Bowen: Eagles' offense keeping itself out of end zone

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Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz started off with no interceptions in a 3-0 start, but has eight since.

THE EAGLES have scored 12 offensive touchdowns in their last eight games. Extensive study of advanced analytics reveals a surprising fact: This isn't nearly enough. Might be a good place to start, if you're looking for reasons why the team is 2-6 in those games.

The absence of steady right tackle Lane Johnson has something to do with this - Johnson serves the eighth installment of his 10-game suspension this week, as the Eagles visit Cincinnati - and injuries to a sparse group of offensive difference-makers, such as running back Ryan Mathews, currently sidelined with an MCL sprain, also have played a role.

But the real problem, players and coaches say, is continuity, keeping the drives going. This was never going to be a high-rolling, quick-strike offense. Its early success came because it wasn't playing great defenses, and there wasn't as much film out there to help opponents prepare, yes, but also because it wasn't making as many momentum-killing mistakes. Carson Wentz did not throw an interception during that 3-0 start. (He has eight since.) No precious touchdowns were called back because somebody couldn't line up correctly, a la Nelson Agholor in Seattle.

"Penalties, dropped passes, bad snaps," center Jason Kelce said Thursday. Kelce's low snap Monday night led to a sack that took the team out of field goal range in the fourth quarter of their 27-13 loss to the Packers. "I feel like if it's not one thing it's another thing, and it's hard to be successful offensively when you're doing it like that. Especially when teams are making you drive, you're not having big plays, so you're having chunk here, chunk here, chunk here - when you're that methodical, you really have no room for error, in my opinion."

Offensive coordinator Frank Reich said when he looks at film, more than any specific deficiency, he sees a lack of consistent attention to detail.

"You go back and there's always five or six plays that you say, 'We just missed one here, we could have done a little bit better here' . . . You've got to find that way to extend that drive. Sometimes it's a bad break - we don't get a call . . . But we have to find ways. We have to control what we can control to find ways to get that one key first down that just kind of propels you on."

Early in the season, Reich said, field position tended to be better, and the defense and special teams were scoring. There hasn't been a special-teams or defensive TD since the Oct. 23 win over Minnesota, when since-dismissed returner Josh Huff ran a kickoff back 98 yards for the pivotal first touchdown of the game.

"Big plays and field position, and then proficiency in situational football - third down, red zone - are the keys," Reich said.

Against Green Bay, the offensive struggles were the worst they've been. The first drive, 11 plays, 81 yards, Wentz scoring his first rushing touchdown, was flawless, but the Eagles couldn't find that formula again. Field position definitely was a factor - they had to drive 13 plays and 69 yards just to kick a 48-yard field goal at the end of the first half, after a Packers punt died at the Eagles' 1.

In the second half, after Wentz killed a drive with an interception and top receiver Jordan Matthews left for good with an ankle injury he'd suffered in the first half, the output was pathetic - three points against a defense that been giving up 38.75 per game in a four-game losing streak.

Early in the fourth quarter, what would have been their biggest play of the game, a gain of 41 yards on a screen to Darren Sproles, was wiped out when Dorial Green-Beckham charged off the line and started blocking a cornerback before the ball was caught. That's offensive pass interference.

Despite going from first-and-10 in Green Bay territory to first-and-20 at his 15, Wentz kept that drive alive, through sheer force of will. On third-and-10, trapped way behind the line, with Julius Peppers hanging onto his facemask and Datone Jones grabbing him around the waist, Wentz somehow shook free and added 7 yards to the 15-yard penalty on Peppers.

"It costs me at times, but I just kinda have this never-say-die attitude. As a competitor, I'm always fighting, always scrapping for whatever I can," Wentz said. "Still came up short of the first down, but we got the facemask call."

Then he hit Sproles for 17, and the Eagles were at the Packers' 36. But two plays later, Kelce snapped low, Wentz was buried, and Donnie Jones came on to punt. If you include the play that was called back, the offense actually gained more than 70 yards on the drive but scored no points, because of two huge errors.

It's a subtle point, but an important one - you can't say nothing is working here. It's just that the kind of precision this weapons-challenged group needs to score sometimes isn't there.

"We can't make little mistakes. We can't have presnap penalties, we can't have penalties in general. We can't turn the ball over . . . At the end of the day, we've got to make plays. Players make plays," tight end Brent Celek said.

This week, Cincinnati's defense ranks 23rd in the NFL, the overall rankings being based on yardage. The Bengals are exactly in the middle, 16th, in points allowed per game, at 22.3. Their pass rush hasn't been as good as expected but their secondary, playing mainly Cover 2, does have 11 interceptions.

"You just have to be patient; when you're playing a zone defense, sometimes you'll run a route and they'll be in the right position, because they just schemed up the right call," wideout Bryce Treggs said. "It's just about letting the game come to you, instead of pressing . . . executing when opportunities come."

Tight end Zach Ertz said the persistent third-down problem for the Eagles' offense - it ranks 29th, converting 34 percent - is really the culmination of earlier problems.

"We've got to be efficient on first down. We gotta have positive plays on first down. When you're facing third-and-long in this league, it's extremely difficult," Ertz said. "We gotta get rid of the penalties. Penalties are killing us."


bowenl@phillynews.com

@LesBowen

Blog: philly.com/Eaglesblog

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