Whenever the Eagles lose, blame is quick to fly. Whenever the Eagles lose twice in a row…stay off Twitter? As fans in the middle of a mere 16 game season, there is a rush to find those one or two things holding the team back and complain about them in hopes that the team hears the buzz and fixes them. We’re helping! Yaaaaaaay!
But when everything is wrong? That’s when discussion can start getting toxic. And unfortunately, the Eagles are staring down the barrel of an “everything is going wrong” type of season. There is not one culprit for the Eagles’ slow start. Everybody has had a hand in it. I don’t think this is what Jason Kelce meant when he shouted, “IT’S THE WHOLE TEAM!”
What can be fixed? What can’t be? Let’s dive in.
Carson Wentz has not been good enough. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. While surface level stats are not necessarily a good measure of a QB, Wentz is currently completing 61% of his passes at 6.8 yards per attempt, both 25th out of 35 qualifiers with fairly depressing lists coming in behind him. The injuries to Alshon Jeffery and DeSean Jackson have provided Wentz with excuses, but the excuses just don’t hold up. Wentz has had two massive problems this year, and he will have to correct them regardless of who is running routes for the Eagles to be successful this year.
Accurate, not precise
Carson Wentz is an accurate passer. Carson Wentz is an imprecise passer. Accuracy is the dartboard. Precision is the bullseye. And Wentz’s inability to hit the bullseye is killing the offense regardless of which receivers are playing. In Week 1, Wentz’s two bombs to DeSean masked that on his other 37 attempts, he managed just 5.6 yards per attempt. A review of the tape shows, if not for DeSean creating infinite room and Jeffery coming up with multiple contested or difficult balls, Wentz’s statline would have looked significantly worse. Without those two receivers, Wentz’s inability to place balls is causing serious problems for his receivers.
Somewhere along the line, it became accepted conventional wisdom that if a receiver gets his hands on the ball, he should catch it. This is false and should be discarded as wisdom that was never true to begin with. It is not easy to catch a ball that requires adjustment and should not be assumed. A better thrown ball will be caught more often. The key to a truly great QB is just how often they put the ball exactly where it needs to be. Wentz does not do that, and it is making life miserable for his receivers, who are taking the blame for Wentz. The Eagles have also had multiple plays on tape that should have been touchdowns or at least long gains that were reduced to mere first downs due to having to slow or turn to catch a ball. Leading a receiver is one of the most important traits for a QB’s throws, and Wentz has been failing miserably on that count.
Now, a good QB will look better with good receivers. This isn’t news. The question is, what does Wentz bring to the table that an “average” QB does not. Most NFL QBs can reliably hit big open windows or throw the ball in the general vicinity of his receivers. For Wentz, his calling card in his MVP-quality 2017 was his ability to escape and make incredible plays out of nothing. Well…
Wentz is skittish in the pocket
One of the big concerns for Wentz coming into this season was seeing how he would operate in the pocket coming off of two injury shortened seasons. Wentz refused to play in preseason for fear of injury.
And now Wentz is playing scared.
This is a huge problem. What separated Carson Wentz from the Andy Daltons of the world was his almost supernatural ability to feel pressure, escape it, and make plays on the run with both his legs and his arm. Without that, Carson Wentz is not a god, but merely a man. Wentz’s pocket movement has been abysmal, leaving himself open to swiping defenders and not creating running or throwing lanes for himself. He has been hesitant to run, usually making the decision too late to pick up the first down.
Without positioning himself in the pocket and moving decisively, Wentz loses what made him great. If Wentz continues to play this way, the Eagles are in for a struggle as long as he does.
Running the ball a lot is bad. Running the ball poorly a lot is worse. The Eagles are running the ball poorly a lot. It’s easy to complain about who they are running the ball with, but none of their rushers have been effective. At this point, Howard needs to be the guy because he can finish runs falling forward without dropping the ball, but Clement should get some burn when he gets healthy just to see what he can bring, as he’s a much better route runner and pass catcher than Howard.
Offensive line woes
An offensive line is often only as good as its weakest member, and Isaac Seumalo’s regression has caused significant issues this season. Part of the Eagles’ struggles running the ball can be traced directly to Seumalo. He can’t pass-block either. While the rest of the line is getting the job done, Seumalo is single-handedly tanking the running game and forcing Kelce to assist him consistently in the passing game. It is already time to give another guy a chance – it would be hard to be worse.
The skill position depth was considered one of the Eagles’ biggest strengths coming into the season. However, when put to the test, it simply hasn’t come through. Goedert has been perhaps this season’s biggest disappointment. Arcega-Whiteside does not appear ready for real games. Ertz is having a massively down start to the year. Agholor makes two awful plays for every one amazing play he makes. Wentz isn’t helping these guys step up, but nobody is stepping up to help Wentz either. It’s a bad situation, and it appears a return to health for the elite guys is needed. The strength of the depth was highly exaggerated.
After winning the Super Bowl, offensive coordinator Frank Reich headed to Indianapolis and QB coach John DeFilippo ended up in Jacksonville after a stop in Minnesota. Last year, the Eagles’ offense and gameplanning appeared to take a large step back. The coaches promoted did not appear to be getting the job done. Now, backups Jacoby Brissett and Gardner Minshew are putting up fantastic numbers in Indianapolis and Jacksonville respectively while Wentz and the Eagles labor.
A look at some of the playcalling has raised major issues. Doug Pederson admitted as much after Week 1, but issues have continued. On 3rd and 10 on the Eagles’ last drive of Week 3, the Eagles went 5 wide and every single receiver ran a 5 yard curl when gaining 5 yards did absolutely nothing. These types of questionable calls, over the course of 30 minutes of offense, can really drag down the offense. Doug may need to look in the mirror…or around the league.
Where’s the Pressure?
For years, the Eagles’ defensive line has been anchored and elevated by Fletcher Cox. What happens when Cox declines, either due to age or injury? Well, we’re watching it. Cox was reportedly rehabbing foot and toe injuries and may or may not still be dealing with them, but this year’s Fletcher Cox is not the Fletcher Cox Eagles fans have come to know and love. The common assumption is that, with Jackson and Jernigan out, opposing lines are double teaming Cox and taking him out.
Except Cox is being effectively single blocked on just about every play. He’s not getting doubled. He’s just getting pushed around like a dummy sled. That’s…that’s bad. Hassan Ridgeway and street free agent Akeem Spence are offering little support. There is simply nothing happening inside on the Eagles’ pass rush.
As a result, the outside guys have a nearly impossible task – get to a QB who can move vertically up and down the pocket at will. They have been generating a ton of “QB pressure” stats, but those pressures were not particularly pressuring. Derek Barnett appears to not be taking the step forward that was expected, while Brandon Graham continues to be solid but unspectacular.
The response has been to blitz, but that has brought its own host of issues, to be discussed later.
No support from the backers
Much like Fletcher Cox, Nigel Bradham spent the entire offseason rehabbing his foot/toe and was questionable to start this season. Much like Fletcher Cox, Nigel Bradham has been a shell of his former self this season. Unfortunately for the Eagles, Zach Brown has simply been bad this year, often biting too hard on fakes and getting caught out of position. Nate Gerry has been even worse. Kamu Grugier-Hill hasn’t been healthy, and even when he does eventually get healthy, he has never been anything special as a linebacker.
There’s no solution here. The Eagles have ignored LB for years and despite LB being perhaps this team’s biggest need going into the offseason, it was never addressed and they are feeling the pain now.
No speed in the DBs
Jim Schwartz loves guys who can “compete” and “battle.” Which is great and all, especially in the red zone, but the DBs top out at average speed at best, and in the modern NFL, that’s a recipe for disaster. Schwartz’s various zone defenses are increasingly anachronistic in an NFL where offensive coordinators know how to beat them and safeties can’t hit, and bringing in personnel good for these schemes has left the Eagles desperate for anybody who can just turn and run with a receiver.
Combined with a lack of pressure, the secondary is left with two choices – play an easily exploitable zone or play man, cheat deep, and…get beat pretty much everywhere. Rasul Douglas is a good corner but needs help over the top. Sidney Jones appears to be turning the corner. Avonte Maddox is doing his best in the slot, but it’s hard to play slot corner with no pressure or linebacker help. Ronald Darby was truly abysmal before mercifully getting injured. Rodney McLeod, returning from injury, lost what little speed he still had left. Andrew Sendejo never had speed to begin with. Malcolm Jenkins is still playing well, but he can’t do everything.
There are no fixes here. This is a unit built and designed to play a defense that doesn’t work, especially without pressure. If the DL doesn’t show up, I just don’t know how these DBs make it work.
Adjusting the Adjustments
Jim Schwartz, like most NFL coaches, sticks to what he knows and is comfortable with. That means a lot of cover 3 with some sticks and prevent D mixed in at appropriate times. This approach is predicated on the defensive line getting pressure, because these defenses are not built to defend for more than about 2.5 seconds, and as stated, their personnel can’t defend for longer than that anyway.
Schwartz has adjusted to the lack of pressure generated by the front four by sending blitzes. Lots of them. 5 man, 6 man, even 7 man blitzes, many of them 0 blitzes. Schwartz is doing absolutely everything he can to generate pressure. This is good. This is what coaches are supposed to do. But Schwartz hasn’t adjusted how the DBs are playing during these blitzes. The result has been DBs playing 7+ yards off receivers, allowing them to get completely free releases into their routes. Stafford and the Lions repeatedly burnt the Eagles’ blitzes with deep drags that the DBs never had a chance of covering because they started so far away. This cushion allowed Julio to get free on his game winning TD in week 2 as well.
Schwartz has made one adjustment. He needs to make the other, or else the Eagles will continue to get toasted.
No speed, part 2
On the Lions’ kickoff return TD, Jake Elliott kicked what should have been a perfect kick. Six Eagles got down there – TJ Edwards, Rasul Douglas, Rodney McLeod, Alex Ellis, Rudy Ford, and Nate Gerry. Unsurprisingly, Lions’ KR Jamal Agnew easily outran all of them as he crossed the field, taking all six out of the play by himself. Once he turned the corner, just Ellis and LJ Fort remained to try to catch them, and they never had a chance. This is a teamwide issue. There’s just no speed anywhere. At least there’s a solution here – kicking short is great when you can reliably pin your opponent inside the 25. The Eagles now know they can’t. Kick it into the end zone and don’t allow any more returns. On punts, more height, less distance if the coverage team can’t get down the field. It’s a short term fix, but one that works.
It’s important to remember that this is pointing out everything that has gone wrong. There are plenty of reasons for optimism, but this article ain’t about those. In a few weeks, we could be looking back at this article as a hilarious overreaction to three mediocre weeks. I sure hope that’s the case. But the Eagles could be in for a long up and down season as they try to find answers to questions I’m not sure they thought they’d be asked.