Everybody’s got an opinion on Carson Wentz these days. That includes one of the best players in Eagles history.
“A big part of being an athlete, being a person, is just being coachable,” said Brian Westbrook, whose 9,785 yards from scrimmage are the most ever by an Eagle. "Being able to say, ‘OK, I hear what you’re saying, Coach. And I’m going to try and change that.’
“This was the bye week, and self-scouting is a big part of the bye week. You need to look at what you’re doing and say, ‘OK, I can’t keep doing that. I have to change.’ You have to be open and honest with yourself. Some guys have that ability. Others don’t.”
Westbrook isn’t ready to say that Wentz doesn’t. But he definitely believes the Eagles quarterback needs to do a better job of holding himself accountable, and that doesn’t mean just mouthing the words during Zoom calls with reporters.
“His turnovers have been a huge issue for the team,” said Westbrook, who is serving as a spokesperson for Crown Royal’s Purple Bag Project, which sends a bag of essentials to military people overseas for every person who includes #purplebagproject on their social media account.
"Not the only issue. But until he fixes that and becomes more consistent, it’ll be an issue. Is it reversible? Absolutely. But he has to get it out of his head that he has to be the sole source of big plays on this team. He doesn’t have to be the hero every play, every single series.
“For some players, that’s hard to do. But at some point, the [head] coach or the quarterbacks coach, somebody has to be able to get through to him.”
Westbrook said that he’s been told that one of Wentz’s problems, particularly early in his career, was that he didn’t want to listen to older players on the team.
“I kind of associate that to what’s going on now and wonder if maybe he doesn’t want to listen to coaches, either. And that can be a problem.”
During his Wednesday videoconference with reporters, Doug Pederson pointed to something that’s been a real problem for the Eagles offense this season: first down.
The Eagles are averaging just 4.6 yards per play on first down. That’s the second-lowest average in the league (Cincinnati is averaging 4.4) and the lowest in Pederson’s five seasons as the Eagles' head coach.
“Our first-down production has been poor,” Pederson said. "We were not staying ahead of the chains, so to speak. We were in way too many second-and-long, third-and-long situations.
“That’s something we need to focus on [in the second half]. We just have to do a better job on first-and-10 and keeping ourselves out of those situations.”
The Eagles have gone three-and-out on 27.7% of their possessions this season (26 of 94). That’s the highest three-and-out percentage in the league, just below the 0-9 Jets (26.3%).
They’re averaging a league-worst 3.29 yards per carry on first down. Quarterback Carson Wentz is 23rd in yards per attempt on first down (6.9).
Their problems on first down have spawned bigger problems on third down. Of the Eagles' 107 third-down situations in their first eight games, 55 (51.4%) were 7 yards or more. That’s the fifth-most in the league, ahead of only Dallas (57), the Giants (60), Chicago (62), and Denver (63).
Ten yards or fewer
The 2020 season has been a statistical nightmare for Carson Wentz. He leads the league in interceptions (12) and total turnovers (16). He has a 58.4 completion percentage, which is the lowest of his career and the second-lowest in the NFL. He is 30th in yards per attempt (6.2).
Wentz’s greatest struggles have come on short and intermediate throws. He’s averaging a career-low 2.7 yards per attempt on throws behind the line of scrimmage, which is an indictment of the Eagles' ineffective screen game.
But he also is having the worst season of his career on throws of 0 to 10 yards. He completed 74.3% of his throws at that distance last season. This year, it’s plummeted to 67.1%. That’s the lowest completion percentage of his career on 0-10-yard throws.
Last year, Wentz threw 18 touchdown passes and just one interception on 0-10-yard throws. Through eight games this year, he has four TD passes and five interceptions at that distance.
“There’s certainly a number of issues there,” Eagles passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Press Taylor said this week. "Whether it’s the play call, whether it’s rhythm or timing or mechanics or protection, there’s a lot that goes into it.
“But that’s an area that we expect a high[er] completion percentage. We’re excited to see improvement in the second half of the season for everybody, for the offense as a whole.”
As for the Eagles' screen game struggles, most of the problems there have had to do with the plethora of injuries to the offensive line rather than Wentz.
“The screen game is predicated on timing,” said former Eagles running back Brian Westbrook. “When you’re dealing with backups and guys who haven’t been together very long, the timing is messed up. And truthfully, those backups just aren’t as good.”
Westbrook also thinks coach Doug Pederson needs to be a little less predictable as far as when he uses the screen.
“A big part of winning in the screen game is the element of surprise,” he said. “Can you catch the defense off-balance? Can you run it at times other than second-and-15 or third-and-20? There were plenty of times when I was playing that the defense was calling out the screen as we were getting ready to run it. When that happens, you have to just out-execute the defense. And we haven’t seen that much this season.”
The Hurts factor
Jalen Hurts played 27 offensive snaps in the Eagles' first eight games. He lined up at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver.
The second-round rookie attempted two passes and completed both of them – an 18-yarder to tight end Richard Rodgers on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive against Pittsburgh, and a 9-yarder to wide receiver Travis Fulgham on a third-quarter touchdown drive in a Week 8 win over the Cowboys.
He ran the ball nine times for 51 yards, including a 14-yard run against the 49ers and a 20-yard run against the Ravens. He was used on read-options on a couple of two-point tries. His ghost motion against Baltimore helped create the gap for Miles Sanders' 74-yard run.
Bottom line: He had a positive impact on an Eagles offense that is 24th in the league in scoring (23.3 points per game) and 27th in total offense (330.0 yards per game).
Given that, it’s safe to say that we’ll be seeing even more of Hurts when the Eagles commence the second half of their season Sunday against the Giants.
“If you go back to the Baltimore game, he kind of gave us a spark there in the second quarter playing quarterback and being able to run the ball,” Eagles passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach Press Taylor said. "Then he comes in in the second half, and the second he enters the field they go to a zero blitz look. Then he lines up at wide receiver, where he’s mostly eye candy on a ghost motion type of thing, and we’re able to spit out a split zone for a huge play.
"When he’s in there, it’s a cat-and-mouse game a little bit because they’re not sure where he’s going to align or what role he’s going to have. There are times when that is good. There’s also times where we’re not sure how they’re going to align, so you kind of want to be cautious. You want to be aggressive, but you’re trying to walk that line of are we doing too much? Are we putting ourselves, our offense, in a bad situation?
“But we’re very excited about the things he’s done and the things we can continue to do with him. And he’s done a good job of executing when we have asked him to do certain things.”
Fox’s Troy Aikman said during the Eagles' Week 7 game against the Giants that the coaches likely will turn the offense over to Hurts for an entire series at some point this season. That would seem to be the logical next step.
Center Jason Kelce said Hurts' dual-threat ability clearly creates problems for opposing defenses when he’s been in the game.
“Anytime you got a guy that can throw the ball and run the ball and you’re willing to [have him run), it’s going to put stress on the defense,” he said. "The numbers become in your favor from a run-game standpoint.
“They can’t just pack the box and play zero [coverage] because the guy can throw the ball pretty well. So you’re playing a risky game if you try to do that.”
Kelce said the one concern about continuing to integrate Hurts into the offense is: How much of that can you do without disrupting the flow of the offense?
“Jalen’s been tremendous since he’s been here,” he said. "He’s done a terrific job at the plays that he’s been put into this year. The problem is, you can’t do too much because then you’re losing track of what you’re doing all over the other place with the offense.
“There’s always this fine line of trying to do too many creative things, and trying to bring that balance back down. So that’s something that we’re always trying to balance.”
The price of doing business
The Eagles are 24th in the league in run defense through eight games, which is far and away their worst ranking in Jim Schwartz’s five seasons as defensive coordinator.
But this hasn’t been a situation where opposing offenses are just moving the Eagles off the ball. More than 40% of the 1,046 rushing yards that the Eagles have given up this season have been to quarterbacks, wide receivers, and tight ends.
They’ve held opposing running backs to 3.3 yards per carry. Just two running backs have rushed for more than 60 yards against them – the Rams' Darrell Henderson (12-81) and the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott (19-63).
Misdirection plays – end-arounds, reverses, and jet sweeps – have given them problems. Wide receivers/tight ends have averaged 9.1 yards per carry against the Eagles. They’ve also given up some long runs to quarterbacks, including a 37-yard touchdown run to the Ravens' Lamar Jackson and an 80-yard run by the Giants' Daniel Jones.
“All of those plays were a little bit different, like the long run we gave up to [Jones],” Schwartz said. "We mis-fit that. Others have been a physical mistake, a guy missing a tackle. Some of them have been tough plays based on the scheme.
“It’s just a battle. A team has success with something, so you’re going to see more of it. For us to be a good run defense, we have to put that fire out, and it’s going to take a lot of work over the next eight games to do that.”
Teams are running on the Eagles more than usual. Opponents are averaging 29.9 rush attempts per game, which is the second-most in the league. The last three years, opponents averaged 22.1, 20.7, and 21.1 rush attempts against the Eagles.
Linebackers coach Ken Flajole said to put the majority of the blame for the misdirection plays on him.
“I’m such a hard press guy who says we’ve got to play downhill in the run game that a lot of times when we get misdirection runs, a lot of times does that put us behind the eight ball? Probably,” he said.
"We could back [the linebackers] up a little bit. But when you do that, in my opinion, all you’re doing is swapping problems. We’re a gap-control defense. We play a lot of eight-man fronts. We’re very heavy and very urgent about playing downhill and securing our gaps.
“Now, does that come with a cost? With the reverses and misdirection runs, maybe to some extent. We continue to work on those things. But again, job No. 1 for us is being able to stop the running backs. And again, if a lot of the yardage is coming off of wide reverses and jet sweeps and those types of things, it’s kind of the price of doing business with how we operate as a defense.”
Said safety Rodney McLeod, "We’re a fast, flowing, attacking defense. The biggest thing with those trick plays is you just have to have good eye discipline. What it’s going to take is us just rallying to the ball.
“We’re at that point in the season now where teams are going to be kind of pulling out everything. We’re doing the same thing on offense. We just have to continue to be aggressive, attack, and have good discipline.”