Carson Wentz delivers in clutch, but deep-ball success still eludes Eagles QB

Carson Wentz has a hard time describing some of his most impressive plays. They often involve an athletic move, or moves, in which the Eagles quarterback’s instincts take over. He doesn’t have time to overthink, and so explaining something that he hadn’t consciously considered – however split the second — becomes a difficult task.

Wentz thrived under pressure in college, which is why his failure to close the deal in several late-game scenarios last season surprised those who followed his career at North Dakota State. But he started to turn the corner in Baltimore last December, and even though he came up short against the Ravens and the Redskins the following week, it seemed only a matter of time before he would lead the Eagles to a comeback victory.

While he was credited with a game-winning, fourth-quarter drive against the Falcons last November, it wasn’t until Sunday’s 27-24 victory over the New York Giants that Wentz truly delivered down the stretch in the traditional sense.

It took only one pass for him to set up Jake Elliott’s 61-yard, game-winning field goal, but it was a clutch throw, and it came after Wentz directed two drives over the previous seven minutes that twice knotted the score. He completed 6 of 9 passes for 68 yards over that span and checked the Eagles into several run plays that netted chunks on the ground.

Wentz managed the game, which isn’t typically how the Eagles’ offense is going to win games, but on a day when the run game was effective, it sufficed.

He did miss first-half opportunities, however, that would have put a Giants comeback further out of reach. And the two most egregious occurred late in the second quarter.

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On first down at the New York 45, Alshon Jeffery had gotten behind cornerback Ross Cockrell. Wentz had a clean pocket and plenty of time to throw, but he overthrew his wide receiver by about 3 yards.

“Just missed it,” Wentz said after the game. “We were moving the ball kind of with a quick passing game, checking to a number of different runs. They gave us a different look on the beam shot. He had it, and I just missed it. It’s one I definitely want back.”

It’s the type of deep pass Wentz had worked exhaustively on this offseason, both in terms of his mechanics and in developing rhythm with his new receivers. But he put too much air under the ball. It’s unclear whether his delivery was the issue, but when intermediate-deep passes sailed on Wentz last year, it was often because he would overstride.

And he almost always had time and space – as he did on the Jeffery overthrow — which suggests that maybe there is a mental element. Wentz appeared to also throw high and wide of Torrey Smith on a late sideline route in which Giants cornerback Eli Apple was penalized for pass interference.

Wentz attempted only three passes that traveled more the 20 yards against the Giants – the third was a jump ball to Smith that also resulted in an Apple pass interference flag – but his 16 “deep” passes this season are tied for fourth most in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. He has completed four for 157 yards and a touchdown.

While his accuracy on deep tosses (31.3 percent) is 23rd out of 28 qualifying quarterbacks, his passer rating (88.8) is 14th. Wentz completed 32.7 percent and his 36.8 rating was 25th out of 27 quarterbacks last year.

He is by no means the only passer to struggle on the long ball, and PFF’s numbers don’t differentiate 20 air yards from, say, 60. But Wentz has clearly been inaccurate down the field when the additions of Jeffery and Smith — who have gotten open — were supposed to improve his deep ball success rate.

“We’ve got to keep repping it in practice. We’ve got to keep getting better,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said on Monday. “Going back to college … [Wentz has] been a very accurate down-the-field thrower on those types of throws.”

If there’s been another area in which Wentz has struggled it’s been holding the ball too long when under a heavy rush. There’s a give and take in his tendency to extend plays. He is nimble and athletic enough to evade defenders and either throw downfield or run. Wentz’s 11-yard scramble in the second quarter was exceptional.

He also avoided a sack when he threw with his left hand at Zach Ertz’s feet before being dragged down later in that quarter. But two of the three sacks Wentz took were as much his responsibility as anyone’s, especially when Pederson gambled on fourth-down-and-8 three plays after the quarterback missed Jeffery deep.

Wentz’s first read was covered, but rather than switch off to an open Nelson Agholor or to LeGarrette Blount short of the sticks, he held the ball and was sacked.

“They just had good coverage and we were playing aggressively,” Wentz said. “Unfortunately, I held on to the ball too long.”

There were a few other plays Wentz likely would want to do over. He checked down to tight end Trey Burton for a 1-yard loss after a play-action boot when he had Jeffery open farther downfield.

But Wentz remains a work in progress 19 games into his young career. It’s still too early to make any declarations about his development, particularly this season vs. last after just three games. But his late-game performance and the 19-yard pass he squeezed into Jeffery that set up Elliot’s heroics suggest improvement.

“I knew 7 seconds was definitely pushing it with the route, which I think was 15 yards,” Wentz said of his sideline pass to Jeffery. “But in those situations, you just have to take some chances.”

Wentz had a clean pocket, but time was of the essence.