Something seems a little bit off for Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz this season. The fourth-year starter, whose 2018 season ended with a back injury, has seen his production drop across the board.
Wentz is 16th in the NFL in passer rating (93.7), almost 9 points down from last year. He is averaging just 229 passing yards per game, 50 fewer than last year. His completion percentage is down 7 points, to 62.7. He is 26th among quarterbacks in yards per attempt (6.8). And the Eagles are 20th in total offense, and they enter their Week 11 matchup with the Patriots with a 5-4 record, as one of the most inconsistent teams in the NFL.
But Wentz’s All-22 film tells a different story. Wentz, 26, is one of the most well-rounded and “clean” quarterbacks the Patriots will face this year. He doesn’t flail around like Josh Allen or Baker Mayfield, and doesn’t make many throws with bad footwork or awkward releases like Sam Darnold.
Wentz stands confidently in the pocket while the play develops, does a good job of setting his feet and stepping into his throws, shows accuracy despite his completion percentage, and doesn’t throw many interceptions. And he has the athleticism and size (6 feet 5 inches, 237 pounds) to throw accurately on the run, extend plays, and brush off sacks. The Eagles don’t do many designed runs for Wentz, but he does have 144 rushing yards and a touchdown.
Wentz has 15 touchdown passes against just four interceptions, and has led the Eagles to back-to-back wins to put them right back in the NFC East hunt.
“He’s a very versatile player, pretty good at everything,” Bill Belichick said Tuesday. “Can throw on the run, throw in the pocket, get the ball to all his receivers. He reads coverages well. He’s athletic and can extend plays. He looks like a pretty smart guy. They give him a lot of responsibility as far as checks at the line of scrimmage.”
The Patriots haven’t faced Wentz before, but they know first-hand how tough Doug Pederson’s offense can be to defend. The Eagles stress the defense with a lot of presnap motion, bubble screens, end-arounds, and run-pass options on which Wentz reads a linebacker and decides whether to throw or hand off. The Patriots linebackers (particularly Jamie Collins) were undisciplined in their loss to the Ravens and will have to do a better job of staying in their lanes when defending RPOs.
A lot of the Eagles offense is just a matter of Wentz finding the best one-on-one matchup, whether he’s throwing a deep fade to Alshon Jeffery, or throwing a quick slant or back-shoulder throw on the outside, or making a decision on an RPO.
Two weeks ago against Chicago, Wentz did a great job of going through his progression – first scanning left, then the middle of the field, before finding Zach Ertz on a deep slant for a 25-yard touchdown. Most quarterbacks bail before getting to the third read.
Wentz can be deadly when he has a clean pocket. Three weeks ago against the Cowboys, he saw tight end Dallas Goedert streaking downfield with a linebacker in one-on-one coverage, stepped up in the pocket, and lobbed a perfect pass down the seam for a 28-yard touchdown.
But even when the pocket isn’t perfect, Wentz can scramble to his right or left, and does a nice job of resetting his feet and delivering the ball with good mechanics. He rarely sails his throws, almost always gives his receiver a chance to make a play, and doesn’t put the ball in harm’s way. He has thrown only two interceptions in his last seven games (221 attempts).
The Eagles are thin at wide receiver following the injury to Desean Jackson, with Jordan Matthews signed off the street this week to complement Jeffery and Nelson Agholor. Jeffery’s numbers are down (just 44 yards per game), but he can still come down with a jump ball, as he did on a 38-yarder against Buffalo (and against the Patriots in the Super Bowl).
But much like the Ravens, the Eagles’ most dangerous weapons in the passing game are their tight ends and running backs. Ertz leads the Eagles in most receiving stats, with 46 catches for 527 yards and two touchdowns. Goedert is another big red zone threat with three touchdowns. The Eagles love their two-tight-end sets, and Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, and Terrance Brooks have their work cut out for them.
Running back Miles Sanders is a downfield threat, as well. His 32-yard touchdown catch against the Vikings encapsulated the difficulty in defending the Eagles. They play-faked an end-around to their receiver, then sent Sanders deep down the field on a wheel route. Sanders burned right past the linebacker and hauled in a beautiful pass from Wentz in stride for the score.
Sanders also had a 45-yard catch on a wheel route in the same game. And we all remember Corey Clement’s 22-yard touchdown catch in the Super Bowl.
But of course, the Eagles have had their issues this year. Making big plays down the field has been one of them; the Eagles are tied for 26th in the NFL with just 30 plays of 20-plus yards. Wentz has been mediocre against the blitz, ranked 18th in passer rating (92.4) and 25th in yards per attempt (6.74), suggesting that he settles for a check-down too often.
And Wentz sometimes tries too hard to be the hero. It seems like many of his 20 sacks this year have been a case of staying in the pocket too long and trying to read the defense instead of getting outside and improvising.
When Wentz does throw an interception, it is because he didn’t see a defender — a Vikings cornerback playing underneath or a Cowboys safety playing the “robber” position in the middle of the field.
While I think the Patriots will use a lot of man coverage in this game — though they’d better use safeties, and not their linebackers, against the tight ends and running backs — I would expect the Patriots to show a lot of their presnap “amoeba” front to disguise the rush and try to goad Wentz into bad decisions.
I also would expect a lot of hybrid defense, with the Patriots playing man coverage but using linebackers to patrol the middle of the field, and mixing in McCourty and Duron Harmon as robbers.
For the Patriots, the game should be all about bottling up Ertz and preventing Sanders from beating them deep on a wheel route. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
. . .
A few other factoids about the Eagles offense:
■ They rely heavily on run-pass balance to keep defenses honest, and have run the sixth-most rushing plays in the NFL (30 per game). They are fifth in time of possession (32:13), but are averaging only 4.2 yards per carry, 19th best.
■ The Eagles are money on third down, converting 48.4 percent, third-best in the NFL.
■ Pederson is one of the NFL’s most aggressive coaches, as the Patriots remember all too well. The Eagles have gone for it on fourth down 17 times, tied for second-most in the league. But they have converted only six opportunities (35.3 percent, 24th-best).
■ The Eagles’ five 2-point conversion attempts are also tied for the most in the NFL, and they have converted three of them. They are 2 for 3 when running the ball.
■ The Eagles are solid in the red zone, ranked eighth in touchdown percentage and fourth in score percentage. Wentz hasn’t thrown a red zone pick all year.
■ While Wentz has done a good job of avoiding interceptions, the Eagles have lost nine fumbles. They had seven turnovers in consecutive losses to the Vikings and Cowboys, but just one combined turnover the last two games in wins over the Bills and Bears.