Ford: Eagles offense must break out of comfort zone

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Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz throws a pass.

The Eagles find themselves in the odd position of having an offense that generates a lot of outside excitement, but, at least statistically, isn't really all that good yet.

Rookie Carson Wentz, the big kid from North Dakota with an even bigger arm, is the reason for the excitement, even as he chunks along through his first season behind a makeshift line, and with average teammates at the running and receiving positions.

Heading into Sunday night's showdown with Dallas, a game that might go a long way to determining the NFC East championship, the Eagles have fashioned a 4-2 record with a formula of just enough offense, a usually reliable defense, and exceptional special-teams play.

Overall, the Eagles have the 28th-ranked offense in the NFL, and Wentz is in the bottom half of league quarterbacks for completion percentage, passing yards, and average gain per attempt. Much of that is because the offense simply isn't on the field that much. Only four teams have averaged fewer than the 60.2 plays per game of the Eagles offense. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich thinks that is one reason previously effective players such as tight end Zach Ertz are struggling to produce right now.

"I think we've got a lot of good players. The last two games have been games that we've had 50 snaps in each of those games," Reich said. "We just have to, as a unit, play better offensively, get more snaps, play better on third down, so we can get a chance to . . . call a few more plays. That way the ball can get spread around a bit more."

The Eagles are 29th in third-down percentage (although, oddly, a perfect 5 for 5 on fourth down) and that presents a myriad of challenges for Reich and Doug Pederson as they try to devise a play-calling game plan that maximizes the offense's potential without alerting the defense to what might be coming. It makes sense that a rookie quarterback, even a gifted one, benefits from a longer read of the defense by operating out of the shotgun. It makes sense that the rushing game is helped a little when the ball is under center and the running back gets a downhill start. Add in the obvious tendencies brought about by down and distance and a team has to be careful not to tip its hand.

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Should the Eagles have drafted Ezekiel Elliott instead of Carson Wentz?

"Our percentages and the breakdown of our self-scout of where we are - shotgun vs. under center, or run vs. pass from each, some of it's very good," Reich said. "Some of it's a little bit close, it's borderline. I don't think any of it is out of control. We tweak it here and there. We look at that each week."

The numbers speak for themselves. This season, 88 percent of Carson Wentz's pass attempts have come from the shotgun formation, as have 11 of his 12 sacks and all three interceptions. When the Eagles are under center, they run 75 percent of the time. Those are general traits that would be found with many teams, particularly West Coast offense teams, but the Eagles - as Reich admitted - are treading the line of being too unsurprising.

When Pederson calls against type, the football equivalent of pitching backward, the results are interesting. Wentz has completed 63 percent of his passes out of the shotgun and 67.7 percent from under center. The runners have averaged 4.9 yards in the shotgun and 3.5 under center.

"Obviously, the whole goal of the offense is not to be predictable, not to tip off your hand," center Jason Kelce said. "We try to do multiple things. Even though we like running under center, we also have running plays we prefer to do out of the gun, and have passing plays where I'm sure the quarterback likes that rhythm of taking the snap, taking three steps, and getting the ball out."

When third down arrives, however, and the team needs to keep a drive going, it's difficult for any coach to go against the flow of a standard choice. The Eagles have called pass plays on 53 of their 74 third-down attempts, which is about the league norm, and targeted either Jordan Matthews or Nelson Agholor on almost half the tries. And, yes, mostly out of the shotgun.

Do defenses scout these tendencies? Is Jerry Jones annoying?

"You study, watch a lot of film," defensive end Connor Barwin said. "You want to anticipate what's coming, but you never want to guess. The way people talk about it on defense is taking calculated risks. Everyone, once in a while, has to do that."

When the opponent is predictable, the risk isn't as great. As the Eagles offense struggles to find its groove, Pederson's challenge is to keep from wearing too deep a path where the footing is the most reliable. Look for him to mix things up Sunday night against an aggressive Dallas defense. Maybe a little more passing from under center. Maybe a little more running on third down.

It might not always be what they are most comfortable doing, but there's no comfort in giving a defense what it expects.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports