It’s true: the Eagles aren’t as good as they were a year ago. Even after a stellar win over Jacksonville on international soil, they enter a midseason bye with one more loss than they had all of last season. Myriad factors are behind this. The vaunted pass rush has been less potent and is now without second-year stud Derek Barnett. The secondary has suffered injuries: safety Rodney McLeod (for the season with a knee injury), recently, slot corner Sidney Jones (out indefinitely with a hamstring injury), and even more recently, left corner Jalen Mills, who had been struggling and left Sunday’s game early with a foot injury. Offensively, the expansive ground game that carried them last season has been spotty—and not just because top back Jay Ajayi is out (ACL), but because their versatile, cohesive offensive line has been less imposing. And, there’s that old familiar Eagles problem: deficiency at wide receiver, especially in terms of speed.
But the 2018 Eagles don’t have to be better than the 2017 Eagles; for now they just have to be better than the 2018 Redskins and 2018 Cowboys. Do that, get to January, and figure things out from there.
This is the course the Eagles are on. They’re the team to beat in the NFC East, and the main reason is the same reason that last year’s Eagles led the NFC from wire to wire: Carson Wentz. The 25-year-old looks like his pre-ACL self. We’re again seeing that unique ability to extend plays—a rare trait can offset many of this offense’s weaknesses.
When your receivers are too slow too separate within the design of the play, extending the action gives them more time to win late in the down, when the defensive coverage inherently starts to falter (on Sunday, for example, a historically sluggish Jordan Matthews had four catches for 93 yards). Those faltering coverages present more opportunities for big plays, which help offset the consequences of Philly’s diminished pass defense. And the running game’s inconsistencies become less problematic because a QB like Wentz makes its ensuing 3rd-and-long situations less insurmountable. (In the last three weeks, Wentz is 12-for-16 for 168 yards on 3rd-and-6-plus, converting on over 50% of those situations.)
It’s not just that Wentz extends plays, it’s the way he extends them. Many QBs extend plays by first breaking them down. You see them drop their eyes, elude the rush, run outside the pocket and then re-examine the field, hoping for a favorable picture. But Wentz’s eyes never come off his reads when he’s avoiding defenders. In doing this, he often stays in the pocket. If he does escape, it’s usually when there’s some sort of crossing route that way—a staple of Doug Pederson’s offense. In the way Wentz extends plays, he also extends the design of the play, a huge advantage given that many plays are designed to beat specific coverages (and, in a sophisticated offense like Philly’s, to beat various coverages).
A QB can only extend plays within the design if he’s comfortable with those designs in the first place. Which is to say, he can’t rely only on extending plays, he must first know how to execute on-schedule. Wentz does. From Day One he’s taken ownership of the system at the line of scrimmage, which has allowed Philly’s offense to expand with more formations and pre-snap movement. Wentz clearly understands all options of every play, not just the primary reads. Often he’ll target his more lucrative second and third options as opposed to the safer first option. There’s a fine line there between aggressiveness and recklessness that Wentz, lately, has walked better than he did earlier this season. It helps that more of the designs have been built around Zach Ertz, whose route running refinements over the last two years have made him arguably the most impressive tight end of 2018.
The 2018 Eagles are a machine with fewer facets than the 2017 Eagles, which is why they wouldn’t survive the loss of their star quarterback again. But as long as Wentz, and maybe his star tight end, stay healthy, this team can be a Super Bowl contender.
• Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.