Updated: Thursday, October 5, 2017, 9:37 PM
They’re called “50-50” balls, but in truth wide receivers rarely catch half of the passes that are considered toss-ups.
“You call it a ‘50-50’ ball because you have a chance at it,” Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith said Thursday. “Best-case scenario you catch it. Worst case it’s incomplete.”
Well, an interception would be much worse than an incomplete pass. The Eagles haven’t yet had one of those on a toss-up. But they have completed far less than 50 percent of Carson Wentz’s attempts that could subjectively be deemed 50-50 balls this season.
And while that isn’t necessarily a cause for concern considering the typical catch rate, and the early small sample, the Eagles were expected to see an uptick in 50-50 completions after Smith and especially Alshon Jeffery were signed this offseason.
“I feel like we have been competitive,” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Tuesday. “I feel like the route running has been solid. We’re going to keep firing it down the field and attacking and staying aggressive, and you’ve got to trust your guys to win the 50-50 balls.
“I think Carson has a lot of confidence in them.”
Wentz has thrown 19 passes that could be considered 50-50 balls. Not all were intended to be jump balls. Some were simply contested by defensive backs. But only five were caught, for 90 yards and a touchdown. And additional two drew defensive pass-interference penalties.
Of the 21 total, Jeffery caught 3 of 12 targeted passes for 52 yards and a touchdown, and he drew a flag. With some of the incompletions, the passes were broken up. In others, Wentz’s throw gave Jeffery decidedly less than a 50 percent shot. And with four, the contested ball hit his hands and he couldn’t pull it in.
“Just keep working hard, practicing hard and stay focused,” Jeffery said of his relatively slow start. “Everything else will take care of itself.”
Jeffery has caught 17 of 34 targeted passes (50 percent) for 215 yards and two touchdowns. His numbers are respectable and he has already made skillful, clutch grabs, including the 19-yarder in traffic that set up Jake Elliott’s game-winning field goal against the New York Giants.
“I think it’s been solid,” Reich said of Jeffery’s production. “I don’t think it’s been off the charts, certainly number-wise, but he had some big plays.”
But he hasn’t yet made some of the jump-ball catches — using his exceptional reach — that had become common with the Bears. Reich said that the Eagles’ reliance on the running game over the last two games has cut down on opportunities in the passing game.
“I’m sure we’ll have some games where he’ll have some big-catch games, because one of these games, we’re going to have to throw it 40 or 50 times,” Reich said. “That’s the way it’s going to happen, likely. It will all even out over 16 games.”
There are only seven other NFL receivers with more targets than Jeffery, however. Smith has caught 10 of 19 targets (52.6 percent) for 134 yards. Wentz’s lack of chemistry with his new receivers could be a factor.
Tight end Zach Ertz has a different role, but he has caught 26 of 36 targets (72.2 percent), and even slot receiver Nelson Agholor has caught 12 of 18 targets (66.7 percent). They have the luxury of a second season with the quarterback.
Jeffery — and Smith, who has caught 2 of 6 50-50 balls for 48 yards — should have the benefit of time. Jeffery’s record, as Reich said, suggests that his production will eventually even out with his career 58 percent catch rate.
“I’m pretty comfortable,” Jeffery said. “It’s going according to plan. … We just go with whoever’s going to [help us] win the game.”
Yards after contact
Of 48 running backs with more than 29 touches, LeGarrette Blount averages an NFL-high 4.98 yards per touch “beyond the point of being helped by his blockers,” according to Pro Football Focus.
While that statistic includes making defenders miss — the elusive Kareem Hunt of the Chiefs, for instance, ranks fourth — it’s safe to say that most of Blount’s yards have come after contact.
Breaking tackles has always been one of the 250-pound running back’s chief attributes. Blount, who rushed for 136 yards on 16 carries, broke a league-high nine tackle attempts in Sunday’s win over the Chargers.
So what’s the secret?
“Leg drive, determination, not wanting to be tackled,” Blount said Thursday. “There’s a lot of stuff that plays a factor.”
Blount isn’t the only Eagles running back to have success after initial contact. Wendell Smallwood, who is questionable for Sunday’s game with a knee injury, ranks eighth in terms of elusiveness with a 3.17 yard-per-touch average. Third-stringer Corey Clement has broken several tackles as well.
Running backs coach Duce Staley runs his players through several drills to simulate contact. The most effective drill, Blount says, involves “The Blaster” — a contraption with foamed springs that tailbacks run through. But it’s impossible to simulate gamelike conditions.
“Part of it is just the mentality,” Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich said. “You guys all know Duce and you know he has that mentality. And it’s just the constant pounding of that mentality, of the toughness. And when your position coach has that, I think there’s a lot to be said for that.”
Sometimes, however, it’s best to run away than run through would-be tackles. Blount said if given another chance he would have finished off Sunday’s 68-yard rumble differently.
“I thought I should have just tried not to stiff arm [cornerback Desmond King] and just ran straight and I would have scored,” Blount said.
Doug Pederson said Wednesday that he would continue to rotate Stefen Wisniewksi and Chance Warmack at left guard.
“We don’t miss a beat when either one of them is in there,” the Eagles coach said. “Chance’s strengths are Wiz’s weaknesses and Wiz’s strengths are Chance’s weaknesses, so they really feed off of each other and they don’t miss a beat.”
The Eagles have certainly performed better since Wisniewski and Warmack took over for Isaac Seumalo two games ago. There are many variables that go into the success or failure of any play, but the offense had more production with Wisniewski.
In 83 snaps with Wisniewski, not including penalties and two Carson Wentz kneels at the end of Sunday’s win over the Chargers, the Eagles have averaged 6.2 yards per play and scored 30 points. They have averaged 6 yards per rush and 6.5 yards per pass play (including Wentz scrambles).
In 57 snaps with Warmack, not including penalties, the Eagles have averaged 4.9 yards per play and scored 23 points. They have averaged 3.6 yards per rush and 6.2 yards per pass (including Wentz scrambles).
Neither offensive lineman has ever rotated in his career. Warmack started against the New York Giants and Wisniewski got the early nod against the Chargers. Warmack said that if there is a set plan heading into the game in terms of playing distribution, he hasn’t heard it.
But he said he doesn’t matter to him.
“When they call you in you do your job, do what you’re supposed to do,” Warmack said Thursday. “We both know our assignments. We help each other in terms of what we’re seeing, just being team players about it.”
Warmack said that he prefers to watch Wisniewski when he isn’t on the field.
“I’m trying to put myself in his position so if I get the same look I’m ready,” he said.
Wisniewski typically sits on the bench or practices his technique by air blocking, as he is prone to do.
LeGarrette Blount If you couldn’t play the position you now play in the NFL, which position would you want to play? Considering the quarterbacks, the wide receivers and cornerbacks make the most money, I’d play one of those. What’s your least favorite part of the week practice leading up to a game? I kind of enjoy it all. What’s the hardest you’ve ever been hit? Honestly, I don’t remember taking any big shots in my career. And I haven’t had concussions, so if it happened I would remember. What’s your favorite play you ever made in football? It’s going to be some kind of touchdown. I’ve got a lot of favorites plays because I’ve got a lot of good plays. When did you first think that you were good enough to play in the NFL? Probably when I was in high school. It wasn’t really like fair to me. It was repeated to me quite a bit by my dad growing up. I was always told that I was special. Inside the game
The Eagles have used Halapoulivaati Vaitai as a tackle-eligible sixth offensive lineman for 21 plays this season. They have averaged 4.6 yards on those plays. (Their season average is 5.6 yards per play.)
They’ve had mixed results. In seven pass plays, Carson Wentz has completed 3 of 5 attempts for 31 yards. He was sacked once for a 2-yard loss and scrambled once for 5 yards. In 14 rushes, the Eagles have gained 62 yards (4.4 average).
The tackle-eligible run plays worked well against the Giants (five carries for 44 yards and a touchdown), but otherwise there have been struggles (nine carries for 18 yards).
“You’re one man removed from the quarterback, so it’s a little bit harder to hear the call,” Vaitai said. “But there’s no difference except the [defensive end] is wider.”
Inside the locker room
Carson Wentz’s two completed “deep” passes against the Chargers weren’t exactly deep, but the Eagles quarterback had great touch on 36- and 38-yard tosses to the fade-route-running Nelson Agholor and Zach Ertz.
Overall, the Eagles missed on four attempts over 20 yards, but Torrey Smith dropped a Wentz dime that hit him in the hands. The wide receiver was responsible for another drop this season, but Wentz’s long-ball numbers before Sunday — 4 of 16 for 157 yards and a touchdown — were subpar.
The sample was small even if Wentz was inaccurate on several when he had open receivers.
“That’s just the nature of throwing the ball down the field. You’re going to hit, you’re going to miss,” Wentz said. “We made a couple plays on Sunday. We never once thought that we couldn’t make those plays in the previous games. We missed some of them. Sometimes it was on me.”
By the numbers
Average number of catches and receiving yards Zach Ertz had in his first four games over the previous four seasons. The tight end has 26 catches for 326 yards through four games this season.
Number of sacks that defensive end Vinny Curry has over his last 38 games.
Number of tackles that cornerback Jalen Mills has made in pass coverage, the most in the NFL.