Carson Wentz doesn’t have an explanation as to why he’s running more this year than in years past. It could be a newly restored confidence in his health, the nature of the Eagles' offense, or perhaps just instincts.
Whatever is behind his new willingness to take off this year, the Eagles will need it to continue. Surprisingly, Wentz is averaging the same amount of yards per carry (5.8) as he is per passing attempt through four games this season. The 27-year-old has struggled mightily with accuracy and decision-making this season and ranks at the bottom of several quarterback metrics, including completion percentage over expectation, and passer rating.
His CPOE measured by Next Gen Stats is 5.6% less than expected and third-lowest in the NFL, ahead of only Denver’s Jeff Driskel and Washington’s Dwayne Haskins, who both now are backup quarterbacks.
Wentz’s running has helped keep the Eagles afloat in each of the last two weeks, though. After taking off only three times in the first two games, Wentz has 16 rushing attempts in the last two. He’s rushed for 102 total yards and two touchdowns in that span, and is the most effective running quarterback in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus' grading system.
Was the sudden increase in running attempts intentional? Eagles coach Doug Pederson said no.
“I don’t recall necessarily a conversation about it. I think it’s been a part of who Carson is,” Pederson said. “We’ve encouraged him to use his legs, especially on passing situations when things break down. He’s really good at it. He breaks tackles. He gets out of it. He’s extended plays, and he’s been successful. We still have to be smart in the run game and some of the things that we do with him. But it’s a little bit of a conscious effort to get him more involved in the run game as a runner because he is big, strong, and powerful. Why not utilize that when we can?”
Wentz’s success on the ground has the attention of Steelers coach Mike Tomlin heading into the Eagles' game Sunday in Pittsburgh.
“Their use of designed quarterback runs, particularly in the red zone, is troublesome,” Tomlin said during a Wednesday conference call with reporters. “His mobility is a factor, and their willingness to utilize it makes him particularly tough.”
Wentz has 111 rushing yards on 19 attempts this season. His career-high in attempts came in 2017, when he took off 64 times in 13 games. Last year, he ran 62 times in a full 16-game season. He’s on pace for season-high 76 attempts this year. The rushing totals tell the same story. His season-high was 299 yards in 2017, and his second-most was the 243 yards he totaled last year. At his current rate, he’d end this season with 444 yards on the ground.
Especially with the Eagles' stagnant passing game, which ranks among the league’s worst in yards per attempt and efficiency as measured by Football Outsiders, Wentz said his gains as a runner can help the offense stay afloat. Wentz has 10 rushing first downs in the last two games.
“I think it can get us, as an offense, in a groove," Wentz said. “Sometimes it’s third-and-5, and we’re able to convert, and it just puts a lot of strain and stress on the defense. But, you know, it’s not something that I go looking for. It’s not something we game plan a whole lot for. But we all know it can happen.”
It’s likely Wentz’s running production will eventually return to normal, and that regression in yards gained could come sooner if he works his way out of his passing slump.
Pederson said the amount of carries Wentz has could actually have an adverse effect on his throwing ability if overdone. But he wouldn’t rule out keeping him in running situations, either.
“We don’t want to gas him out by using his legs all the time," Pederson said. “It does help the offense. It helps the offense kind of get into a rhythm when he’s ... gaining positive yards on first, second or third down. Kind of maybe gets the offense settled in a little bit. But he’s done a nice job with it, and we’ll keep exploring more opportunities each week as we go.”