The Eagles’ offense ranks really high in most NFL categories. But what is the Eagles’ offense? When you think of it, what image comes to mind?
The last two weeks, the obvious image is of LeGarrette Blount trampling puny defenders who lacked the good sense to flee when they realized they were blocking his path. But the game before that, Blount didn’t carry the ball once, and he was hardly the focal point of the season-opening victory at Washington.
Carson Wentz finding a way to convert on third down — either through the air, by scrambling away from a sack and legging it to the chains, or by just switching the call to a running play — might be the most consistent week-to-week image so far. The Eagles came out of the weekend second in the NFL in 2017 third-down percent. They’ve converted 50.85 percent, just behind Carolina at 51.92.
From Doug Pederson’s answer to a question about identity on Monday, we might be able to infer that the last two weeks have been a step toward the sort of setup Pederson is looking for – even if it took him a few weeks to figure out what that identity should be.
“Every week you … try to establish your running game,” Pederson said the day after the Eagles gained 214 rushing yards, their ground game unstoppable by the winless Los Angeles Chargers. “If you can do that, it will open up a little play-action pass, it will open up shots down the field. And that’s kind of where you want to start.”
Pederson paid tribute to the work done by offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland, the o-line, the tight ends, and Wentz to make the run work so well against the Giants and Chargers.
“We want to go in and establish that run, play-action pass with Carson, being able to move him around a little bit,” Pederson concluded. “It’s sort of the direction that I think our offense needs to go in.”
If that was what Pederson thought the first two weeks, he had a funny way of showing it. Thirteen designed runs at Kansas City, with Wentz dropping back 56 times. Twenty runs in the opener, 45 dropbacks.
One theory: What if Pederson and offensive coordinator Frank Reich thought going into the season that they would be able to move the ball through the air more consistently than they have? What if it took them a while to figure out that although Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith and the new and improved Nelson Agholor were capable of making plays that last year’s wide receiving group couldn’t make, no one in that group was going to dominate a matchup, or a game?
Then there’s the switch at left guard from Isaac Seumalo to the duo of Stefen Wisniewski (49 snaps Sunday) and Chance Warmack (30 snaps). And maybe the offensive line just didn’t get enough work together in the preseason, it needed to get its running game legs under it.
Also, a word of caution: When the league stats came out Monday morning, the Chargers ranked 31st in rushing yards allowed per game (163.5), 28th in rushing yards allowed per play (4.84). The Giants ranked 28th.in the first category (142.8), 25th in the second (4.57).
Sunday’s opponent, Arizona, ranks 11th in rushing yards allowed per game (88), seventh in rushing yards allowed per play (3.23). By comparison, the Eagles’ run defense, while giving up a third-ranked 70.8 yards per game, ranks 22nd in rushing yards allowed per play (4.29). After Arizona, the Eagles visit Carolina’s defense, ninth in rushing yards allowed per game (87.3), 16th in rushing yards allowed per play (4.15).
So we’ll see whether the Eagles can maintain their new identity over the long haul.
Does anyone really know what time it is?
“And a touchdown would do just that,” Dick Stockton intoned, after broadcast partner Mark Schlereth imagined LeGarrette Blount saying, “I’m going to end this game.” Blount had just run 15 yards on third-and-1 from the Chargers’ 29, the clock ticking inside two minutes, the Chargers out of timeouts.
Uh, no, Dick: After that run, the Eagles just needed to kneel down twice. Throughout the final drive, Stockton seemed to think scoring points was the objective, didn’t seem to grasp the part about the Eagles having a lead and the game being over soon.
- The Chargers managed only one sack of Carson Wentz, for 2 yards, in the first quarter, and Eagles tackles Jason Peters and Lane Johnson rightly were praised for blanking Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. But Wentz also wriggled out of trouble a lot, and was lucky that one sack was negated by a penalty. His 17-for-31 passing line included five throwaways, all of which could have been sacks had he not gotten rid of the ball. (I’m sure, according to Pro Football Focus, those were times Wentz was under pressure and “failed.”)
- If anything happens to Zach Ertz, the Eagles’ passing game is in trouble. Nobody else has established that “possession receiver” consistency. Ertz has 326 of the Eagles’ 1,058 receiving yards, on 26 catches. That’s right around 31 percent (hey, I was an English major, “right around” is close enough). Pending Monday night’s game, Ertz was fifth in the league in receiving yards, third in receptions, behind only DeAndre Hopkins (31) and Antonio Brown (30). The Eagles wanted to find a true No. 1 receiver in the offseason; it would seem that they have, only he was already here.
- The Eagles moved the ball extremely well Sunday, but they should have scored more points. A Wentz fumble he recovered sapped the momentum of one drive. A Jason Kelce false start blunted another. Lane Johnson was called for holding, leading to another Jake Elliott field goal, though, as Mark Schlereth pointed out on the broadcast, it wasn’t much of a hold. The opening drive was the only really clean one; the second and final Eagles touchdown, you might recall, required seven snaps after LeGarrette Blount trundled 68 yards to the Chargers’ 3. Two Chargers penalties there allowed the Eagles to escape kicking a fifth field goal; they finally opened a hole for Wendell Smallwood on their second inside-the-5 third down of the series.
That the Broad Street Line ran underneath the 405 Freeway, with a stop in Carson, Calif.?
“We were playing in Philadelphia,” Chargers corner Casey Hayward told the Los Angeles Times, after the Eagles’ victory, which was as close as a road team will ever come to having its fans outnumber the home team’s partisans.
The Eagles were 3-1 at this point last season, as well, and still ended up 7-9. There probably will be some discussion this week of whether this year’s 3-1 is different from last year’s 3-1.
There is no way to know until we see how October goes. But we know the 2016 Eagles didn’t have to win any games without Fletcher Cox, which the 2017 Eagles had to do Sunday, and we know last year’s team nosedived partly because it had to play 10 games without Lane Johnson, starting with Week 5. That situation isn’t hanging over the Birds right now, and Cox will be back pretty soon.
So far, this year’s Eagles don’t have a victory as astonishing as last season’s 34-3 thumping of the Steelers. In fact, two of the teams these Eagles have beaten are winless, though neither the Giants nor the Chargers seem as far down the talent ladder as Cleveland and Chicago were in the first month of 2016.
I’m going to come down on the side of this year’s 3-1 being more promising, partly because I don’t think Dallas is as good as it was a year ago; I think winning the NFC East, for an imperfect but promising team, is a more attainable goal than it was in 2016.