- Sure, the Eagles had offensive success last year, and a lot of that came on third down. How to improve? First and second down and consistency from start to finish. The pieces are in place.
Maybe we won't really notice the subtle changes in the X's and O's in the Eagles' offense this season, but then again maybe we will. Darren Sproles lined up in the backfield on one play and out wide on the next, which happened during Friday's Day 2 of Training Camp, 2018. Maybe we will take notice of the number of tight ends on the field at the same time, or the way Nelson Agholor is split away from the formation, or which weakness in a defense the Eagles will attack.
As good as the Eagles were offensively in 2017 – they led the NFL in scoring and in red zone percentage and in first downs at the time quarterback Carson Wentz was injured on December 10 – the goal is to be even better in 2018. And as difficult as it is to believe that they could actually improve, well, they see all the misses from '17, not necessarily all the hits.
"We brought it and executed the way we wanted more often than not last year, no doubt about that," Pro Bowl right guard Brandon Brooks said, "but there were some games when we didn't get it done the way we wanted. So, there are a lot of things we can improve. At the same time, I feel really good about where we are and where we can be. You look at our offensive line, the way we played last season, and now we have JP (Jason Peters) back. I'm excited about that. Our receivers, our tight ends, the guys we have in the backfield, I think we're about as complete as you can be.
"And then you look at our quarterbacks and how can you not feel great about our situation there? We know we can go out there every week and have success. It's just a matter of doing it."
New offensive coordinator Mike Groh will have his input on the offense and whether he brings significant change remains to be seen. Groh has a veteran's perspective, a football lifer's creativity and the perfect disposition to partner with head coach Doug Pederson as they together design the offense. At the very least, they know they have a lot to work with, and they know that quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Nick Foles can handle anything thrown at them.
How can the Eagles get better?
They can certainly improve on first and second downs, and that is no doubt a goal of this Training Camp. Wentz was brilliant last season on third down, and per Pro Football Focus, Wentz led the NFL with a 127.0 passer rating on third-and-6 or longer. On third-and-7 or more, Wentz completed 44 of 71 passes for 727 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions, compiling a 117.5 passer rating. Twenty eight of the 44 completions gained first downs.
In every third-down situation, Wentz was great. On third and 4 yards and shorter, Wentz completed 20 of 24 passes for 186 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions for a 138.4 passer rating. Can the Eagles realistically rely on Wentz being so outstanding again on third down? Maybe, because he's a star quarterback and one of the best in the NFL, but they would rather not need Wentz so often to come up with something magical.
"I think we can execute in the early downs more consistently," Pro Bowl tight end Zach Ertz said. "You don't want to be in so many third-and-long situations. Fortunately, we found a way to keep drives going last season, but ideally you want to be in more third-and-short situations. I think we can improve there. We have balance. We can give defenses a lot of different looks, different personnel packages. We want to keep defenses off balance."
Having running back Jay Ajayi in the fold for an entire season should help. Ajayi, just two seasons ago, made the Pro Bowl as he rushed for 1,272 yards and in three different games gained more than 200 yards on the ground. He's an explosive running back who basically played blindfolded in the Eagles' offense last season. Now Ajayi, who has a terrifically close bond with running backs coach Duce Staley, understands the nuances of the scheme and how to exploit the gaps in defensive coverage. Ajayi is expected to be the lead running back, backed up by second-year man Corey Clement, who is in a much more advanced state than he was a year ago.
On paper, the Eagles are in an improved place in the backfield – LeGarrette Blount, Darren Sproles, and Wendell Smallwood formed the depth chart at this time last season – than they were a year ago. That's going to make a difference as Pederson and Groh try to ease some of the burden off of Wentz/Foles and the passing game.
"It all comes down to us doing our jobs," Agholor said. "I feel like we can dictate to defenses. If they focus on taking one part of our defense away, we can hurt them in other areas. We're just going to roll in packages and line up and see where we have the advantage, and then it's up to us to make the plays. I think it's exciting. We can get after you any way we want."
Yes, of course, the Eagles were great offensively last year and they were never better than in the NFC Championship Game win over Minnesota and the Super Bowl triumph over New England. Is it possible to go for 30 or more points every week? Possible or not, that's the goal. The Eagles have high expectations.
The highest expectations, in fact.
"We try to score a touchdown every time we have the football," Agholor said. "That's really the ultimate goal. Score every time we touch it."