The plays that look the easiest are often the ones that exemplify the mastery of the play-caller.
When Doug Pederson was named the Eagles head coach 22 months ago, and he announced that he would call the offensive plays, many were skeptical. His first season only marginally alleviated those concerns. But Pederson, like his young quarterback, has elevated his game in Year 2.
And there have been times, such as Carson Wentz’s 32-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery that kick-started the Eagles’ 51-23 romp of the Broncos on Sunday, when Pederson’s maturation as a play-caller has invalidated the initial cynicism.
He’s a natural, or seemingly so because of preparation. On the surface, the first touchdown was a perfectly timed run-pass option in which Jeffery faked a screen and Wentz hit him in stride as he released. And that it was.
But there were more layers to a play that the Eagles had practiced months ago, but only recently dusted off after studying the Broncos last week. And the boldness of the design and the call was that it attacked and took advantage of two of the best players on Denver’s defense – edge rusher Von Miller and cornerback Aqib Talib.
After Talib was called for holding on third-down-and-1, the Eagles had a first down on the Broncos 32. The ball was on the right hash mark, which was a green light for Pederson to pull out the play.
“It’s a read option, read the defensive end,” Pederson said. “It just so happened we were on the right hash. I think Von was over there and we knew that their d-end liked to close a little bit.”
The run-action, when Wentz rode new running back Jay Ajayi and read Miller, got the unblocked end to bite on the initial fake. Miller closed as the quarterback rolled to his right and took away Wentz’s option to run himself. But the pass option worked to perfection.
Talib and Chris Harris Jr. are two of the best cornerbacks in the NFL because they can shut down many receivers in man-press coverage. That alone makes them aggressive defenders, but Talib has a knack for wanting to jump routes.
“We knew Talib is an aggressive corner,” Wentz said.
As Wentz rode Ajayi, Jeffery turned toward the quarterback as if he were receiving a screen pass. That made Talib plant and turn his eyes toward Wentz, and by the time he realized the screen was a fake, Jeffery was by him with a full head of steam.
“I’m like, it’s press man [coverage],” Jeffery said, “so I know he’s going to bite off Carson.”
Wentz floated a strike to his receiver, who had gotten behind Talib, and Jeffery waltzed into the end zone untouched before late-arriving safety Darian Stewart.
“It’s a Day 1 training camp, Day 1 OTA play,” Pederson said.
But the Eagles had yet to execute it in a game that way, and they practiced it all week because film study had revealed a tendency. That’s coaching in action. And Pederson dialing it up in the right situation against a susceptible defense was play-calling at its finest.
It was a sign of things to come against the NFL’s top-ranked defense. And the Broncos acknowledged afterward they were simply outschemed.
“They knew everything we were going to do today,” Harris said.
The Eagles’ 51 points were 30 more than the Broncos had allowed on average in their first eight games. They had 158 more total yards (419) and 124 more rushing yards (197) than the Broncos’ season average. And the Eagles’ 38 percent success rate on third down and 100 percent ratio in the red zone were also greater than the Broncos had allowed – 25 pct. and 46.67 pct. – to this point.
It was domination – with an assist from a defense that forced two interceptions – and further highlighted the Eagles’ offensive diversity.
“The best part about it is we have a ton of unselfish guys,” Wentz said. “Any week, it’s somebody different and no one really cares who it is.”
But so much of what made the Eagles offense successful against the NFL’s top-ranked defense was based upon game planning. If the Broncos had struggled in one area it was against top-flight tight ends. But even with Zach Ertz sidelined, Pederson involved Trey Burton and Brent Celek.
In the second quarter, Burton split wide and linebacker Brandon Marshall went out to cover him.
“We knew we had a mismatch there from early on,” Wentz said.
Burton ran a slant-and-go and Wentz hit him for a 27-yard touchdown. The two tight ends had five catches for 80 yards and a score in just the first 20 minutes.
The Eagles had struggled against the blitz over the last month and the Broncos were sure to test them again. And they did. But Pederson and his offensive coaches had schemed to protect Wentz by moving the pocket with roll-outs, quick hitters and the occasional chip blocking.
“We studied it,” said Wentz, who was sacked only once. “We had a pretty good idea of how we wanted to call protections.”
The run game took awhile to get going, as expected against Denver’s front, but with Ajayi in the fold, and LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement sharing the load, the Eagles wore down the Broncos. Even Wendell Smallwood got some late carries, as the running backs averaged 5.6 yards per rush.
Ajayi scored from 46 yards out on an outside zone run. And Clement scored twice, the first time on a read-option pitch from Wentz that again took advantage of Miller on the edge.
“We kind of got the idea from Kansas City on Monday night,” Pederson said. “They did the same thing. Carson’s very athletic to do it.”
Wentz’s role in the overall success of the offense can’t be overstated. Pederson has given the second-year quarterback great responsibility. But it’s shared experience.
“I just have a lot of confidence in the way he calls things,” Wentz said of Pederson. “Him and I are meeting up quite a bit, just dropping ideas between each other, so I have a really good feeling of how he’s going to call the game.
“When he stays to it, obviously like today, good things happen.”