases upfield, and Tate runs right in his wake before breaking into the flat. This should be an easy first down, but safety Xavier Woods reads this and breaks on the throw, forcing an incompletion. Jeffery’s route did not do enough to influence Woods on this play, allowing him to break the pass up.
This brings up fourth down, and Pederson is going for it. The play call is a Jet Zone Away running play, where the Eagles use a little bit of misdirection and deception to try and get Adams going downhill. First, you have the jet sweep action with Tate in the backfield, this is intended to get the linebackers thinking about a potential handoff. Next, the offensive line blocks to the left as if it’s a zone run in that direction (or as if Tate is getting the ball). Adams and Wentz open up to the right. If the linebackers bite for even a second, this play will work and Adams will get the necessary yardage. Ertz and Agholor both miss their blocks, however, and Adams is tackled for a 3-yard loss. A promising drive sinks hard with a turnover on downs.
Now let’s go to Carson Wentz's first-quarter interception. The Cowboys punted and the Eagles got the ball starting at Dallas’ 44-yard line. This was great starting field position. The Eagles come out in that same 01 personnel package with Wentz once again in an empty set. The Cowboys respond with a version of Cover 3, with Vander Esch in underneath zone coverage. The Eagles have a nice play called to attack this concept, with two seam routes from the two inside receivers, Jeffery and Ertz. Wentz takes the snap and stares to his left, hoping that whichever defender is in the middle of the field for Dallas cheats over that way before he goes to the right and pulls a quick trigger to Ertz for a first down.
Ertz ran a great route and was open ... except for Vander Esch sitting in the passing lane. Wentz didn’t see him and he was picked off. The rookie linebacker did a great job of staying disciplined in zone coverage, a major strength of his during his time at Boise State. He picked off the pass and returned the ball into Eagles territory. Another chance that the Eagles had on the Dallas side of the field was squandered away.
If any of those drives go differently, the game likely ends differently. If two of them result in touchdowns, the game likely ends a LOT differently. But that’s football, each and every week. Last year, the Eagles won games like that and this year they’ve been unable to do so consistently. Now, that doesn’t mean it was all bad as they were able to string together some drives for touchdowns, both of which ended up with Ertz in the end zone.
The Eagles showed some good flashes against the Cowboys, but make no mistake, they will need their A-game to match the effort from New Orleans on Sunday afternoon in the Superdome. Whether it’s running the ball or throwing it, the Eagles have to move the ball and get touchdowns, not field goals, in the red zone.
Fran Duffy is the producer of the Emmy-nominated Eagles Game Plan show which can be seen every gameday during the season on NBC10 in Philadelphia. He is also the host of two Eagles-related podcasts, Eagle Eye in the Sky, which examines the team from an X's and O's angle each and every week as well as the Journey to the Draft podcast, which covers college football and the NFL Draft all year round. Fran also authors the Eagle Eye in the Sky column, which runs four times a week during the football season to serve as a recap for the previous game and to preview the upcoming matchup. 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.