It wasn’t always pretty, but the Eagles came away with a big win in Week 1 over the Washington Redskins. A big part of the win was the team’s success on third down. The team held Washington to just 5 of 13 conversions (38.5 percent) on third down, which you’ll take every time. On the other side of the line, the offense finished 11-of-17 on third down, including 5-of-9 on plays of third-and-6 or more (56 percent). When you can win third down on both sides of the ball, you give yourself a great chance at coming away with a W. With that in mind, let’s dive into the offensive film and see what Carson Wentz and company did on the "money down" in this matchup.
Success on third down takes a full team effort. Make no bones about it. A great quarterback, alone, can’t do it himself. Neither can a great coach, a great receiver, running back, or group of offensive linemen. What you’ll often see with the teams that are great in any form of situational football is that it requires a blend of all the above. Sometimes, your coach dials up a beautiful concept with a perfect play call against the opposing coverage. Other times, your receiver makes an outstanding catch, or there’s a huge block, or the quarterback just steps up and makes a big-time play. For the Eagles on Sunday, we saw instances of it all. The opening example is DeSean Jackson’s first touchdown since his return to Philadelphia, a 51-yard strike from Wentz.
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The Eagles come out in a 3x1 set on third-and-10, with Zach Ertz lined up as the lone receiver to one side. Alshon Jeffery, Jackson, and Nelson Agholor aligned to the other. Before the snap, Wentz reads two-high coverage from the Redskins. Both safeties are lined up about 13 yards off the ball just outside the hashes. That alignment tells Wentz that this could be a form of Cover 2 or Cover 4.
The play call for the Eagles is the Dagger concept with Jackson running deep down the field as a clear-out route for Jeffery’s deep in-cut. It should work perfect for this coverage call. In theory, Jackson removes the safeties, and the middle of the field is open for Wentz to hit Jeffery for a big gain and a first down beyond the sticks. This is a staple of the Eagles' offense.
When the ball is snapped though, things change. Both safeties step up toward the line of scrimmage, while middle linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton sprints to the post. Hamilton will be the de facto free safety on this play, a disguised version of Cover 3. The corner over Jackson, Josh Norman, is playing with outside leverage, funneling Jackson inside to his "help," and Jackson just flies by. By this point, though, the ball is already out. Wentz recognized the safeties stepping up, and immediately his progression changes. Instead of getting this ball to Alshon, he pulls the trigger on the throw over the top, dropping the ball in a bucket on the run to D-Jax for a huge play and a touchdown.
This was a great play call on third-and-long, but an even better job of both Wentz (for recognizing the coverage and delivering the ball in stride) and Jackson (who ran his route all the way through, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen teams run this play where the receiver doesn’t sell the clear out and isn’t available in case the quarterback wants to make this throw).
Just an awesome touchdown to kick the season off for the Eagles.
Jackson’s second score also came as a result of Wentz reading the coverage, except this one came pre-snap. Early in the play, Wentz goes to the line of scrimmage and changes the call for the Eagles after seeing Washington line up. What he sees, I can’t say for sure. Could it be personnel-related? Or is it something schematically that they saw where they could have an advantage down the field?
I believe that Wentz got a clue that the Redskins would be playing a form of zone coverage. How? Look at how the Eagles distributed their passing targets on this play. It’s another 3x1 set and Ertz is again the single receiver to one side. Jeffery is lined up outside the numbers to the right, with Jackson and Agholor lined up inside him. Washington lines up with a cornerback over Jeffery, which makes sense. Same with Jackson. But what about the third corner in this nickel package? Is he over Agholor? No. He’s over Ertz. The closest defender to Agholor is a linebacker. That gives Wentz the information that it’s a zone look.
The Eagles respond to this coverage by sending two vertical routes right at the safety to the field, Montae Nicholson. Agholor runs the deep over, and Jackson runs the go route. Nicholson can NOT defend both. Both receivers are open here, but when the safety plays Agholor, the receiver crossing his face, Wentz unloads this throw downfield for a 53-yard touchdown on another third-and-10 conversion.
Jackson led the Eagles with six catches on third down, five of which moved the chains for first downs. Two of those catches we’ve already seen, as they were those big-play touchdowns. Here are the other three conversions.
The Redskins paid a lot of respect to Jackson’s speed throughout the game, lining corners up well off the line of scrimmage, for fear of him just running by them. The Eagles know this, and they called a couple of concepts that took advantage of exactly that, whether it was quick game throws where he sold speed like he was running vertically or just took free access that got him into the second level of the defense. Jackson’s impact was felt in this game, and it was great to see him back in midnight green.
Now let’s get to Jeffery’s touchdown catch, which also happened to come on third down.
On this play, the Eagles come out in 12 personnel with one back (Miles Sanders) and two tight ends (Ertz and Dallas Goedert). Again, Ertz is the lone receiver to the back side. This time, the three receivers opposite formulate a bunch set, with Jeffery as the point man at the top, Goedert flanking him on his right, and Jackson on his left.
Before the snap, Washington is struggling to get lined up to the bunch. They’re in their nickel package, with five DBs on the field, but they recently had to sub in young corner Greg Stroman for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie due to injury. Landon Collins is trying to get Stroman to line up in man coverage, presumably against Jeffery, but I don’t believe it would have mattered in the grand scheme of things.
Washington had a "banjo" call in place, meaning that whichever receiver ran inside, the linebacker would pick up. Whichever receiver ran outside, the DB would take. So regardless of who had Jeffery before the snap, it was the linebacker in the middle of the field who ended up with him late in the down after Jeffery and Goedert executed a "switch" release.
Wentz took the snap and looked right, where Washington had a bracket called on Ertz, effectively double-teaming him and removing him from the progression. Wentz looks to work back side, where the ball likely would have gone to a wide open Goedert. Pressure from Ryan Kerrigan removes that option, however, as Wentz is forced to break the pocket and roll to his right, where he sees Jeffery matched up on the linebacker in the back of the end zone. Wentz threads the needle with a picture-perfect pass and a touchdown to give the Eagles another third-down conversion for a score.
On that play, we saw Wentz break the pocket and create outside of structure, and that’s a big part of winning on third down. It’s not always going to be pretty and clean, and you need your quarterback to step up and make something out of nothing when the going gets tough. That was something that’s always been a strength of his, and it showed up multiple times on Sunday against Washington.
On these two completions to Ertz and Jeffery, Wentz broke the pocket and made plays outside the original design. The best part? He’s not running from the pocket JUST to run, instead he’s running from the pocket with intent to throw. Wentz has always played that way, but young quarterbacks often don’t, and it’s great to see that it’s still his mindset.
Successful third-down football on offense requires a full team effort. Perfect play calls are great to have, but it’s hard to pull off consistently. In fact, sometimes the best plays are the ones you DON’T make.
On the first play, a well-designed concept gets the Eagles just the amount of yardage they need to move the chains on third-and-1, a rub concept to Ertz in the flat. You have all the eye candy in the backfield, a well-executed rub from Agholor in the slot, and Wentz puts this ball on-target and on time to pick up the first down. That ball needs to be there and on that exact spot for the play to work like that. Wentz and Ertz were on the same page there.
Later, Wentz checks the ball down in the red zone where he simply just takes what the defense gives him. Rather than force this ball into Ertz or Goedert in the red zone, he throws the ball to Darren Sproles in the flat and lets him go make a play. The Eagles don’t convert, but they kick a chip-shot field goal and extend their lead.
Third down was huge for the Eagles in this game, there’s no doubt, but perhaps the biggest play of the game that not enough people are talking about is the fourth-down conversion in the third quarter. Inside their own end of the field, Doug Pederson made the decision to go for it on fourth-and-1. The play call? A QB sneak.
The hero on this fourth-down conversion? Isaac Seumalo. Look at the job he does of attacking the star nose tackle for Washington, Daron Payne. He makes contact with outstanding pad level, runs his feet, and drives the former first-round pick backwards to help create a crease for Wentz to fall into to pick up the first down. The Eagles converted a couple of these plays in the game, as they’re really hard to stop, but on this one in particular it was Seumalo’s block that helped make the difference.
Third down is an extremely important part of the game on both sides of the ball, and if the Eagles can continue to be as efficient throughout the season as they were on Sunday, it will go a long way toward their success.
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.