The Eagles are a running team?
Maybe you already knew this. Perhaps you were shouting it to the heavens after the Green Bay win, when the Birds went for 176 ground yards. It made sense at the time, since the Packers stunk against the run, but color me shocked that the Eagles did the same thing against a top-five Buffalo defense that was only allowing 91 rushing yards per game.
The Birds gouged them for 218 on the ground, winning the line of scrimmage in a matchup where GUSTY winds were blowing the ball around and making the passing and kicking games a little risky and/or wonky. On a micro level, they were sort of shoehorned into trench warfare.
But it also works on a macro level, this idea of playing a physical, run-first style and making it your identity. When you go through the personnel groups, we recognize that the receiving corps is just okay and the offensive line has been a little lax in pass protection. Zach Ertz is having a down year and Dallas Goedert probably has more to give. The quarterback has been good, but not elite.
Why not lean on the running game instead?
You’ve got a nice 1-2 punch in Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders, so let the big boys rumble downhill and pound the football, like my friend Bill from college. We played Madden 2003 once or twice a week and each time he’d pick the Steelers and run the ball down the middle with Jerome Bettis on every single play. Even when I loaded the box, Bettis would inevitably fall forward for three or so yards and he’d just grind his way down the field.
It was really annoying, but effective, and that’s all that matters. Right now, the Eagles are at their best when they’re emulating Bill and running the football right at the opposing team over and over again. It’s old school, smash mouth football, and it’s working.
That’s the formula for now, and the Birds are 4-4 with three home games and a bye week coming up. A deadline day move from Howie Roseman and a win against a struggling Bears team could see the Eagles get to 5-4 with the Patriots on tap and handful of players slated to return from injury.
This team has my interest again after they were dangerously close to losing it.
1. Efficient Carson Wentz
17 for 24, 172 yards, one touchdown, 35 rushing yards, zero turnovers.
According to Pro Football Reference, it was the 3rd time in Carson Wentz’s career that he’s thrown the ball less than 25 times. The other two were in 2016, when they lost to Washington on the road and beat New York at home.
This was another one of those “game manager” type of lines from him, but there’s nothing wrong with that at all. He made a couple of really nice sideline tosses, moved the chains with his legs, and protected the football, which is all you need from him when the running game is cooking.
What I liked from Carson Sunday:
- his touch on short passes and screens
- couple of nice downfield tosses to Alshon Jeffery, one that was low and away from the defender and the second one being the sluggo route for a big pickup
- the third and 5 scramble with his legs
- his 3rd and 10 run on the same drive
- no interceptions or fumbles
What I didn’t like:
- the pass to Jeffery on 3rd and 4 on the opening drive (three yard slant with two guys sitting right there)
- took two sacks where he should have gotten the ball out
- missed Ertz on what would have been a first down pickup (looks like the ball was just barely tipped)
- not great blitz recognition on the day, still a couple of instances where he seemed to be staring down receivers
To that last point, it’s always impossible to tell “who’s open” without the all-22 film. I wouldn’t mind seeing Doug Pederson simplify things and fall back on some bread and butter RPO/mesh/seam type of plays, which bring the tight ends into play and allow you go find mismatches within your 12 personnel sets.
Bottom line, it was a crappy and windy day. Carson protected the football, did some things with his legs, and had a nice afternoon. It reminded me a bit of a vintage Alex Smith performance, and while we’d never confuse Smith for the second coming of Joe Montana, he won plenty of games playing the way Wentz did Sunday.
2. Better starts
This was only the third time in eight games where the Eagles scored first.
Coming into this one, they had been outscored 51-31 in the first quarter, with 14 of those Eagle points coming against the Jets.
So getting out to a 3-0 start was rather significant. They didn’t have to shift from the game plan and the early time of possession wins helped keep the defense off the field and rested. Jim Schwartz’s unit was able to force two-straight three and outs to begin this game.
Compare that to last week, when Dallas scored touchdowns on their first two drives. Similarly, the Eagles allowed:
- 10 points on the first two Minnesota drives
- 10 points on the first two Green Bay drives
- 7 points on the first two Detroit drives (not including the 100 yard kickoff return)
- 3 points on the first two Atlanta drives
- 10 points on the first two Washington drives
Those early defensive series often define the game, and the Eagles rose to the occasion this time. It was a “big fucking deal,” as Joe Biden once said:
3. Speaking of the defense…
Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham really stepped it up on Sunday, really played like Pro Bowlers, and these quotes from them tell the story (via Domo):
“We started fast today,” Cox said. “That was big. Everybody was to the ball.
“Looking back at the last few games, teams were coming out on their first drive and driving the ball down the field on us and were either getting three points or a touchdown.
“We just wanted to start fast. We’ve been talking about it all week. Stop killing ourselves, stop shooting ourselves in the foot. Play Eagle defense. Play Eagle football. I think we did that today.”
“We had a chip on our shoulder today,” Graham said. “We know we messed up the last two weeks. We knew what we had to do today. It wasn’t perfect. But we communicated well and got off the field.”
There were only three defensive things that made me vurp:
- the end zone celebration after the takeaway (but whatever, if they need a coordinated dance to get going, get some mojo back, then so be it)
- allowing the Bills to go 10 plays and 75 yards for a touchdown immediately after the Eagles went up 3-0
- the second touchdown drive, which saw Buffalo convert 3rd and 8, 3rd and 13, and 3rd and 14
Now listen, Josh Allen kind of stinks, but the Eagles sacked him four times while holding him to a 16-34 afternoon with just 169 passing yards and a 86.1 QB rating. The only other team to replicate those numbers against Allen was the Patriots, so that’s a nice feather in the cap, especially when you’re down three defensive tackles, two cornerbacks, and your best linebacker.
4. 21 personnel
The Eagles rarely use 21 or 22 personnel, which are formations that feature two running backs. In 21 personnel, you’ve got two backs, two receivers, and one tight end. In 22 personnel, it’s two backs, one receiver, and two tight ends.
Sunday, the long Miles Sanders touchdown run came in 21 personnel, which has been sort of phased out over time. You’ll still see some I-formation in the NFL, with a lead blocker barreling through the hole, though it’s more of a college package these days, with variations of pistol and offset and whatnot being used by creative play callers against less skilled defenses.
On this play, the Birds just went split back out of the shotgun with Howard playing the role of faux-fullback and laying the wood:
— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) October 27, 2019
Fun stuff, and a really nice push from Isaac Seumalo while Jason Kelce goes right to the second level. If Jeff Stoutland was involved with that blocking scheme, then he deserves a lot of credit for a great design.
Why not run more 21 or 22 personnel stuff? You’ve got the players to do it; and even if Jordan Howard isn’t a big threat as a pass catcher there are a lot of different wrinkles you can throw into this kind of split set, with wheel routes and play action and misdirection and whatever.
Another thing that’s fun is Next Gen Stats’ new tracking data, which provides these cool graphics of plays from start to finish. Follow Sanders through the hole here:
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) October 27, 2019
5. The kicker
I realized that I haven’t written anything about Jake Elliott this season.
He hit a 37 yard field goal Sunday and converted two of three extra point attempts, banging his miss off the post. That’s a good day at the office considering the conditions.
That missed XP was actually the first kick he’s failed to hit all year long, if you can believe it. He’s one of just five kickers to go 100% on field goals this year (9 for 9) and is 95% on extra points (19 for 20).
Here’s another stat:
Elliott is one of just two kickers to be flawless from 40+ yards this season. He’s 1-1 from 50+ and 2-2 from 40+, which, admittedly, is not a huge sample size. But the only other guy to hit from those distances without missing is Justin Tucker, who is 5-5 from 40+ and 1-1 from 50+. Every other NFL kicker has missed at least once from those two combined ranges.
There you go. Let’s show some love to the kicker. Can’t forget about the specialists. Maybe next week we do a segment on the long snapper.
6. Mistakes and Breaks
Could have been distracted, but I didn’t log a ton of items here:
- two straight penalties on Malcolm Jenkins during Bills’ third drive
- illegal formation after pre-snap confusion, resulting in a 2nd and 16
- Boston Scott punt return fumble
It was a rather clean game overall. I think one of the bigger sequences was when the defense was able to hold after the fumble, when the score was 24-13. Buffalo had a chance to score there and cut it to a one-possession game, but the defense got the big pass break-up on the 4th and 10 and then forced a three and out on the next possession.
- two straight penalties from the Bills on their first red zone trip (they scored anyway)
- refs not flagging Derek Barnett after Allen’s flop on 3rd and 6
- Buffalo missed field goal
- Josh Allen whistled down on the play where he fell over in the second half (new QB rules actually helping the defense for once)
The second Jenkins penalty is annoying to me, because when you have a designed quarterback running play, you’re really testing the limits of the new rules created to protect them. Josh Allen is a big dude, and if he slides late or goes down awkwardly, you’re gonna see guys in the process of trying to tackle them who can’t really pull out of the play. Maybe Jenkins should have tried to keep his arm from wrapping the helmet, but whatever, I’m not entirely sure what defenders are supposed to do there.
Welcome to today’s NFL.
7. Ancillary wins and losses
A winning formula right here:
- won time of possession 35:57 to 24:03
- 0 turnover margin
- 8-15 on third down (53%)
- 0-2 on fourth down
- allowed Bills to go 6-15 on third down (40%)
- lost 19 yards on 3 sacks
- 3-4 success rate in the red zone
- 4 penalties for 44 yards
- 21 first downs, 16 for Buffalo
- ran 68 total plays, Buffalo 58
That’s a monster TOP number, nearly 36 minutes controlling the clock by virtue of the run game.
More importantly, they were able to convert third downs at a high level after finishing the last two games in the 30% range. Believe it or not, the Eagles are still a top-five third down team, and that’s always been one of Carson Wentz’s strengths. At the risk of beating a dead horse, the 2017 Eagles were fantastic in both of those categories, TOP and third down rate, which are intrinsically linked. Excelling in those areas really grinds down opponents over the course of four quarters and that’s been their identity under Doug Pederson.
8. Doug’s best call?
I really liked the first-half screen play to Sanders, which featured four downfield routes from the receivers to clear out space and give the running back room to move.
Daryl Johnston pointed this out after the play, the four verticals that basically just opened up a 15 yard gap with Jason Kelce easily getting out to block the linebacker:
Really nice design.
Obviously I also liked the split back 21 personnel run, which we talked about earlier.
The other play I had written in here was the 3rd and 10 Wentz run for a first down, which REALLY looked like a designed play to me. Johnston said the same thing during the broadcast.
Watch it again:
That blocking scheme looked like it was designed for a draw.
HOWEVER, Pederson and Wentz both came out after the game and said the QB pulled the ball down because he saw the linebacker junking up a screen they were trying to throw to Nelson Agholor, so actually Carson bailed the team out when I originally thought it was a brilliant call.
9. Doug’s worst call?
Not sure if it was a Wentz problem or a Pederson problem, but the 3rd and 4 on the fourth drive was horrible. It was the three yard slant to Alshon Jeffery with two guys on him, one ready to blow him up:
There was a sluggo route to Goedert on Jeffery’s side, but Wentz didn’t even look anywhere else on the field. Zach Ertz fell down and Howard and Jeffery weren’t even looking for the ball.
I didn’t HATE the 3rd and 4 handoff to Nelson Agholor, since they got him free on a running play that went for 16 yards earlier in the game. The misdirection and inside handoff was more creative than what Doug has typically been calling, but I felt like Wentz was throwing the ball fine on that drive and didn’t like the decision to take it out of his hands.
I did hate the Agholor hand off when they tried it for a third time, which opened the Eagles’ third drive of the second half, after the defense held on 4th and 10. Losing nine yards on 1st and 10 after a big momentum play felt like a killer at the time.
Still, good Doug game, one of his better performances this year. Smart game plan, made the right decisions with the wind, and showed a couple of wrinkles here and there that should give Eagles fans some confidence in the head ball coach moving forward.
10. The section where I talk about the broadcast
Chris Myers alongside Johnston for this one, and something bothered me about Moose’s tie clip. Doesn’t it seem like the placement is too high here? It’s also a little crooked and it’s making the tie ride up on him:
I’m not a tie clip guy, but that looks a little ‘off’ to me. Of course, Moose has three Super Bowl rings and I have zero, so he can wear whatever he wants. The jacket also features Dallas Cowboy colors, which is offensive. I thought he might rep his alma mater, Syracuse, while in upstate New York.
Also, was it just me, or did FOX not show a lot of replay yesterday? I felt like there were 4-5 big plays that took place where I was thinking to myself, ‘are we gonna be able to see that again?‘. Seemed like the production crew was on cruise control for parts of this game.
The director also blew the blocked field goal sequence, since we didn’t get a shot of what was going down on the field until 3-4 seconds had passed. We were sitting there looking at the swaying goalposts while Rasul Douglas was bumbling what could have been a clean return. He didn’t have anybody in front of him.
Have a fantastic Monday.