Carson Wentz's running ability can be asset to Eagles offense

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz runs with the football against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, September 17, 2017 in Kansas City, Mo. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Carson Wentz glanced first to the flat. He looked at his receivers downfield and saw them covered. Three seconds elapsed with the offensive linemen  holding their blocks on a first down in the fourth quarter of a tied game last week. So Wentz started rolling to his right. The Kansas City Chiefs dropped eight players into coverage, leaving Wentz room to run.

If defenses let Wentz run, he’s going to.

He faked a throw, tucked the ball under his right arm, juked a linebacker, and accelerated before diving to complete  a 13-yard gain. It was one of the three longest rushes last week – all by Wentz.

In fact, Wentz is the Eagles’ top rusher this season after totaling a career-high 55 rushing yards in Kansas City. A career-long 24-yard rush came later in the fourth quarter last week, when the Eagles were trying to come back from a two-score deficit and the Chiefs focused on stopping the pass. The praise from the Chiefs locker room after the game included references to Ben Roethlisberger and even Michael Vick.

The lack of a running game has been an ongoing Eagles story line entering Sunday’s game against the New York Giants — it has actually  been a hot topic since  last season – but Wentz can help on the ground. He proved it last week, and the Eagles will rely on his rushing ability this season.

“I always want to be a thrower first,” Wentz said. “Even when I start scrambling, I’m always trying to keep my eyes downfield and then try to make a play throwing the ball first. But when the time calls for it, I have no fear taking off and running and learning how to get down.”

Camera icon
Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz drives for a fourth quarter first down past Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Terrance Mitchell.

‘There’s a time and a place for both’

When Wentz started playing football in Bismarck, N.D., he didn’t line up at quarterback. He was a running back. At North Dakota State, Wentz was a dual-threat quarterback. He averaged 8.4 rushes per game in the two years he started in college, totaling 936 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns in 24 games.

Wentz, who is 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds, was one of the top performers at the combine last season in the 40-yard dash (4.77 seconds), broad jump (118 inches), and three-cone drill (6.86 seconds). Among starting quarterbacks who participated in the combine since 2000, only eight have faster 40-yard dash times than Wentz. There’s no question that mobility is part of his skill set. And he’s a natural rusher when he tucks the ball away.

“He’s 6-5 and 240-something pounds and he looks like he’s 215 pounds because he’s so muscular and lean,” quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo said during the summer. “We need to him to use that athleticism to escape in the pocket when needed, and our goal in the quarterback room is if there’s a throw to be made in the pocket, make it. If not, then we extend plays and use that.”

The Eagles emphasized scramble drills during the offseason in part because of Wentz’s athleticism. The results were apparent in the first week of the season when Wentz broke a tackle, kept the play alive, and found Nelson Agholor downfield for a 58-yard touchdown. Wentz’s feet are useful not only in running, but in extending the play to throw. Tight end Trey Burton said “it changes the dynamics” of the game because even if the blocking is not perfect, Wentz can buy the time and space and throw accurately on the run. And because of  the threat to run, defenses that try to hold coverage leave space for Wentz to navigate.

“You see a lot of guys who are running quarterbacks and a lot of times they’re stuck on one receiver and then they take off when that one guy is covered,” said Burton, a former college quarterback. “Carson is the flipside of that. He uses that as his last resort.”

Wentz said that when he’s moving behind the line of scrimmage, he has a sense of the route concepts and knows if a wide receiver can break open. If not, he allows his instincts to take over and he becomes a runner. His scrambles are “very situational,” and on the rushes he made against the Chiefs, he noted that he kept his eyes downfield and took off only when his instincts suggested that would be the best play.

“At the end of the day, I feel like I’m fairly fast, but [not] nearly as fast to get away from these guys,” Wentz said. “So I’m going to let the playmakers make plays and try to keep my eyes down the field. Obviously, there’s a time and a place for both. Are you going to be right every time? No. But I feel there’s always big plays to be made down the field when you keep plays alive.”

‘He can be in that class of running-type quarterbacks’

Doug Pederson has worked with mobile quarterbacks since joining the NFL as a coach. In his three years as offensive coordinator in Kansas City, Alex Smith had his three best rushing seasons since entering the NFL in 2005 and twice topped 400 rushing yards. As the Eagles quarterback coach, Pederson worked with Vick, who averaged 40 rushing yards per game during the two years Pederson worked with him.  Pederson doesn’t expect Wentz to match the production of Smith or Vick, but he thinks Wentz can be a productive running quarterback.

Camera icon CHARLIE RIEDEL / AP
Carson Wentz runs past Chiefs defensive back Daniel Sorenson.

“I think 300, 400 rushing yards, and that includes scrambles,” Pederson said. “I do believe he can be in quality scrambles when he’s gaining first downs. … That would be a reasonable mark. I don’t think you put a goal on it. Like a runner, you say a thousand yards. You don’t go, ‘Carson, you have to be 300 [yards].’ But he can be in that class of running-type quarterbacks.”

When Pederson coached Smith in Kansas City, the Chiefs featured more run-pass options than the Eagles have used with Wentz. So Smith was able to amass more yards on designed runs. Most of Wentz’s rushes with the Eagles have come on scrambles. That will likely remain the case, although the playbook includes run-pass option (RPO) plays. Pederson said the Eagles will use it more if it benefits the offense. Offensive coordinator Frank Reich said the Eagles have it their back pocket when needed. They don’t want to put Wentz in harm’s way, but it could be an area for growth.

“I don’t want him to think necessarily run unless it’s an RPO or we’re reading a guy,” Pederson said. “Then he can use his ability to run. The scramble just becomes a natural instinct, just avoid the rush and get what he can. You’ve just got to be smart with how you use that. You don’t want to put, obviously, a lot of run-pass options for your quarterback in a game plan where you’re exposing him to that kind of hit because that’s a designed play call as opposed to a scramble.”

Wentz added that designed runs vary by week. He’s more than willing to be used that way, but he knows most of his rushing yards will come on scrambles. DeFilippo set the benchmark of creating one first down each game with his feet. Then the message is for Wentz to get down or out of bounds. He doesn’t need to take hits.

“There’s time when the play’s going to break down and we need to use our quarterback’s athleticism and size to escape the pocket,” DeFilippo said.

Pederson doesn’t want Wentz’s legs to be the cure for an ailing running game. When he measures rushing production, he’s still focusing on the running backs. But Wentz’s scrambling must be part of the Eagles offense. And when he does it as well as he did last week, it will  make the rest of the offense better because defenses must know that he’ll take the yards when available.

“We’re going to try to make [passing] plays when they’re there,” Wentz said, “but tuck and run when the time is right.”