Carson Wentz excelling where it counts - on third down and in the red zone

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Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz signals with offensive linemen guard Brandon Brooks, Jason Kelce and Chance Warmack against Los Angeles Chargers nose tackle Brandon Mebane on Sunday, October 1, 2017 in Carson, CA. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Carson Wentz’s overall passing numbers through four games are nothing to write home to North Dakota about.

The Eagles quarterback is 16th in passing (90.5), 26th in completion percentage (60.5), 19th in touchdown percentage (4.1) and 16th in yards per attempt (7.2).

But where Wentz is making noticeable strides in his development in this, his second season in the NFL, is in the situational aspect of the game, particularly on third down and in the red zone.

Wentz is sixth in third-down passing with a 107.2 passer rating, which is more than 40 points better than a year ago, when he finished 28th.

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He already has thrown as many touchdown passes on third down – three – as he did in 16 starts as a rookie. And his yards-per-attempt average on third down (8.73) is better than every quarterback in the league except Tom Brady (9.05) and Matt Ryan (9.21).

He already has thrown five red-zone touchdown passes, which is seven fewer than he threw all of last season. Just seven quarterbacks have more red-zone TD passes than him right now.

“In the development of becoming an elite franchise quarterback, that’s something we’ve talked to him about from the start,’’ said Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich. “Really, what sets you apart as a quarterback is how you perform in situational football. That’s third down and the red zone. That’s really what separates those elite players.

“Becoming a playmaker on third down and in the red zone is a big part of any quarterback’s development. I think Carson takes a lot of pride in that. I think he knows that. I think he studies it a lot. I think he has a lot of confidence in the players he’s throwing to.’’

Last year, both Wentz and the Eagles struggled on third down and in the red zone. The Eagles finished 20th in third-down efficiency and 24th in red-zone production.

The only two quarterbacks who finished with a worse third-down passer rating than Wentz (67.0) last year were Blake Bortles (57.5) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (55.9).

Wentz threw 12 red-zone touchdown passes (he only had 16 TD passes) in 87 attempts last year. The only two quarterbacks with at least 60 red-zone attempts who threw fewer were Fitzpatrick (10) and the Chiefs’ Alex Smith (11), both of whom had 24 fewer red-zone attempts than Wentz.

Needless to say, improvement on third down and in the red zone were at the top of the offensive “things to do’’ list.

“You guys were asking me in training camp what the biggest thing I was focusing on was,’’ Wentz said. “It was situational football.

“Coach Reich, coach [Doug] Pederson, [quarterbacks] coach [John] DeFilippo, they were always talking about that.

“We’d go back and look at tape from last year, and [they would say], ‘Alright, this is the situation. What could you have done differently?’ Those are things I really took to heart and really focused in on.’’

The Eagles spent extra time on red-zone and third-down situations in spring practices and training camp.

“Those are make-or-break things in a football game.’’

The practice and the emphasis on those areas has helped. So has adding a proven red-zone threat such as Alshon Jeffery, who already has two red-zone TD catches.

“I think we’ve done some good things on third down,’’ Wentz said. “I think we can still do better on third down, but especially in the red zone.’’

The Eagles have converted eight of 13 red-zone opportunities into touchdowns (61.5 percent). But there have been seven other possessions this season, including four on Sunday against the Chargers, where drives have stalled between the opponent’s 20- and 30-yard line, and the Eagles had to settle for field goals.

“There’s plenty of room to grow and get better,’’ Pederson said. “We’ve got to get better in the red zone, the big red zone [inside the 30] particularly. And part of that is the passing game.’’

Go down the list of the league’s top quarterbacks, and all of them have excelled on third down and in the red zone.

  • Aaron Rodgers has a career 108.2 passer rating on third down. He has thrown 204 red-zone TDs and just nine interceptions.
  • Brady has a 95.9 career third-down passer rating. He’s thrown 329 red-zone TDs and just 20 interceptions.
  • Drew Brees has a 96.7 third-down passer rating and 312 TDs and 32 interceptions in the red zone.
  • Ben Roethlisberger has a 94.6 third-down rating. Has thrown 197 red-zone TD passes and just 19 interceptions.

All four of those guys have converted more than 72 percent of their third-down completions into first downs.

“Becoming a playmaker on third down and in the red zone is a big part of any quarterback’s development,’’ Reich said. “I think Carson takes a lot of pride in that. I think he knows that. I think he studies it a lot. I think he has a lot of confidence in the players’ he’s throwing to.’’

Last year, just 68.9 percent of Wentz’s third-down completions resulted in first downs. In the first four games this season, that number has skyrocketed to 84.6 percent, even though more than half of the Eagles’ third-down situations have been 8 yards or more.

Wentz has completed 18 third-down passes to Jeffery (6), tight end Zach Ertz (6) and slot receiver Nelson Agholor (6). Fourteen of those receptions have been for first downs.

With another one of his top third-down weapons, running back Darren Sproles, out for the season, Wentz turned to Wendell Smallwood on Sunday. Smallwood had two third-down receptions, both for first downs.