Six games into 2017, the Eagles seem to be in a place where Carson Wentz can win anytime he gets decent protection.
Sure, to a degree, this is true for many quarterbacks and many teams. If nobody ever touched Sam Bradford, if he had a clean pocket and an unobstructed view downfield every snap, his Eagles teams usually won. But Wentz doesn’t need all that, he just needs not to get hit a whole lot while he’s trying to throw, and to be able to step up in the pocket when he wants. He’ll dodge or shrug off a rusher or two; just don’t get him clobbered, and he’ll get you the points you need. Plus, the Eagles’ defense is good enough that Wentz isn’t usually trying to perform miracles, erasing a huge deficit.
Which brings us to Monday night and those pesky, tricky, 3-2 Washington Redskins. The Eagles bested them in the season opener, breaking a string of five successive losses in the NFC East series. But the Birds’ offensive line was not overjoyed with its performance in that 30-17 victory, sealed when Brandon Graham sacked Kirk Cousins, causing a fumble that Fletcher Cox scooped and scored with. (A fumble that could just as easily have been ruled an incomplete pass, Redskins fans will hasten to remind you.)
Wentz was sacked twice and had to dodge around the pocket like a video-game character on his 58-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor. The Birds’ offensive line, rarely together during the preseason, just wasn’t in sync, as was evidenced by the struggles of the running game – 24 carries for 58 yards, 2.4 yards per carry, by far the lowest Eagles average this season. When the running game doesn’t work, that lets the defense focus on rushing the QB, as several Eagles opponents have seen this season.
Top Washington corner Josh Norman will miss this game because of a chest injury, so Wentz ought to have opportunities – if he has time to seize them.
“We have a tremendous quarterback who’s quite frankly probably gotten hit a few too many times this season. Part of that’s on us,” center Jason Kelce said this weekend. “I believe we’d like to run the ball more efficiently and effectively [than in the opener]. From a pass-blocking standpoint, it wasn’t terrible. Wasn’t great, could have been better … We definitely could have done a better job on the ground.”
Washington lost its first-round rookie d-lineman, Jonathan Allen, to a foot injury last week. But 3-4 outside linebacker Preston Smith has 4.5 sacks in five games, and former Temple defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis has 3.5, as does Ryan Kerrigan, who took a deflected Wentz pass in for a touchdown in the opener.
Eagles right tackle Lane Johnson probably will have to deal with Kerrigan most often.
“As far as the motor, consistent, I think he probably plays the hardest on the Redskins — their anchor,” Johnson said.
Washington does a lot of stunting and twisting up front, the sort of thing that tests an offensive line’s ability to adjust and to work together.
“When it’s one-on-one across the board, not only are you trying to block your guy, but you have to be prepared for picks and stunts from both directions,” right guard Brandon Brooks said. “Constantly reminding yourself that this is a team that runs games [stunts and twists between defensive linemen].
“Fundamentals and techniques become a big deal – understanding where you need to be and how you need to do it. Sometimes, you may not have time to see this guy coming, but you feel him. You have time in practice during the week to rep the right things. If you’re in the right spot, you know what’s going on.”
Kelce said every team runs stunts and twists, but the Redskins are better at it than most.
“You’ve just got to be ready to pass off games and pass off stunts,” he said.
Johnson noted that “there was some stuff we missed the first game … Some different blitzes … I think we’ve matured since then. Frankly, we’ve played better.”
Johnson said it will be important to get a good look at the defense before the snap.
“Check the linebackers’ levels, what the safeties do. Some alignments of the ends, if they line up tight, like a tight five, you know that there’s going to be outside pressure. Just little stuff that, preparing for Week 1, you didn’t necessarily have the game tape for, because they’re not going to disguise a lot during preseason. [Now the Eagles] just have a lot more film to watch,” Johnson said.
Left guard Stefen Wisniewski said watching film would only go so far.
“You definitely gotta study the tape … the hard thing is, they’ll do a bunch of different things out of the same look. You just gotta react quickly to things – try to anticipate, but react quickly. And then, the whole line’s gotta be on the same page. If one guy’s off with his set or with his angle, or with being a little slow to react, then it’s going to screw everybody else up,” Wisniewski said. “Gotta be together with the running backs as well, as far as max protection.”
Wisniewski said he would concentrate on being in the right spot, then “you have to be ready to change quickly and improvise. It’s definitely tough, but it’s something we’ve been working on.”
He said that with divisional opponents, the teams usually know one another so well, there’s often an emphasis on installing something new that the other team hasn’t seen on film.
Blitz pickup against a defense that tries to disguise which guy is coming can be a big challenge, and since Darren Sproles went down, Eagles backs have struggled a bit there. The Birds should benefit from the return of Wendell Smallwood (knee), who seems to have the best knack for blocking among the remaining backs.
“Stout defense,” Kelce said. Washington ranks 12th in yards given up, 18th in points. “They play really, really well together. I don’t know that they have many guys who are unbelievable standouts – obviously Kerrigan. And [outside linebacker] Junior Galette. But I think they have a lot of solid players who play well together, have really bought into that system.”
Washington has given up only eight sacks this season, but four of those came in the opener against the Eagles … Though Eagles corner Ron Darby, who suffered a dislocated ankle in the teams’ previous meeting, is listed as “questionable,” he is unlikely to play after being only a limited participant in his first week back at practice.