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Thursday night just felt familiar, right?
It didn’t feel like the first five weeks of the season. It had the same kind of energy that the 2017 squad put on display on a near-weekly basis throughout the fall. The juice was palpable watching the game on television, and it carried onto the field to start the game. Doug Pederson stressed that he wanted his team to get back to starting fast, and the players responded. The special teams nearly forced a fumble on the opening kickoff, the defense picked off Eli Manning two plays later, and the offense reached the end zone three plays after that. It was a total team victory against the New York Giants, and a lot of the issues that plagued the Eagles up to this point in the season were not concerns on Thursday.
Let’s start on offense. Carson Wentz and company weren't perfect, but they executed at a high level in crucial situations, including on third down and in the red zone, something they hadn’t been able to do in the first five weeks. The group hadn’t scored more than 23 points in a game this season, and they surpassed that before halftime. So what led to the resurgence? The answer is simple – execution. It all started with Wentz, who was dealing on Thursday night.
ALL OF THE VIDEO CLIPS FEATURE AUDIO ANALYSIS FROM FRAN DUFFY
On both of these plays, Wentz and his two favorite wide receivers were on the same page. In the red zone on the third play of the game, the Eagles wanted to hit Alshon Jeffery on a "corner-post" route, but that was taken away by the Cover 2 safety. Wentz gets to his next progression but is forced from the pocket due to pressure. He wants to hit Wendell Smallwood in the flat, but he’s unable to get open, so the quarterback gets his eyes back to the middle of the field. This is not a throw a coach typically wants a quarterback to make – across his body, late, in the middle of the field, but Wentz has the arm talent and the willingness to make this throw completing the touchdown with impeccable timing and touch on the move outside the pocket to get the Eagles on the board.
Later, Wentz completes a long pass to Nelson Agholor on third down outside of structure. It’s third-and-3 and even though this is a vertical shot play; there is an underneath option available in the middle of the field to Zach Ertz. Wentz starts there, but the throw is taken away. He gets his eyes to Agholor as he rolls to his right, and the receiver comes through. Agholor senses that the timing of the play is off, and "Scramble Drill Rules" take into effect. Agholor is deep, but not enough to be out of Wentz’s range as a passer, so he breaks upfield. Wentz is completely in-sync with his target and unleashes this throw down the field for an explosive play to set up an Eagles touchdown. These third-down conversions were huge for the Eagles on Thursday night.
Yes, the Eagles' offensive line did give up some pressure in this game. Giants pass rusher Olivier Vernon made his return and he proved numerous times why he is one of the most underrated players in the game. Lane Johnson gave up some pressure at times while battling an ankle injury. But on third down? Wentz started the game 10-for-10 as a passer and didn't take a sack on third down. The Eagles executed at a high level on the most important down in football, and it’s a big reason why they had so much success on offense against the Giants.
Success on third down starts with first down, and one of the biggest themes that I took away from the game was what the Eagles did with their 12 (one back, two tight ends) personnel package against the Giants, especially on first down.
The Eagles had 33 first downs on Thursday night, and they lined up in 12 personnel on 11 of those plays. Doug Pederson mixed things up from a playcalling standpoint out of those sets, calling five runs and six passes. The Giants consistently decided to match up to this package in their nickel defense. Pederson was not afraid to run the football with an extra defensive back on the field. They averaged over 4 yards per carry.
Whether Wentz was finding mismatches with Dallas Goedert against linebackers or Pederson was using the tight end's ability as a blocker in the run game, the rookie was making his presence felt. This is nothing new, however, as Goedert has been consistently standing out over the last few weeks. I just haven’t found the space to praise him.
Goedert’s effectiveness in both of those areas and the effort he gives across the board have earned him more opportunities. He’ll continue to grow in this offense. I think he’s going to be a good player in this city for a long time.
The Eagles have also worked in a lot of 13 personnel (one back, three tight ends) sets this year, and they did so again on Thursday night. With Ertz, Goedert, and Josh Perkins on the field, teams have to decide how to counter. At one point in the third quarter, the Eagles went into hurry-up mode in 13 personnel, and it helped them drive the length of the field.
That well-orchestrated screen play worked so well because the Eagles had shown (A) that they were willing to run the football and (B) the Giants know how aggressive they are with shot plays down the field. With the run fake paired with the threat of a downfield throw, defenders were put on roller skates in space allowing the Eagles' offensive line to get out to the perimeter and escort Corey Clement down the sideline for a big play. The Eagles found themselves on the 1-yard line a couple of runs later out of 13 personnel.
The Eagles got into the end zone on this touchdown catch by Jeffery on a screen pass that is perfectly legal. People may be yelling that it's a "pick" play, but offensive pass interference can only be called if the blocking occurs more than 1 yard downfield. Once the ball is caught, they can block defenders, so as long as they are only 1 yard downfield. On the goal line, it’s very easy coaching those blockers up – just don’t go into the end zone until the ball is caught! The Eagles execute this perfectly, and after the game Jeffery told reporters that the team stole this play from New England. The play happened just last Thursday! That’s great gameplanning and execution from this Eagles coaching staff.
The Eagles' 13-personnel package resulted in a trip into the end zone in the second quarter as well, as the coaching staff found a way to get Ertz matched up one-on-one with aggressive cornerback Janoris Jenkins. A competitive cover corner who is known to jump routes, Ertz ran a perfect double move, a post-corner route for a touchdown here. The Eagles used a "burst" shift just before the snap, moving everyone around the formation and securing this matchup of Ertz against Jenkins for a touchdown.
This was not a perfect night offensively, and there’s plenty to learn from in the win, but it was great to see this unit get back on track. I’m excited to see them on the field next Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.
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.