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Eagle Eye: Plain And Simple, Offense Didn't Win On First Down

Going through the film from the heartbreaking loss against Tennessee, there are a handful of plays on both sides of the ball that clearly affected the outcome of the game. Let’s focus on the offense here and see what went right and what went wrong in the loss. 

The Eagles were one of the best third-down teams in football in 2017. Right now, they rank 17th in the league, but on Sunday, they were just 5-of-15 on the day. Wentz completed just 4 of 11 passes, was sacked once, and posted a quarterback rating of 89.2. Why were the numbers so bad? Look at this stat. 

On 15 third-down snaps on Sunday, the Eagles needed to gain an average of 9.67 yards for a first down. That means they were looking at third-and-10. That’s not a winning formula, and it certainly impacted the Eagles in this game. 

So how do you get to that point? As Doug Pederson alluded to on Monday, the issues can be pointed to a variety of causes. There were negative run plays on early downs, missed shot plays down the field, penalties, and busted protections. Those plays stalled drives in the red zone, and kept the Eagles from staying on schedule for long drives. 

If you look at the raw numbers on first down, they can be a bit deceiving. Carson Wentz completed 17 of 22 passes (77 percent) for 180 yards on first down. The offense as a whole averaged 4.92 yards per carry. At face value, those seem like pretty good numbers! Chart all 36 first-down snaps, however, and you see what went wrong. 

The Eagles ran 36 plays on first down against the Titans. Seventeen of them, or nearly half, went for 2 yards or fewer. In those 17 plays, there were two sacks on play-action shot plays, five busted screen plays (the Eagles' longest screen went for 6 yards on Sunday), one holding penalty on a long run, and three incompletions on catchable balls. If even two of those plays go the other way for this team, this game ends differently for the Eagles.

Pederson said after the game that he wanted to be aggressive against this Tennessee defense, and he indeed was. The Eagles called four "shot" plays on first down, looking to attack downfield. Only two of those passes got off, however. The first one fell incomplete on a perfectly thrown ball from Carson Wentz to Nelson Agholor. Two more resulted in sacks (one of which you have to tip your hat to the defense on a great blitz call off the short side), and the fourth went for a touchdown.

I’m glad that Pederson wanted to be aggressive. The Eagles hadn’t been pushing the ball downfield with the same regularity that they were in 2017. They were on the road against an aggressive defense. Their quarterback was dealing (Wentz looked fantastic), they got another weapon back in Alshon Jeffery, and they were missing pieces in the backfield (Corey Clement and Darren Sproles were inactive while Jay Ajayi was battling through a back injury). It made sense to be aggressive. It just came with mixed results on Sunday.

The screen game was also an issue for this team against the Titans. In last week’s preview, I detailed how active and aggressive their defense was against the screen, but against that style of team you want to try them out and see how they go (especially when you feel confident in your ability to execute in that area offensively). Needless to say, the screen game did not go well for the Eagles in this game.

The Eagles ran five screens on first down against the Titans that went for 2 yards or fewer. The most critical one was the 7-yard loss by Agholor on the fumble in the red zone (which happened because a blitzer interfered with Ertz as he released to block the safety). The Eagles just could not get going on first down. They ran three screen plays on second down as well, and two of them went for a loss as well (the longest went for 15 yards to Jeffery in the fourth quarter). The lack of effectiveness in this area was a big reason why they were behind the sticks often in this game, but it wasn’t the only one.

Busted protections were also an issue for the Eagles, and it wasn’t just a first-down issue, but it’s certainly something that needs to be cleaned up. Here’s a two-play sequence that stood out to me from the game. 

On the first snap, it certainly seems that Wendell Smallwood busted the protection with safety Kenny Vaccaro coming off the edge. On the next play, a snap where many people are blaming Smallwood for the sack, I don’t think it’s the running back’s fault. I’m going to tip the cap to Tennessee for a great defensive call to break down the protection scheme. Jason Kelce and Stefen Wisniewski are sliding to the left, and what’s the number one thing that can disrupt zone blocking

Slants.

The defensive line slants inside, and responsibilities are muddied up. Smallwood tries to help out Kelce on the back side, and a rusher comes in clean to sack Wentz. I know it was easy to blame Smallwood there, the body language wasn’t great, but I think the protection just got beaten by the pressure scheme on that snap. Regardless, it sets the Eagles too far behind the sticks, and they’re forced to punt. 

When you don't win on first and second down, you put yourself in poor positions on third down. The Eagles’ average third-down snap required them to go 10 yards. Here’s what happens when you are in those situations.

I wrote last week about Tennessee’s various pressure schemes. The Titans present offensive lines with a difficult challenge each week. It’s one thing to deal with it on third-and-short, but when it’s a well-defined passing down? That’s bad news with guys like Harold Landry who can just pin their ears back and go. The sack that Lane Johnson gave up against Landry wasn’t awful. Johnson wasn’t late off the ball. He wasn’t bad with his feet or terrible with his hands. Landry just won upfield with his first step and blew by him (side note – he should NOT have been a second-round pick in the draft this spring).

Watching this game and getting to overtime, that final drive was almost a microcosm of the Eagles' entire day on offense.

The Eagles moved the ball, they picked up big chunks of yardage in a hurry, and didn’t even see a third down until the final play in the red zone. But they had one negative play when they initially got inside the 20-yard line, and things stalled, resulting in them settling for a field goal instead of a touchdown to win the game.

The Eagles have to get better at situational football if they’re going to improve on offense. The NFL game is fast, and things get faster in those circumstances. If you don’t execute there, it makes it tough to win. The Eagles still almost won despite being less than efficient in both phases of the game against the Titans. 

Two guys who really stood out to me on Sunday were Jeffery and Zach Ertz. The tight end was extremely effective between the numbers, and Pederson and his staff did a great job of scheming him open underneath against zone coverage. Jeffrey, on the other hand, was outstanding winning one-on-one battles, using both his technique as a route runner and his raw play strength to beat defenders outside the numbers for big conversions.

Wentz was outstanding in this game. Ajayi ran the ball hard, as did Smallwood. Ertz and Jeffrey were outstanding. Agholor didn’t have his best game, but we know what he can do in this offense. The Eagles have some things to clean up, but this is far, far from a lost cause. This was an issue of dying from a thousand paper cuts. I fully expect them to clean things up moving forward through 2018.

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.

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