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With the second tough loss in as many weeks, everyone is looking for answers when it comes to the Eagles' offense. Just look at the transcripts of Doug Pederson's press conferences to see the questions.
What's going on in protection?
What's with the run-pass ratio?
Is Carson Wentz holding on to the ball too long?
Are receivers getting open?
What's happening on third down?
What's happening on first down?
Is this a Super Bowl hangover?
These are all the things being asked of the head coach after a 2-3 start. Those questions continued Monday morning, and I thought Pederson answered the same question in multiple ways. The reply is simple – there is no black-and-white solution. When you look at the Eagles' issues offensively, there is a litany of problems from drive to drive. They're all small, correctable issues, but there are problems nonetheless.
Let's look at five drives from Sunday's loss, review what went right and what went wrong. First, let me make this clear, this offense is NOT broken. We're seeing them do things they did a year ago, both schematically and philosophically. What we are not seeing is them finish drives in the red zone, and there is not enough consistency across the board on the details at every position.
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This is the third drive of the game. The Eagles got the ball early in the second quarter down 3-0, and Doug Pederson wanted to be aggressive out of the gate, calling a shot play to attack downfield. This is a Yankee concept, with Shelton Gibson running a deep corner route, Alshon Jeffery an over route from the opposite side, and Jay Ajayi in the flats. This three-level stretch concept is typically meant to hit the intermediate route, in this case Jeffery, but Wentz reads the depth of the safety and decides to pull the trigger downfield. He gives Gibson the ability to go up and make a play on the ball one-on-one, and the second-year receiver comes through for a big play. Just like that, the Eagles are in the red zone.
On first-and-10, Pederson calls a run play for Ajayi, which goes for 2 yards. On second-and-8, the team goes into an empty set. This "hitch-seam" concept gives Wentz options across the field. Pick the side with the most favorable matchup, and either throw the seam or get to the middle of the field, where rookie tight end Dallas Goedert has to win one-on-one against a linebacker in space. Goedert does that and picks up 5 yards. The offense is "on schedule" with a third-and-3.
The Eagles again motion into an empty set and this time, and Minnesota is confused. As the Vikings try to get lined up, Wentz takes the snap and looks to take advantage of the chaos in the secondary with a quick pop pass to Wendell Smallwood outside the numbers. This may not have been a touchdown throw, but it was a definite first down which would have given the Eagles the ball inside the 10-yard line. Smallwood lets the ball through his grasp, and the Eagles settle for three points instead of a potential touchdown.
This isn't meant to rip Smallwood – who has run really, really hard the last couple of weeks – but these are the kinds of plays the Eagles made last year. If they're going to rebound this fall, they're going to need to make these kinds of plays again. This is the kind of third down you expect to convert as an offense, and the Eagles couldn't come through, which especially hurts because it occurred in the low red zone.
On the next possession, the Eagles get the ball with under seven minutes left in the half and the game tied 3-3. Again, the offense gets things going quickly, completing a pass to Nelson Agholor on the left side. This was a good route from Agholor, and the timing was on point for a first down. On the next play, Wentz hits Ajayi for 5 yards on a checkdown, and the Eagles get second-and-5.
Pederson calls a toss run to the right, and Ajayi guts out a first down on the perimeter. Notice the great block from Jason Kelce here as well, as he gets a safety in the box to help spring Ajayi. On the next play, Wentz hits Goedert for 11 yards and another first down. That's three first downs on four plays. The offense is rolling.
Then disaster strikes.
The Eagles are hoping that Wentz can hit Ertz on the left side, as the tight end wins his one-on-one matchup, but the ball never makes it out. From the end zone angle, we can see the protection. This is a basic "Jet" protection – a three-man slide with the center, Kelce, guard Brandon Brooks, tackle Lane Johnson all moving to the right. They are all responsible for their outside gaps, at last when you draw it up on the whiteboard. Johnson oversets, meaning he gets too wide with his first step, opening up space in the B Gap for an inside counter move from defensive end Stephen Weatherly. Now, in theory, Brooks is there to help Johnson, but he's occupied by defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. Brooks can't help, so this is on Lane to make sure the B gap is closed.
He has to plant his right foot and "power step" inside, redirecting the rush and riding him out of harm's way. Lane plants the right foot, but watch his left foot, as his hips swing open and it lands too deep in the backfield. This is what is called "opening the gate," as the door is now open for Weatherly to get inside and get to Wentz as he cocks back to throw. The ball is tipped up, Linval Joseph snatches it, and takes off down the sideline for a game-changing touchdown to put the Vikings up 10-3. This started as a very promising drive with the Eagles in scoring range, and it instead resulted in a major swing the other way.
The Eagles get the ball back down 10-3 with just over four minutes left in the second quarter, and this one was a doozy. On first down, Pederson calls for a similar three-level stretch concept that hit for a big play to Gibson earlier. It wasn't the same play, but it's a similar concept. This time, the Eagles keep both tight ends in to protect. This seven-man protection means that if the three-level stretch concept is covered, Wentz has nowhere to go with the football. He recognizes quickly that his options are taken away and he decides to tuck and run for 8 yards. This is a heads-up play by Wentz, resulting in a win for the offense.
Second-and-2 quickly turns to second-and-7 after a false start by Jason Peters. The Eagles come out on that play with an empty set and are surprised by a crafty Vikings blitz that gets Harrison Smith a free run at Wentz. The Eagles don't have enough blockers to get everyone picked up. Minnesota dropped linebacker Eric Kendricks right into the throwing lane of the hot route. Wentz breaks the pocket to his right, throwing a prayer up to Jeffery that falls incomplete. That brings up third-and-7.
Well ... third-and-7 becomes third-and-12 because of a false start penalty – it was called on Ertz but really could have been called on several offensive players, something seemed wrong with the snap count. On third-and-12, the Eagles call a staple pass concept in their playbook, "Dagger." The Dagger concept is simple. Stretch the safety with a vertical route inside (Jordan Matthews), and run a dig route (Jeffery) behind it into the void in the coverage.
Typically, there is some kind of "flat control" underneath to hold the zone defenders in the short part of the field so they don't drop back into the passing lane. That's significantly harder to do when it's third-and-12. Wentz drops back, gets pressured off both edges, breaks the pocket, and wings in a nice looking throw right up the chute but it falls incomplete. Could the ball have been caught? We've seen Jeffery make those kinds of catches, sure, but that would have been a remarkable grab. Should the protection have been better? Definitely. But on third-and-12, the defensive line is just teeing off against the pass. This one is on the entire unit for getting behind the sticks continually. The Eagles punt it away.
The third quarter is set to begin, and the Eagles have called just six run plays in the first half. That's the fewest amount of runs from this team since Pederson became the head coach in 2016. The previous low (eight in the first half), was set last week in Tennessee. Pederson absolutely knows he needs to run the ball more; he has said as much. He has also proven to be a coach who understands the value of an effective running game. Look at the circumstances the last couple of weeks.
In both games, Pederson went in with just Ajayi (nursing a significant back injury), Smallwood, and undrafted rookie Josh Adams. Corey Clement (quad) and Darren Sproles (hamstring) were both injured and unavailable to take carries. They've had some negative runs in key spots. They've gotten behind a bit. Some of those runs are also RPOs – Pederson noted this in his Monday press conference – where Wentz decided to throw instead of hand the ball off. A lot of people want to see more running, and that's fair, but I think it's fair to see the other side of it as well. With Ajayi out for the rest of the season, the Eagles will have to get even more creative in the run game to churn out yards on the ground.
So with just six runs in the first half, the Eagles call six runs on the opening drive of the second half. Ajayi gained 7 yards on first down but lost 4 on second down. That brought up a third-and-7 play that the Eagles were able to pick up thanks to Smallwood in the passing game. The Vikings lined up in their Double A-gap pressure look, and Smallwood is responsible for linebacker Anthony Barr in protection. If Barr rushes inside, Smallwood has to block him. Barr drops in coverage though and Smallwood slips out of the backfield. Wentz deftly hits him for a first down to move the sticks.
The Eagles respond with another run play, this time to Smallwood right between the tackles out of a Split Zone concept. I highlighted the block from Goedert above because he once again stood out at the point of attack on Sunday, both in the run game and the pass game. Smallwood does a nice job staying square here and picks up 13 yards. Ajayi goes for 9 yards after that to bring up second-and-1. An illegal formation penalty sets the offense back 5 yards, but Nelson Agholor gets them right back to bring up third-and-1.
This is a critical play because the Eagles have momentum at this point. Points are great, but you don't want to settle for a field goal. Wentz fakes the handoff, rolls to his right, and hits a leaking Ertz to that side on a play-action pass underneath for 8 yards and a first down. This was a creative play, especially with how much Split Zone the Eagles had run to that point both in the game and on this particular drive. Ajayi takes the handoff on the next play, and a Minnesota penalty puts the ball on the 6-yard line. The Eagles are cooking. It's time to finish off this drive with a touchdown.
Or so we all thought.
Ajayi takes the handoff here, stutters in the hole, and loses control of the football. The Vikings get the ball and the momentum, as they go down the field and get a field goal of their own. Instead of 17-10 Vikings, it's now 20-3. These are the kinds of things that can turn a game around.
This series in the fourth quarter was arguably the most critical, however. The defense gets a turnover after a backwards pass falls incomplete and Nigel Bradham jumps on the live ball. The Eagles have first-and-10 at the Minnesota 30-yard line. An illegal formation penalty bumps them back immediately to the 35-yard line for a first-and-15 snap. On the first play, a slot fade pass to Jeffery falls incomplete.
That brings up second-and-15. Minnesota jumps offsides, which makes it second-and-10. Wentz drops back and he gets rushed from both edges, as Jason Peters and Johnson both allow pressure. Wentz knows he can't afford to take a sack here to take the team out of field goal range. He steps up and tries to throw a pass with his left hand, just to get the ball out and force an incompletion so they can stay at the 35. The ball falls short, the flags come out, and he's called for intentional grounding (which was worse than taking the sack because of the loss of down).
The penalty brings up third-and-20. The Eagles expect Minnesota to drop back in Tampa 2, and they get exactly that. The pass concept features two routes directly down the seam. Wentz unleashes a beautiful throw down the right hash to Jeffery, right at the sticks. This was a laser right on the money to his star receiver, who gets throttled by Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith. Smith was able to sit back as a two-high safety and just read the play in front of him. If the Eagles were in third-and-8 instead of third-and-20, he likely does not have that luxury. The ball drops incomplete and the Eagles are forced to punt.
Was it all bad for the Eagles offense? Of course not. We covered the bright spots in this week's All-22 Review.
But this was a game that was there for the taking. There were just too many mistakes across the board, and the Eagles have a losing record for the first time since December 2016. I can't wait to see how they respond on Thursday night.
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.