Losses like the one against Detroit on Sunday are always tough to swallow. Everyone will point to the turnovers on the final two possessions. They were the biggest plays that changed the game, but there are always moments you can take away from every game as "What If" moments. It's inevitable. Still, there was plenty of good to go with the bad, and we'll cover some of both in this piece.
First off, we saw some added wrinkles in the run game from the Eagles' offense. Head coach Doug Pederson comes from an offense in Kansas City that had multiple layers to its rushing attack, and it certainly looks like that will carry over to this team. As the scheme continues to evolve, I expect to see a lot more of some of the things we saw against Detroit. Sure, we saw the jet sweep, and even some trap plays from the Eagles' offense (make sure you watch the Eagle Eye video segment on Wednesday for more on why those two plays were so interesting), but the impact of Carson Wentz's legs on the run game is what really intrigued me from Sunday's game.
It's second-and-5 in the second quarter. Wentz lines up in the shotgun with Darren Sproles to his right and Josh Huff to his left. Before the snap, Wentz sends Huff to the right for a possible bubble screen. This is a classic "Run Pass Option" play from the Eagles' coaching staff, where the play could go any one of three ways. Wentz could hand it off to Sproles, throw it to Huff on the screen pass or keep the ball himself and run with it.
The safety designated to cover Huff in the backfield, Rafael Bush, travels with Huff across the formation, removing him from the point of attack. Wentz takes the snap and reads the defensive end, who does not initially crash down on Sproles. Wentz hands this ball off, and Sproles has a wide lane to take this run for a 14-yard gain. Wentz carries out this fake very well (which is extremely important, I'll get to why shortly). With Bush removed from the point of attack, Allen Barbre is able to focus his attention on dime safety Miles Killebrew (No. 35), and he erases the rookie from the play. Sproles cuts back off Barbre's block and takes off for a first down and a big run, a play that started with a pair of great double teams at the point of attack on the offensive line.
On the very next play, the Eagles use a similar look. There is a bubble screen at the top, this time to Nelson Agholor. Wentz reads the defenders on the other side with Sproles in the backfield. This time, Wentz appears to be reading the cornerback on the outside instead of the defensive end. The corner's eyes are squarely on Sproles, and Wentz trusts his athleticism to get to the corner for a first down.
On the previous play, I pointed out how well Wentz carried out his fake on the Sproles run. What I mean by "carry out the fake" is that Wentz's motion should look exactly the same with or without the ball. When you watch him keep this for a first down, his first few steps look identical to the previous play when he didn't have the ball. It's very easy for a quarterback to be lazy with his fakes, not just on these read plays, but also on normal handoffs under center or boot-action plays. Those little movements, however, may help hold a defender for a split second longer to help give ball carriers more time to make a play.
Wentz's athleticism is something that can certainly be a factor in this offense moving forward. Do you want him carrying the ball as often as Cam Newton? Probably not, but his athleticism is certainly just another layer that you can add this scheme on the ground to keep defenders on their toes and give coaches just another element to game plan for on a weekly basis. You saw the effect that these fakes from Wentz can have on defenders in the fourth quarter as the Eagles were down and trying to retake the lead.
Shot 3 - Impact of QB run threat, you can get 2nd level defenders to hesitate for a tick. Split Zone Read play from #Eagles. LB/S both hold pic.twitter.com/XiD9URBgDF — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 10, 2016
It's third-and-2, and the Eagles run a split zone read play here with Zach Ertz coming across the formation to block a defensive end. Wentz once again appears to be reading a defensive back outside the hashes, but this time he hands the ball off to Sproles for a first down. Watch the linebacker who hesitates at the second level. He may be reacting to Ertz's action coming across the formation, or to Wentz carrying out his fake. Either way, it's little things like this from Wentz that will stick with defenders throughout the game if he's able to get things going as a runner. Here it helps create more room for his teammate to work out of the backfield. Props to Barbre as well for a great block that he's able to finish in the dirt.
This was the first game where the Eagles had all three of their tight ends (Ertz, Brent Celek and Trey Burton) at their disposal, and they were very multiple in the ways they used them. There was at least one rep of an empty set out of "13 personnel" with all three tight ends on the field, and lots of examples of moving Ertz, Burton and Celek all around the formation. Many expected the tight ends to be a big part in the game from a receiving standpoint. There were times where they were open, but pressure forced Wentz to go elsewhere. I loved seeing the various ways the tight ends were used formationally in the structure of the scheme. The Eagles' first touchdown was a good example of that.
Shot 4 - They didn't put up huge numbers, but I loved the multiple ways the #Eagles used 3 TEs yesterday. Different looks/formations all day pic.twitter.com/dXEEd5abym — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 10, 2016
It's first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, and there is "14 personnel" on the field with all three tight ends as well as offensive lineman Matt Tobin reporting as eligible. Burton lines up in the backfield directly behind Ertz, and Mathews lines up off-set to the right. This is a simple flat-seven concept with one receiver in the flat (Mathews) and one receiver running a seven or corner route (Ertz). This is a simple throw and catch for Wentz for his first touchdown in the game, on a drive that relied largely on the run game.
Before I transition to the passing game, I loved Pederson's commitment to the rushing attack, even with the team down early in the game. Pederson spoke a couple of weeks ago on Eagles Game Plan about how important it is to him to stick with the run game regardless of the score to help get everyone in a rhythm, and he stayed true to his word against the Lions.
Now to Wentz and the passing attack.
The rookie showed flashes of brilliance in the game against Detroit. I think it was another strong outing overall even though his ball placement was not perfect throughout the afternoon and he had his first turnover as a pro quarterback. The first big-time throw from Wentz came in the second quarter on the team's third series of the game. After a, ahem, questionable flag was thrown on Darren Sproles for a "chop block," the Eagles faced second-and-25 and, already down by 14, didn't want to give the Lions the ball back with time to score and good field position.
Wentz takes the snap, drops back and slides to his right with slight pressure coming from up the middle. His primary read on the play, Nelson Agholor on a deep curl route, is taken away, so the scramble drill is in effect. Wentz rolls to his right, directs Matthews up the sideline and fires a laser to the back shoulder of his favorite target for a first down. Matthews makes a great catch, pirouetting past the first-down marker. After a strange few minutes of real time as officials reviewed the play, the Eagles were given a first down past midfield. It was a remarkable throw by the rookie quarterback on the run.
That play featured a great pass and a great catch on the back end. One of the things that can really help a quarterback is a receiver who can go up and attack the football, and that has been inconsistent through the first month of the season. We've seen receivers go up and make great plays on the ball, and then other times we've seen that not be the case.
On this third-quarter throw to Agholor, we see the former. This ball is going to him the entire way. It's second-and-4, and Agholor gets separation on his crossing route as he runs into a wide open void across the field. If Wentz lays this ball out in front of Agholor, the former first-round pick can take this in stride and keep going for more yardage. The pass is thrown high and behind Agholor, however, but the second-year man goes up and makes a great contested catch for a first down.
After the Pittsburgh game, I highlighted how successful the Eagles were in yards-after-catch situations. That continued on Sunday against the Lions.
It's third down and the Eagles have Dorial Green-Beckham running a shallow cross short of the sticks. Wentz hits him and you can see how big of an issue the former second-round pick can be in the open field. He stiff-arms a linebacker here and nearly reaches the end zone before going out of bounds inside the 5-yard line.
Here's Green-Beckham again, this time on a screen pass. The Lions have two defenders out over Agholor and DGB on this play, meaning Agholor is responsible for blocking one and Green-Beckham is responsible for making the other man miss. He does that on his way to a near-first down.
One of the plays that has really turned into a staple for this Eagles offense is a route combination that I've always called the dagger concept. In its most basic form, the dagger combination includes a clear out route from a slot receiver to create space in the middle of the field and then a deep dig route from the No. 1 receiver outside. This play concept has been key on big throws to Agholor, Green-Beckham, and other Eagles receivers. On Sunday, it was Jordan Matthews on the receiving end.
Shot 9 - Pure gold from Wentz. Dagger concept; it's going to J-Matt on Dig route the whole way. QB stares MOF, hits throw in closing window pic.twitter.com/AywSIjrJns — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 10, 2016
What I love about this play from Wentz is his eyes. This play calls for the ball to go to Matthews. That's exactly how it's drawn up. Against Tampa 2 coverage though, there are times when the middle linebacker in the middle of the field can make a play on the ball if the quarterback telegraphs it. Luke Kuechly did this against the Cowboys last year. Here, Wentz keeps his eyes on Burton in the middle of the field in an attempt to keep that from happening. This window is closing against zone coverage with three defenders in the area, but he cuts it loose for a first down. Just a really, really impressive throw from the rookie quarterback, who made a lot of impressive passes on Sunday with the Eagles behind. That being said, I think this next throw was my favorite of the day.
Shot 10 - Maybe my favorite throw from Wentz. 3rd & 6; up by 2; 4 mins left. Need a first down. Strike from far hash on an out route. Whew. pic.twitter.com/A4myCDzb9W — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 10, 2016
It's third-and-6 and the Eagles are up by two points with four minutes left. Pederson puts the ball in Wentz's hands and trusts him to make a play, and the rookie comes through. He delivers a strike here to Matthews on an out route from the far hash, putting it low and away where only his receiver can get it for a first down in bounds. This was a remarkable pass from Wentz, and a play we'd all be talking about very differently if the Eagles were able to hold on for the win. Three plays later, however ...
Shot 11 - Great read by #Lions S Wilson to help keep Darius Slay free on fumble. Slay takes 2 blocks on Sweep play. Game-changer. #Eagles pic.twitter.com/fcnp9wvpVT — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 10, 2016
So let's break this play down. We know Mathews needs to hold on to the football. As the saying goes, "You know it, I know it, everyone knows it." He's holding the ball in his left hand, so he's unable to stiff-arm cornerback Darius Slay, who comes in for a beautiful form tackle, getting his helmet on the ball and knocking it free. But let's get past that and look at exactly how Slay came in free.
This is a sweep play by the Eagles. It's a concept that they've run a good amount of this year, but they didn't run it at all on Sunday before this play. It makes a lot of sense to give this to Mathews in this situation because he ran very hard on Sunday, has the speed to get to the corner and the Lions had sold out in the middle of the defense on the previous play, so hitting them on the perimeter was a good way to change it up.
You've got "pin" blocks from Celek and Matthews, and a puller in tackle Lane Johnson. Defensively, this play is made by safety Tavon Wilson, who the Lions sorely missed in the secondary the last couple of weeks. Wilson comes downhill and beats a block by Matthews, then flashes in front of Johnson, who is forced to block him. Since Johnson is forced to block Wilson, he is unable to block Slay, who makes the play. A great play by Wilson, a great play by Slay and the ball hits the ground where it looks like it may have hit Jason Kelce as he laid out of bounds. Unfortunately, the call stood, and the Lions were able to hit the go-ahead field goal on the ensuing drive. The Eagles get the ball back with about 90 seconds left and no timeouts, which leads to the final play.
Shot 12 - Final play. 'Levels'-type concept underneath. 'Robbing' safety rolls down into the concept so Wentz goes deep. Great play by Slay. pic.twitter.com/k0MQwxTukw — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 10, 2016
So here is what this play looks like based off the explanations we've gotten from both Wentz and Pederson. You've got a three-man concept underneath in the middle of the field between Matthews and Ertz, and Sproles out of the backfield (a play that people in the West Coast offense world call drive). Matthews is lined up as the No. 2 receiver, and he's running a shallow crossing route. Ertz is lined up as the No. 3, and he is running a dig over the middle. Sproles runs to the flat to the opposite side. Typically, teams have the quarterback work from Matthews' route to Ertz's route in the progression then work to the running back. The two vertical routes on this play are what you'd call "alerts," pre-snap reads for the quarterback if he sees something defensively that would open up those throws.
What Wentz sees is a coverage called Cover 1 Robber, where the Lions start with two safeties deep and then rotate at the snap of the ball, with one safety going into the deep middle and another rolling down into the intermediate area "robbing" any routes in that part of the field. With Matthews well short of the sticks for a first down (especially with the safety rolling that way) and the "robbing safety clearly taking away Ertz (who doesn't get a good release thanks to a disruptive jam from Wilson), Wentz chooses to go deep to Agholor. He gets pressure, avoids it and steps up into the pocket to deliver this ball downfield. Ideally, this throw is probably out in front of the receiver between the hashes. Wentz admitted after the game that it was a bit underthrown and put too far outside, making it a tough grab for Agholor. The ball is up, Agholor is unable to make a play on it or get it on the ground for an incompletion, and the game is over.
With 90 seconds on the clock and the Eagles only needing a field goal, could Wentz have just played it safe and just given it to Matthews for a quick catch and run? Probably. But this is also the kind of throw that gives him the reputation as a "gunslinger" at quarterback. If he completes this pass for a touchdown or at least to set up a field goal, I'd probably have driven past a statue with the number 11 carved into it on Pattison Avenue on my way into the office. This was a good learning experience for a young quarterback, and I'm excited to see his reaction the next time he's put into a similar situation.
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.