A year ago, on the Eagles’ first offensive play of the season, Carson Wentz handed off to Ryan Mathews, who ran up the middle for 6 yards.
It was a predictable call with a rookie quarterback under center, but it stood in sharp contrast to the first play of this season, when Wentz dropped back off play-action and hurled a deep pass to an open Torrey Smith.
The pass was underthrown and broken up by Redskins cornerback Josh Norman. A day later, Doug Pederson said Wentz had slipped. But of greater consequence with the early deep shot and successive tries — despite the low percentage of success — was that the Eagles were forcing the ball down the field after being so negligent in that area last season.
“We’re going to be aggressive,” Wentz said after the Eagles’ 30-17 win over Washington. “We’re not just going to sit back and wait. We’re going to try to make plays early and often.”
They failed to make big plays early, midway,and late last season. The Eagles completed just six passes over 40 yards and were tied for the 26th in the NFL in 2016. There was a combination of factors, but mostly it had to do with having a first-year quarterback and a dearth of receivers who could get open and make catches deep.
Wentz is a year older, though. And the Eagles added a receiver who can get beyond the secondary and another who can make plays on balls downfield even if he can’t get separation. Smith can still burn. And Alshon Jeffery can still jump.
Smith broke free on two deep post patterns against man defense. Wentz’s second throw was five yards too deep. According to Pederson, the quarterback was compensating after coming up short on the first attempt.
“In the back of your mind as a quarterback you’re saying, ‘The next time I get that opportunity, I don’t want to underthrow it,’” Pederson said.
But the opportunities and the fact that the Redskins had to respect Smith’s speed opened space underneath for tight end Zach Ertz and slot receiver Nelson Agholor, who led the Eagles in receiving Sunday.
Wentz worked extensively on his deep throws during the offseason and the results were positive during camp. Last season, he completed only 32.8 percent of his passes over 20 yards. He was only 1 of 6 Sunday — the lone completion came when Wentz scrambled and hit Agholor for a 58-yard touchdown — but defenses should now have to respect the Eagles’ deep-ball capabilities.
“Teams see that and it’ll open some things up underneath,” Wentz said.
Opponents, starting with the Chiefs on Sunday, will also have to be careful when blitzing Wentz in Year 2. He took advantage early last year, but he increasingly struggled when defensive coordinators sent extra rushers. But against the Redskins, he completed 11 of 17 passes for 119 yards and a touchdown against the blitz.
“There were a couple of unscouted blitzes that were pick stunts where they pick our guard and rapid tackle and got us early in the game,” Pederson said. “We’ve just got to see everything and put our guys in that position. Carson’s got to see it.”
Wentz’s athleticism bailed him and the offensive line out several times. His Houdini act on the Agholor score will be part of his highlight reel for years to come. But he also shook another arm tackle before lofting a 7-yard strike to Ertz. And he spun away from a blitzing linebacker and hit his tight end up the sideline for a big third-down conversion in the fourth quarter.
Because he can elude pressure in the pocket, Wentz is sometimes prone to holding the ball too long, leading to unnecessary hits, sacks, and intentional-grounding penalties like the one he took in the third. The sample was small, but Wentz averaged 2.93 seconds to throw — .26 seconds longer than last season.
“There were some times … where he could have maybe made a quicker throw,” Pederson said. “Get the ball out of his hand.”
There was lot to like about his performance, of course, and beyond the rabbit-out-of-hat plays. Wentz hit Ertz for 10 yards, keeping his eyes downfield, despite a collapsing pocket. He directed a two-minute drive before the half that netted a field goal with the Eagles having possession after the break.
And he may have been most impressive on third down. Wentz completed 9 of 11 passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns. The big plays to Agholor and Ertz stood out, but he also made the correct read on the 1-yard touchdown flip to LeGarrette Blount — knowing full well that the Redskins weren’t expecting the running back to be a likely option.
There were some other poor throws or errors in judgment. He overthrew the crossing Agohlor early on. The tip on the interception that was returned for a touchdown wasn’t much his fault, but even if the ball got to Darren Sproles, linebacker Ryan Kerrigan may have been able to cut it off.
Wentz overthrew Agholor on two short swing passes, but his receiver was too deep on the first and the resulting lateral turned into a fumble. A more accurate toss on the second, however, would have likely netted a touchdown. He also underthrew Agholor on a middle deep route and he was late on a Jeffery deep dig that Norman knocked away.
Jeffery and Smith had opportunities, but they combined to catch only four passes for 68 yards.
“We know Torrey and Alshon will get theirs,” Wentz said.
He will eventually have to hit a few deep ones if his new receivers are to get their full share and defenses are to play soft.
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